BATTLE OF SALTVILLE
On December 10-29, 1864 Black troops fought at Saltville Virginia. They were Black Cavalry soldiers from Kentucky. Kentucky was a border state that was not under the influence of the Emancipation Proclamation. Black men were allowed to join the Union Army but their families remained in slavery. This is exceptional historical material because it describes the action of a Black cavalry unit at the Battle of Saltville and also describes the experience of a soldiers widow after he was killed at Saltville. These men not only had justification for retaliation against their enemies but also had the opportunity. They chose instead to show their enemies kindness. Many people feel that kindness displayed towards an enemy without retaliation was a sign of weakness. No one will ever characterize these men as weak.
. The 1st Mississippi Cavalry Bringing Into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured At Haines Bluff, Frank Leslies Illustrated, December 19, 1863
Letter from Col. James S Brisbiny to Brig. General Lorenzo Thomas
Lexington Ky Oct 20/64
General I have the honor to forward herewith a report of the operations of a detachment of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry during the late operations in Western Virginia against the Salt Works. After the main body of the forces had moved, Gen'l Burbridge Comdg. District was informed I had some mounted recruits belonging to the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, then organizing at Camp Nelson and he at once directed me to send them forward. They were mounted on horses that had been only partly recruited* and that had been drawn with the intention of using them only for the purpose of drilling. Six hundred of the best horses were picked out, mounted and Col Jas. F. Wade 6th. U.S.C. Cav'y was ordered to take command of the Detachment. The Detachment came up with the main body at Prestonburg Ky and was assigned to the Brigade Commanded by Colonel R. W. Ratliff 12th O[hio].V. Cav.
On the march the Colored Soldiers as well as their white Officers were made the subject of much ridicule and many insulting remarks by the White Troops and in some instances petty outrages such as the pulling off the Caps of Colored Soldiers, stealing their horses etc. was practiced by the White Soldiers. These insults as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight were borne by the Colored Soldiers patiently or punished with dignity by their Officers but in no instance did I hear Colored soldiers make any reply to insulting language used toward [them] by the White Troops.
On the 2nd of October the forces reached the vicinity of the Salt Works and finding the enemy in force preparations were made for the battle. Col Ratliffs Brigade was assigned to the left of the line and the Bridge dismounted was disposed as follows. 5th U.S.C. Cav. on the left. 12th O[hio]. V.C. in the center and 11th Mich. Cav. on the right. The point to be attacked was the side of a high mountain, the Rebels being posted about halfway up behind rifle pits made of logs and stones to the heights of three feet. All being in readiness the Brigade moved to the attack. The Rebels opened upon them a terrific fire but the line pressed steadily forward up the steep side of the mountain until they found themselves within fifty yards of the Enemy. Here Col. Wade ordered his force to charge and the Negroes rushed upon the works with a yell and after a desperate struggle carried the entire line killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners There were four hundred black soldiers engaged in the battle. one hundred having been left behind sick and with broken down horses on the march, and one hundred having been left in the Valley to hold horses. Out of the four hundred engaged, one hundred and fourteen men and four officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better. At dusk the Colored Troops were withdrawn from the enemies works, which they had held for over two hours, with scarcely a round of ammunition in their Cartridge boxes.
On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the Colored Troops on the march out were silent.
Nearly all the wounded were brought off though we had not an Ambulance in the command. The Negro 'soldiers preferred present suffering to being murdered at the hands of a cruel enemy. I saw one man riding with his arm off another shot, through the lungs and another shot through both hips.
Such of the Colored Soldiers as fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle were brutally murdered. The Negroes did not retaliate but treated the Rebel wounded with great kindness, carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands. Col. Wade handled his command with skill bravery and good judgment, evincing his capacity to command a much larger force. I am General Very Respectfully Your Obedient. Servant
James S Brisbiny
*I.e., disabled or diseased horses that had been only partly
Ira Berlin, Free At Last, p489
“According to a captain in the 13th Kentucky Cavalry, a regiment that so opposed the enlistment of blacks that some of its men nearly murdered a recruiting officer for the USCT. he and his comrades "never saw troops fight like they did. The rebels were firing on them with grape and canister and were mowing them down by the Score but others kept straight on."
J. T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, p165
Patsy Leach remained in bondage while her husband was fighting for their freedom at Saltville. She probably never knew of how brave her husband and his unit fought at the Salt Works Va. She would have been proud of her husband and her race.
I am a widow and belonged to Warren Wiley of Woodford County Ky. My husband Julius Leach was a member of Co. D. 5" U.S. C[olored].Cavalry and was killed at the Salt Works Va. about six months ago. When he enlisted sometime in the fall of 1864 he belonged to Sarah Martin Scott County Ky. He had only been about a month in the service when he was killed. I was living with aforesaid Wiley when he died.
About three weeks after my husband enlisted a Company of Colored soldiers passed our house and I was there in the garden and looked at them as they passed. My master had been watching me and when the soldiers had gone I went into the kitchen. My master followed me and Knocked me to the floor senseless saying as he did so, "You have been looking at them darned Nigger Soldiers"
When I recovered my senses he beat me with a cowhide. When my husband was Killed my master whipped me severely saying my husband had gone into the army to fight against white folks and he my master would let me know that I was foolish to let my husband go he would "take it out of my back," he would "Kill me by piecemeal" and he hoped "that the last one of the nigger soldiers would be Killed" He whipped me twice after that using similar expressions
The last whipping he gave me he took me into the Kitchen tied my hands tore all my clothes off until I was entirely naked, bent me down, placed my head between his Knees, then whipped me most unmercifully until my back was lacerated all over, the blood oozing out in several places so that I could not wear my underclothes without their becoming saturated with blood.
The marks are still visible on my back. On this and other occasions my master whipped me for no other cause than my husband having enlisted. When he had whipped me he said "never mind God dam you when I am done with you tomorrow you never will live no more." I knew he would carry out his threats so that night about 10 o'clock I took my babe and traveled to Arnolds Depot where I took the Cars to Lexington
I have five children, I left them all with my master except the youngest and I want to get them but I dare not go near my master knowing he would whip me again. My master is a Rebel Sympathizer and often sends Boxes of Goods to Rebel prisoners. And further Deponent saith not.
Ira Berlin, Free At Last, p400
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