Editor’s note: this story details historical violence that some might find upsetting. The author too cites archived newspaper articles from a period when “Negroes” was the standard terminology instead of black Americans.
“If a race has no history…it risks being exterminated,” warned historian Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black History” and the founder of Human Rights Month. black history.
Confederate guerrillas exterminated about 22 black American soldiers near Simpsonville in Shelby County, Kentucky, at the end of the Civil War. But the “Simpsonville Slaughter” isn’t in most history books because “until fairly recently the efforts – even the existence – of African-American troops have been largely ignored,” according to Bill Mulligan, Murray State University historian.
A State Historical Society road marker on US 60 west of Simpsonville chronicles the January 25, 1865 massacre of soldiers, members of Company E, Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. (The military referred to blacks as “United States Colored Troops.”)
Flanking the marker are 22 white marble military tombstones, arrayed like soldiers, with the names of fallen men. The Stars and Stripes fly over the site.
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Some of the soldiers may have been survivors of the October 1864 Saltville Massacre in Virginia. After the Battle of Saltville, some of the victorious Confederates murdered a number of wounded American soldiers, mostly soldiers of the Fifth Cavalry.
“Black men with guns were a southern white nightmare come to life,” Mulligan added. “When black units engaged in combat with rebel forces, very few prisoners were taken. Simpsonville, Saltville and Fort Pillow [Tenn.] are extensions of this slaughter. Black soldiers were part of the visceral fear of empowered black men – they had to be put down in order to erase their existence.”
The outlaws, on horseback, struck as the horsemen, detailed as infantry, drove a herd of about 900 cattle to Louisville from Camp Nelson, their base near Nicholasville, the seat of Jessamine County. Part of Camp Nelson, the largest recruiting station for African-American troops in Kentucky, is preserved in a park, Camp Nelson National Monument.
“About 22 men killed and at least eight seriously injured,” reads the olive-green metal sign with gold lettering. Most of the recruits were former slaves.
Several newspapers in Kentucky and other states reported the killings, condemning the bloodshed as the “Simpsonsville Massacre”. The massacres outraged the Louisville Journal. “It is presumed that the Negroes surrendered and were shot in cold blood,” the newspaper reported on January 26.
Fifteen guerrillas, armed with six-shot revolvers, surprised the 80 soldiers just after they left Simpsonville on a freezing winter day. Snow covered the ground.
About forty soldiers were in front of the herd. The same number followed the cattle. The men were largely alone because “their officers stopped for warmth at various houses along the route,” the Journal said.
The Journal said the guerrillas surprised the rearguard group and rushed into the herd. “It was a horrible butchery, but the scoundrels engaged in the bloody work slaughtered their victims with feelings of joy,” the Journal told its readers.
The newspaper describes the site of the massacre as “a terrible scene” in which “the ground was stained with blood and the corpses of black soldiers lay along the road”. Local citizens helped treat the injured and bury the dead in a mass grave. The surviving soldiers managed to escape to Louisville.
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“The massacre was largely forgotten in historical accounts until 2008, when the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission awarded a Lincoln Preservation Grant to the Shelby County Historical Society to investigate the Simpsonville Massacre,” according to The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. “Residents assumed the victims of the attack were buried in a mass grave in a nearby African-American cemetery that had been abandoned for 40 years.”
The mass grave could not be found, but the county historical society was able to fund the historical marker dedicated to the 144th anniversary of the massacre, the encyclopedia says.
Berry Craig is professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and author of seven books and co-author of two others, all on Kentucky history.