The legacy of the American Civil War for white Americans is a race-based reconciliation of “brother Americans” forging a new national identity. However, Black Americans were forging a new identity as free Americans, a fact history largely ignores.
Postwar battle reunions included white Union and Confederate soldiers but excluded Black veterans despite the fact that African Americans ultimately made up ten percent of the Union Army. Popular histories of the war offer views of Confederate generals who committed racial atrocities and fought to preserve the antebellum social order as innocuous figures. Meanwhile, modern battlefield preservation focuses on battles fought predominantly by white soldiers, including the 1,600-acre battlefield at Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, MD complete with a visitor center, multiple Confederate monuments, and annual remembrance programs. Meanwhile, the more strategically important Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico, VA, where 14 of the 16 Black soldiers who were awarded Medals of Honor during the war received this distinction, is entirely unpreserved by the NPS.
Postwar narratives favor northern whites reconciling with southern whites and ignore the reality of events such as the Battle of Saltville, where on October 2, 1864, a regiment of former enslaved people turned Union cavalrymen—the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC)—fought against slaveholders and Confederate army regulars at the strategically important southwestern Virginia town of Saltville.
The position where the 5th USCC encamped before the Battle of Saltville; Photo By Connor Smith
Though volunteers for the Union Army who literally fought for their freedom, the Black veterans of Saltville are a footnote to history. The battle is remembered mainly as a racial massacre marked by Confederate post-battle atrocities against their Black adversaries. However, the Black cavalrymen of the 5th USCC in their first battle demonstrated bravery and a grasp of battlefield tactics that impressed even the most racist Union soldiers. Remembrance of the Battle of Saltville highlights the importance of conversations arising from ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the role white Americans play in uplifting—or stifling—Black narratives of their fight for freedom, and why for so long systemic racism has quieted stories of Black heroism during the war.
During the war, Kentucky was a border state that, on paper, remained loyal to the Union and the Lincoln administration allowed to maintain slavery having excluded Union states from the Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1860 Census, enslaved people made up 20% of Kentucky’s population and the state had more slaveholders than the Confederate states of Georgia and Virginia.
By 1864, Black soldiers were serving in multiple theaters of the war, but Kentucky had yet to recruit any until an amendment to the federal Enrollment Act was approved that February, which allowed draft eligibility for male enslaved people. After a violent outcry from Kentuckians desperate not to lose their slaves to the U.S. Army and freedom, the spindly goateed general Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of all Union troops in the military district of Kentucky, issued General Order No. 24, which allowed the slaveholder Burbridge to authorize the raising of black regiments composed of recruited freedmen and ex-enslaved people admitted at the “request” of their owners in exchange for $400 compensation. By summer, momentum to arm ex-enslaved people for battle progressed to the point that the War Department authorized Kentucky recruiters to accept any Black male attempting to enlist.
One of the regiments borne of this recruiting effort was the 600-man 5th USCC, a cavalry regiment composed mainly of ex-enslaved people from Kentucky. Once organized as a regiment in Gen. Nathaniel C. McLean’s Kentucky Division, Black soldiers of the 5th USCC faced beatings by mobs of angry white Kentuckians in the streets simply for enlisting. They were humiliated by fellow white soldiers with schoolyard pranks such as having their caps and horses stolen and endured “taunts that they would not fight.” Whereas the two other white regiments of their brigade—11th MI Cavalry, 12th OH Cavalry—received multi-firing and accurate Spencer repeating carbine rifles, the Black men of the 5th USCC were armed with inferior single shot Enfield infantry rifles, useless to cavalrymen since it could not be loaded on horseback, and were mounted on untrained horses.
The Black recruits of the 5th USCC, however, maintained a desire to fight the southern rebels, despite northern white soldiers’ racial discrimination and inferior equipment that the Federal Government issued. In a September 24, 1864 poem published in the “negro” newspaper the Weekly Anglo-African, a Black Kentucky recruit referenced the mob beatings bestowed on Black soldiers: “You’ll see the rebels on the street, their noses like a bee gum. I don’t care what in thunder they say, I’m fighting for my freedom!”
The Battle of Saltville: October 2, 1864
The 5th USCC entered combat before officially being mustered in as a full regiment, but circumstances in southwestern Virginia called for this with Union Kentucky Division commander Burbridge planning an invasion on the town of Saltville. Dubbed the salt capital of the Confederacy, the town contained a saltworks Burbridge sought to destroy that was responsible for 66% of the south’s salt production, used to preserve food and sustain the rebel army.
Arriving at the outskirts of Saltville on October 1 after weeks of alternately marching and skirmishing with rebels along the way, the 5th USCC encamped with the other regiments of Col. Robert Ratliff’s Union brigade on the imposing Sanders Hill. They waited for orders to attack that never came, as Gen. Burbridge made a tactical mistake by camping for the night and allowing rebels defending the town to swell their tiny force of 300 militia soldiers into a formidable defense of 2,800 men. Though the Union force was 4,500 men strong, they faced formidable natural obstacles to attack the salt wells southwest of town.
The next morning, the 5th USCC on the far left of the Union line was tasked with attacking the rebel position on Chestnut Ridge. This involved marching down the mountain-like Sanders Hill, crossing the winding Cedar Branch stream under enemy fire, and scaling up a sheer ridge past three-foot high rebel rifle pits and earthworks. The Black cavalrymen, active for barely more than a month, faced seasoned Confederate soldiers from Brig. Gen. John S. Williams’s Army of Tennessee along with a brigade of guerrillas known for committing atrocities against Black soldiers.
The imposing Sanders Hill that the 5th USCC had to descend; Photo By Connor Smith
Though their first two assaults up the ridge failed, the third carried the ridge with the assistance of the 11th Michigan Cavalry and 12th Ohio Cavalry to their right. But while these regiments could fire 21 rounds of ammunition per minute with their Spencer repeating rifles and push the rebels back with superior firepower, the Black cavalrymen of the 5th overran their tasked portion of Confederate earthworks with remarkable willpower since their Enfield rifles could only fire two to three rounds per minute.
Cedar Branch stream and the position of Confederate rifle pits at Saltville; Photo by Connor Smith
The 5th USCC’s assault-by-manpower impressed their abolitionist commander Col. James S. Brisbin, who gushed “Of this fight I can only say that the men could not have behaved more bravely.” Viewing the charge of the 5th USCC up the ridge from their stymied position north of the Holston River, even members of the Union 13th Kentucky Cavalry were moved. Though they had participated in the racist taunting of the Black cavalrymen before the battle, a white captain in the regiment wrote afterwards 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,” adding that he “Never thought they would fight till he Saw them there.” Col. Brisbin pointed out in his after-action report, “On the return of the forces, those who had scoffed at the colored troops on the march out were silent.”
Chestnut Ridge position taken by the 5th USCC in the right foreground. The 2 other Union brigades were located in the center of this photo across the Holston River Bridge and off to the left out of photo; Photo by Connor Smith
Ratliff’s brigade held the captured Confederate earthworks on Chestnut Ridge until nightfall, but low on ammunition and cut off from the other brigades of the division stuck north of the river, they were forced to retreat. Finally, breaking a cardinal U.S. Army rule, Union Gen. Burbridge left his wounded on the battlefield and retreated into Kentucky, allowing angry rebels the chance to murder wounded Black soldiers. There is debate as to the exact number of murdered Black soldiers, but an analysis of casualty reports places a conservative estimate at 46. Out of the 400 men of the 5th USCC engaged in battle at Saltville, 118 were listed killed, wounded, or missing for a 30% casualty rate.
Fighting Ulysses S. Grant outside of Petersburg, Confederate Army of Northern Virginia Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose Richmond statue is currently at the center of a debate over white supremacy, wired Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon to update him on the result of the battle in Saltville where wounded Black soldiers were specifically targeted, and stated simply “All our troops behaved well.”
Dobak, W., 2011. Freedom By The Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History.
Glatthaar, J. (2000). Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. LSU Press.
Mays, T. (2001). The Battle of Saltville within Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Mays, T., 1992. The Price Of Freedom: The Battle Of Saltville And The Massacre Of The Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Master of Arts in History. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records
of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government
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 OR, 1st ser., 39 (1):556-557
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 OR, 1st ser., 39 (3):786