Simpsonville Civil War Massacre
Twenty-two men died in the ambush and six African-American soldiers later died of their wounds.
One of Kentucky’s most vicious Civil War engagements has been largely forgotten for more than 144 years. However, a new historical marker will commemorate the sacrifices of 28 members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry who died in an ambush near Simpsonville, January 25, 1865. A group of 15 Confederate guerillas ambushed the soldiers while they were taking a herd of 900 cattle to Louisville.
Charles Long, past president of the Shelby County Historical Society, said traveling on a narrow dirt road exposed the African-American soldiers. He said it’s unclear if they returned fire, and if they were abandoned by their white officers.
"They were attacked from the rear and murdered viciously,” Long said.
According to a newspaper account, the guerillas attacked "yelling like very devils and shooting their pistols in the air."
Twenty-two men died in the ambush and six African-American soldiers later died of their wounds. Long said the Union army, encamped in Louisville, was indifferent to the ambush. No ambulances were sent until three days after the battle, and the dead soldiers are still listed as missing in action. The citizens of Simpsonville helped care for the wounded and buried the dead nearby in a mass grave. Long said there is no evidence the white officers were ever disciplined for abandoning their men.
Members of the Simpsonville Trim #2 United Brothers of Friendship Lodge, an African-American fraternal organization, created a cemetery at the site of the mass grave and maintained it until 1965 when the last member died. About 180 graves have been located in the abandoned cemetery.
However, the incident was largely unknown, even to local residents and historians.
Steve Eden, mayor of Simpsonville for 15 years, said he didn’t know the cemetery existed or even that the massacre had occurred until he learned about the efforts to build a memorial marker.
Neither did Jerry Miller, a member of the Shelby County Historical Society who helped spearhead the effort to fund a memorial marker. Miller only learned about the event three years ago when he was conducting genealogy research and read the diary of one of his ancestors that described the event.
“I’ve lived in this area 50 years, and I’d never heard of this,” he said. “I’m a Civil War buff and I’ve never heard of this. I couldn’t believe it.”
David Brown, of Columbia, Maryland, said the incident was overlooked because the soldiers killed were African-Americans. He is the great-great-grandson of Private Samuel Truehart, a soldier who served in the 5th Colored Cavalry. Brown is an amateur historian and has conducted research on the 5th Colored Cavalry.
“White MIAs would not have been forgotten for 144 years,” he said.
State Representative Brad Montell said the ambush was one of the most horrific incidents in Kentucky during the Civil War.
Commemorating the ambush is important to Kentucky because so many of the state’s African-Americans contributed to the war. Kentucky was a slave state "not in rebellion" and was one of the last loyal states to begin enlisting African-Americans in 1864. However, Kentucky enlisted the second highest number of African-American soldiers and more than 10,000 were mustered at Camp Nelson.
The 5th Colored Cavalry was also formed at Camp Nelson and more than 1,400 joined the regiment under the command of Col. Jame Brisbin, a well-known abolitionist. All the officers were white, but the NCOs were black.
Because Kentucky was not subject to the Emancipation Proclamation, enlisting was the easiest way for many slaves to obtain their freedom, and many of them joined the 5th Colored Cavalry.
The 5th Colored Cavalry also participated in the Battle of Saltville in October 1864, where at least 50 African-American soldiers were captured and then executed. The soldiers of the 5th Colored Cavalry attacked the entrenched Confederate defenders but were unable to seize the saltworks, which was their objective. They received no reinforcements and were eventually forced to withdraw, leaving behind some of their wounded.
The Confederate defenders executed the wounded and any other African-American soldiers they had captured.
The ceremony included musical performances and several historical interpretations.
The text of the marker reads:
On January 25, 1865, Co. E. 5th United States Colored Cavalry (USCT) attacked by Confederate guerillas while driving herd of 900 cattle to Louisville. About 22 men killed and at least eight severely wounded. Based at Camp Nelson, nearly all of the recruits were former slaves. The 5th also fought in 1864 Saltville battles.
African American Cemetery
The 5th USCC troopers killed 1865 Simpsonville slaughter were buried in a mass grave by local residents. Area used as African American cemetery. Members of the Trim #2 United Brothers of Friendship Lodge operated the cemetery until the last member died in 1965. Lodge hall located in Simpsonville.