Of this fight I can only say that the men could not have behaved more bravely.
- Colonel James S. Brisbin, 5th United States Colored Cavalry
In October 1864, Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge, commanding District of Kentucky, led an expedition from Kentucky to raid the Confederate saltworks at Saltville in southwest Virginia. While Burbridge’s force consisted primarily of white cavalry and mounted infantry units, it also included the 5th US Colored Cavalry (USCC). The 5th USCC was one of the first African American regiments formed at Camp Nelson and one of only six black cavalry units raised during the war. Like all the African American regiments raised at Camp Nelson, the 5th USCC was composed mainly of formerly enslaved Black men. When the 5th USCC was ordered by Burbridge to join the raid into southwest Virginia in late September 1864, the unit had still not been officially organized into a complete regiment. Nevertheless, the detachment of raw recruits was hastily mounted and armed before leaving Camp Nelson and joining the rest of Burbridge’s forces.
During the march to Saltville, the African American cavalrymen were subjected to racist remarks and abuse from their white comrades. Besides verbal ridicule, white troops pulled the caps off the heads of the Black soldiers and even stole their horses. According to Col. James S. Brisbin, one of the leading officers of the 5th US Colored Cavalry,“these insults, as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight, were borne by the colored soldier patiently…but in no instance did I hear colored soldiers make any reply to insulting language used toward [them] by the white troops.” The Federal raiding expedition reached the vicinity of Saltville on the evening of October 1, but a makeshift enemy force had delayed Burbridge’s advance. This allowed available Confederate troops in the region to concentrate at Saltville.
On the morning of October 2, the US forces dismounted and assaulted the Confederate troops who were well entrenched on high ground around Saltville. The Federals made little progress while at the same time enemy reinforcements continued to arrive throughout the day. The Confederates around Saltville repulsed all of the Federal attacks, but one of the few successes for Burbridge’s forces was attained by the inexperienced soldiers of the 5th USCC. After two failed charges on the Confederate position, the African American soldiers from Camp Nelson launched a third assault on the enemy earthworks. Despite heavy Confederate fire, the men pressed onward, and as Brisbin reported, “rushed upon the works with a yell, and after a desperate struggle carried the entire line, killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners.” Cut off from the rest of Burbridge’s army, the 5th Colored Cavalry held the captured Confederate works for over two hours while running very low on ammunition before being withdrawn at dusk.
With the Federal forces failing to overcome the Confederate positions on October 2, Burbridge ordered his army to retreat the next day. Although the First Battle of Saltville was a Federal defeat and the saltworks had not been destroyed, the 5th USCC performed with distinction. This fact was acknowledged by fellow soldiers and superior officers. Brisbin declared, “I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better… On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the colored troops on the march out were silent.” A captain in a white Kentucky regiment claimed that he “never saw troops fight like they did. The rebels were firing on them with grape and canister and were mowing them down by the Scores but others kept straight on.” Burbridge himself spoke “in the highest terms of the gallantry of the Fifth Colored Cavalry,” even declaring that they did “better service that any other regiment.”
The 5th USCC troopers had demonstrated their resolve and capabilities in battle, but they suffered considerable losses. Of the 400 soldiers engaged in the battle, around 114 enlisted men and several officers were killed or wounded, around one-third of the total Federal casualties at Saltville. A significant portion of the Black soldiers from Camp Nelson killed, however, did not occur during the battle. In the haste of the US forces’ retreat from the vicinity of Saltville after the engagement, a number of wounded Federal soldiers were left behind. Many of these wounded men were the Black troops of the 5th USCC, and in the aftermath of the battle, they were cruelly slaughtered by Confederates.
Such of the Colored Soldiers as they fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle and were brutally murdered.
- Colonel James S. Brisbin, 5th USCC
Following the First Battle of Saltville on October 2, 1864, many wounded US Army soldiers were left behind as Brig. Gen. Burbridge hastily retreated from the field. A sizeable proportion of these wounded men were the Black troops of the 5th US Colored Cavalry, who were murdered by Confederate soldiers.
The next morning, Confederates searched the area for the defenseless, wounded soldiers. “The continued ring of the rifle sung the death knell of many a poor negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday," wrote Confederate Captain Edward O. Guerrant. He continued, penning in his diary, “Our men took no negro prisoners. Great numbers of them were killed yesterday & today.” A Kentuckian in a Confederate cavalry unit recalled observing troops who were “mad and excited to the highest degree…shooting every wounded negro they could find…It was horrible, most horrible.”
The massacre was not only directly at wounded members of the 5th USCC on the field, but also those who were being treated in local field hospitals. William H. Gardner, a Federal surgeon who had been left behind with the injured, reported that on October 3, “there came to our field hospital several armed men, as I believe soldiers in the Confederate service, and took 5 men, privates, wounded (negroes), and shot them.” According to Gardner, the killing was not confined to that one day after the battle at Saltville. On October 7, at Emory and Henry College Hospital, where wounded US soldiers had been placed, “several armed men entered the said hospital about 10 p.m. and…shot 2 of them (negroes) dead in their beds.” Gardner asserted that more Confederate soldiers came to the hospital the next day and murdered an officer in the 13th Kentucky Cavalry who was lying severely wounded in bed.
While there is some disagreement among scholars regarding the estimates of the number of men murdered at Saltville, most generally agree that around 45 to 50 African American soldiers were killed by Confederates. One of the perpetrators of the murders at Saltville, the Confederate guerrilla leader Champ Ferguson, was arrested at the war’s end and placed on trial for his involvement in the massacre. Ferguson was found guilty and hanged in October 1865, one of only two men executed for war crimes in the conflict.
The slaughter of the Black cavalrymen from Camp Nelson at Saltville in October 1864 was only one of various racial atrocities involving African American troops and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Like the massacres at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring, or the Crater, Saltville demonstrates the bloody excesses inspired by racism that occurred in the war, with emancipation and Black enlistment by the US military resulting in racial hatred and murderous incidents by the Confederate military. With its links to the 5th Colored Cavalry and the Saltville massacre, Camp Nelson National Monument is a place to visit for those wishing to better understand the unique threats facing African American soldiers and the contested ideas regarding race at the core of the Civil War.
Last updated: December 17, 2022
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