Near the end of the Civil War, Confederate guerillas launched a devastating attack on the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry in Simpsonville. The details of the massacre and the story of the brave cavalrymen wounded and killed were nearly lost to history, until community members worked to install a historical marker at the site.
“When the order was given in 1864 that enslaved African Americans in Kentucky could enlist and gain their freedom, the word spread through the plantations,” says Jerry T. Miller, Louisville District Councilman and member of the Shelby County Historical Society. “If you can just get to safety, if you can just get to a Union camp or a recruiting station, then you can enlist and get your freedom. Later on, their families were given their freedom. If they enlisted, their families would be free as well.”
“They took a very big risk,” says James Hunn of the Reactivated 12th U.S. Colored Cavalry Heavy Artillery. “A lot of them didn’t make it to Camp Nelson. A lot of them were captured before they got here and returned back to their owners.”
The massacre took place on January of 1865. The 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, which was based at Camp Nelson, was passing through Simpsonville, bringing a herd of cattle to Louisville.
“They bedded the cows down on the night of the 24th of January. Bitterly cold,” says Miller. “The white officers spent the night with the family that owned the property and the guerillas discovered their presence. They tricked one of the white officers into loaning his boots to the Confederate guerilla under a ruse that he was going out looking for cattle that had strayed into his farm. So they main white officer had given up his boots thinking that he was going to be helpful to this farmer.”
The farmer didn’t return, and instead alerted the Confederate guerillas who were waiting nearby. They attacked the following day when the main officer was away at the dry goods store in Simpsonville, buying a new pair of boots.
“They used classic guerilla tactics,” says Miller. “They hit hard, fast, and loud, and tried to scare the men to scatter them, and it was effective. They scattered and then the Confederate guerillas just started shooting them down.”
When it was over, 22 men were killed and 20 were wounded. The townspeople in Simpsonville went out into the woods and found as many of the soldiers as they could. They tended to the wounded and buried the dead in two mass graves. But over time, the memory of the tragedy faded.
“You didn’t have a lot of African Americans who could write during that time period to write it down,” says Hunn. “So it’s easy for it to get lost in the shuffle.”
Recently, historians and community members worked to piece together the lost history and properly memorialize the men of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry.
“Some time in the 19th century, this became the burying ground for the African American community in Simpsonville and the surrounding areas,” says Miller. “During the archeology process, we kind of narrowed [the location] down…it’s only through word of mouth that’s passed down that we even know what we know about this site because the war department at the time completely forgot about it. After the war, it was just lost to history.”
In 2011, the community raised money to install a historical marker at the site.
“These guys have been forgotten and it’s a shame,” says Miller. “Any uniformed soldier that dies for his country should never be forgotten. Just as the residents of Simpsonville in 1865 went out on a snowy afternoon and collected the dead and they cared for the wounded until the Union Soldiers out of Louisville could get here, the community now has embraced this as a part of its history.”
“Our history is important to us,” says Hunn. “To me, it’s almost a lost history. So it’s important to me to get it right. If you’re going to do something, do it right. If you’re going to tell a story, tell it right, the best you know how.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2006, which originally aired on November 15, 2014. Click here to watch the full episode.