Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops to the Adjutant General of the Army

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 recruited1 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 2d of October the forces reached the vicinity of the Salt Works and finding the enemy in force preparations were made for battle.  Col Ratliffs Brigade was assigned to the left of the line and the Brigade dismounted was disposed as follows.  5th U.S.C. Cav. on the left. 12th O[hio]. V.C. in the centre and 11th Mich. Cav. 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 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 judgement, evincing his capacity to command a much larger force.  I am General Very Respectfully Your Obedt. Servant

James S Brisbin

Col. James S Brisbin to Brig. Gen. L. Thomas, 20 Oct. 1864, vol. 39, Union Battle Reports, series 729, War Records Office, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.

1. That is, disabled or diseased horses that had been only partly rehabilitated.

Published in The Black Military Experience, pp. 557–58, in Free at Last, pp. 489–92, and in Freedom's Soldiers, pp. 134–36.