5th U.S. COLORED CAVALRY REGIMENT

Battle of Saltville, Virginia

October 2, 1864

(Following report of Col. James S. Brisbin, Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry, of the part taken by a detachment of the Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry, under the command of Col. James Wade, Sixth U. S. Colored Cavalry at Saltville, Virginia.)



HEADQUARTERS U. S. COLORED TROOPS
Lexington, Kentucky, October 20, 1864



GENERAL:

I have the honor to forward herewith a report of the operations of a detachment of the Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry during the late operations in Western Virginia against the salt-works.

After the main body of the forces had moved, General Burbridge, commanding district, was informed I had some mounted recruits belonging to the Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry, then organizing at Camp Nelson, and 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. James F. Wade, Sixth U. S. Colored Cavalry, was ordered to take command of the detachment. The detachment came up with the main body at Prestonburg, Kentucky, and was assigned to the brigade commanded by Col. R. W. Ratliff, Twelfth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. 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 were practiced by the white soldiers. These insults, as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight, were borne by the colored soldier 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 2d of October the forces reached the vicinity of the salt-works, and finding the enemy in force preparations were made for battle. Colonel Ratliff’s brigade was assigned to the left of the line, and the brigade (dismounted) was disposed as follows: Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry on the left, Twelfth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in the center, and Eleventh Michigan Cavalry on the right. The point to be attacked was the side of a high mountain, the rebels being posted about half way up behind rifle-pits made of logs and stones to the height 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 Colonel 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 400 black soldiers engaged in the battle, 100 having been left behind sick and with broken-down horses on the march, and 100 having been left in the valley to hold horses. Out of the 400 engaged 114 men and 4 officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that the 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 enemy’s 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.

Colonel 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. BRISBIN
Colonel and Supt. Organization U. S. Colored Troops
Brig. Gen. L. Thomas, Adjutant-General U. S. Army.

SOURCE: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I - Volume XXXIX. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892.




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