The 5th United States Colored Cavalry was a regiment of the United States Army in the American Civil War. One of the first black fighting units of the war, it was officially organized in Kentucky in October 1864 and commanded by Colonel James Brisbin. Composed of ex-slaves, freedmen, and slaves, the unit partook in the Battle of Saltville and action in Southwest Virginia. White officers from the unit were later assigned to the famed "Buffalo Soldiers" cavalry units.
In the early months of 1864, General Stephen Gano Burbridge, commander of the Military District of Kentucky, issued General Order No. 24 which authorized the formation of “colored” units composed of ex-slaves, freedmen, and slaves in his command. Although the unit was not officially formed until October 24, 1864, it saw combat on two different occasions. Its first major encounter was on October 2, 1864, in and around the salt works of Saltville, Virginia. At the time of the battle, over 600 "colored" soldiers joined General Burbridge in the, as yet unorganized, 5th USCC. Although the regiment consisted of black cavalrymen, the officers of the regiment were required to be white. The white officers would then organize noncommissioned field officers among the ranks of the black soldiers to fill the positions of sergeants. However, Lieutenant Colonel L. Henry Carpenter soon realized that his newly formed black troops were illiterate. Therefore, Carpenter petitioned command to place white noncommissioned officers in charge of the black units. His request was granted, and hastily the 5th USCC was formed.
When word of Burbridge’s raid reached the 5th USCC, the regiment had yet to be officially organized. Some soldiers had not even officially enlisted; few officers had been appointed, and even fewer noncommissioned officers were assigned. Yet Colonel James F. Wade was temporarily placed in charge of the group with orders to join Burbridge in Kentucky. In his haste to create the unit, Wade mounted his 600 men on untrained horses with Enfield infantry rifles, which were useless to mounted men as they could not be loaded from horseback. In comparison, the troops of the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalries were armed with Spencer repeating carbines, which were wholly effective from horseback.
General Burbridge had been ordered by General Grant to proceed into southwest Virginia and destroy the salt works at Saltville. The 5th USCC, therefore, was attached to Colonel Brisbin’s forces and joined Burbridge in Prestonburg, Kentucky. Burbridge left Prestonburg on September 27 to march towards Saltville. The black troops were an object of much ridicule. The soldiers were also directing their malice at the black soldiers in the form of petty theft, such as having their hat pulled off, or having their horses stolen. Yet the black soldiers never complained or retaliated against the white racism.
The Battle of Saltville and the 5th USCC
The 5th USCC participated in the Battle of Saltville I on October 1–3, 1864, as part of the Union forces under the command of General Stephen Gano Burbridge. Despite valiant attempts to break through Confederate lines, the cavalry was repeatedly repulsed. The battle became a defeat for the Union forces and in the ensuing hours after its finish, a scene of criminal violence, as Union injured, notably members of the 5th USCC, were murdered in their hospital beds by Confederate partisans.
End of the 5th USCC
The 5th USCC remained on duty for almost a year after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. On March 16, 1866, the 5th USCC held its final formation in Helena, Arkansas where the fifty missing soldiers from the ranks of the regiment were recognized. Although the likely location for the murdered black soldiers at Wiley Hall would be what is now the Holston Cemetery on Campus, this cannot be proven. Repetitious names from similar units, such as a John Willis of both the Federal and Confederate 5th Kentucky Regiment, bring some doubt as to the accuracy of the marking of the Confederate graves on the campus. This happens on several occasions, and may be due to duplication of a name, or the mislabeling of a grave. Many soldiers of the 5th USCC, who were scraped together from former slaves, freedmen, and liberated slaves, paid the ultimate price for their long fought freedom.
- List of United States Colored Troops Civil War Units