Honoring a Forgotten Chapter in Kentucky’s Civil War History

By Joyce West | 8/11/15 9:46 AM

Since 1865, two mass graves outside Simpsonville in Shelby County have held the remains of 22 men of the Union Army’s 5th Colored Cavalry who were killed in a Confederate ambush.

For years the graves were largely forgotten until historians and civic groups in Simpsonville launched efforts to memorialize the site.

The 5th USCC, based at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, included men from all around Central Kentucky.

“When the order was given in 1864 that African Americans in Kentucky enslaved could enlist and gain their freedom, the word spread through the plantations. … If they enlisted, their families would be free as well,” said Jerry T. Miller of the Shelby County Historical Society.

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James Hunn is a member of the reactivated 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, a re-enactors group that seeks to educate people about African Americans who fought in the Civil War. Hunn said just enlisting in the Union Army was risky for African Americans. “A lot of them was captured before they got here and returned back to their owners,” he said.

The men fought in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. On Jan. 24, 1865, the cavalry was herding cattle to market in Louisville. They camped for the night at Simpsonville and bedded down the cows, Hunn said.

“The white officers spent the night with the family that owned the property,” Miller said. “And the (Confederate) guerrillas discovered their presence.”

A plan was hatched to distract the white officers. One of the guerrillas tricked one of the white officers of the 5th into loaning him his boots, saying he needed them so he could search for escaped cows on the property. “So the main white officer had given up his boots thinking that he was going to be helpful to this farmer to collect some cows,” Miller explained. “He didn’t come back.”

After getting the boots, the guerilla returned to his men to plan the ambush the next morning, Jan. 25.

While the white officer of the 5th was in a dry goods store in Simpsonville buying new boots, the Confederate guerrillas stormed into Simpsonville. “They hit hard, fast, and loud,” said Miller, “and tried to scare the men, to scatter them. And it was effective. They scattered. And then the Confederate guerrillas just started shooting them down.”

A total of 22 men were killed, and up to 20 wounded. The oldest man who died here was 45; most were in their teens and 20s.

Some were reportedly killed after surrendering. “All of those … on the ground wounded, you know, the Confederates come around and shot them dead,” said Hunn.

The overwhelmed townspeople buried the soldiers in two mass graves. They buried the first group the day of the massacre, then went out the next day to search in the snow for more men, who were buried in a second mass grave, Miller said.

As time went on, the massacre was all but lost to the passage of time. Sometime in the 19th century, the site became an African-American cemetery. In the 2000s, archaeological investigations determined the likely location of one mass grave, and researchers believe the second mass grave is near the current U.S. Highway 60.

“And it’s only through word of mouth that’s kind of passed down that we even know what we know about this site,” Miller said. The War Department kept no records.

Another reason for the lack of records, Hunn noted, was that few African Americans could write at that time. “So it’s easy for it to get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

Citizens in the 21st century got together to memorialize the men. “The men that died here fought for their freedom, but also our freedom,” Miller said. “They were fighting to rid the United States of slavery; they were fighting for the freedom of their families. And the fact that they, for 144 years, were not memorialized in any way is just a tragedy.”

In 2009, a historical marker on U.S. 60, a half mile west of town, was dedicated in a special ceremony. In April 2011, a special memorial was dedicated. And at long last, the fallen soldiers were remembered by name with individual headstones.

“Our history is important. To me, it’s almost a lost history,” said Hunn. “So it’s important to me to get it right.”