Monday, January 16, 2012

A Sunday Drive to Simpsonville

I thought I'd take advantage of a beautiful, sunny (albeit cold) day yesterday to drive over (west) to Simpsonville, Kentucky, site of a true Kentucky tragedy in late January 1865. I traveled to Simpsonville on Highway 60, the old Civil War era road between Frankfort and Louisville. I normally drive via I-64 to avoid all the stop lights and small communities in between when I go that direction, but I hadn't been on that stretch for quite some time so I thought I'd drive it. I was hoping to see some historic houses along the route as well, and I wasn't disappointed as there were a number, especially near Shelbyville.

The incident that happened just west of Simpsonville on January 25, has been labeled a massacre. Sometimes I think that label is inappropriately administered when it comes to events that happen during wartime, but in this instance it appears warranted, especially if indeed, as reported, the soldiers surrendered and were then shot. Regardless, no doubt, it was a tragic event. Here is how the Louisville Journal described what happened in the next day edition:

"A drove of Government cattle, about nine hundred head, was on the way to this city yesterday from Camp Nelson, guarded, by eighty negro soldiers detailed from various regiments. The day being cold, and no danger being apprehended, the soldiers were allowed to straggle along by themselves, while their officers stopped to warm at various houses on the road. One half of the command marched in front of the cattle, while the other portion kept in the rear of the drove. The cattle and the guards were not yet out of sight of Simpsonville when fifteen guerrillas, headed by the desperate Colter, dashed into the town. Three of the negro officers were loafing in the tavern at the time, but they succeeded in making their escape from the outlaws. The guerrillas robbed the citizens of the place of goods amounting to about twelve hundred dollars when they started in pursuit of the negro troops guarding the cattle. They were not long in over-taking them as the citizens of Simpsonville, soon after their departure from the place, heard rapid firing down the road. In about half an hour the guerrillas returned; loaded down with booty, and stated that they had killed twenty-five of the negroes. They gave no further explanation, but moved off in the direction of Shelbyville. A gentleman who was detained at Simpsonville by the outlaws, after they were out of sight, resumed his journey toward Louisville. Not more than half a mile this side of the village [west] a terrible scene was presented to view. The ground was stained with blood and the dead bodies of negro soldiers were stretched out along the road. It was evident that the guerrillas had dashed upon the party guarding the rear of the cattle and taken them completely by surprise. They could not have offered any serious resistance, as none of the outlaws were even wounded. It is presumed that the negroes surrendered and were shot down in cold blood, as but two of the entire number escaped-one of them by secreting himself behind a wagon, the other by running, as he was met several miles from the scene of tragedy, wounded and nearly exhausted. Thirty-five dead bodies were counted lying m the road and vicinity. It was a horrible butchery, yet the scoundrels engaged in the bloody work shot down their victims with feelings of delight.

The cattle stampeded, and as soon as the advance guard learned of what was going on in the rear, each individual in blue made a tall scamper for a place of safety. Colter, ['One Armed' Samuel] Berry and Sue Mundy [aka Jerome Marcellus Clark] were the leaders of the murderous gang. The outlaws were but fifteen in number-one of them a black scoundrel, who boasted on the return of the band to Simpsonville that he killed three of the soldiers. In making the attack, the guerrillas were only armed with navy revolvers. After the wholesale murder, they took good care to secure the arms and ammunition of the slain. The officers in command of the negro troops should be held responsible for the slaughter, for it is certain that if they had been with their men, and enforced a proper discipline, the outlaws would have been whipped with ease.

If the soldiers had not been straggling, Colter would never have ventured to make the attack. A heavy responsibility rests with some one, and we trust that the facts of the case will be fully inquired into by the authorities.

LATEST: A gentleman who left Simpsonville at 8 o'clock last evening, and arrived in the city at a late hour last night, states that the citizens, up to the time he left, had collected and buried fourteen dead bodies of the murdered soldiers. Eight negroes, so severely wounded that many of them will die, were receiving medical treatment. It was thought that several more bodies would be found this morning scattered about the fields, as after they were shot many of the negroes ran in different directions and fell and died. The guerrillas were traveling towards Shelbyville at last accounts."

One of the most interesting things in this short article to me was the mention that a black man rode with the guerrillas and participated in the atrocity. It said, " The outlaws were but fifteen in number-one of them a black scoundrel, who boasted on the return of the band to Simpsonville that he killed three of the soldiers."

Was this man a slave? Was he a free man? What was his allegiance to the guerrillas? What was his motivation to participate in their activities? Did he have a choice? The movie Ride With the Devil comes to my mind.

Today the site of the killings and mass burial of the soldiers is marked with twenty two veterans' headstones, a state highway marker, flag pole flying a United States flag and a P.O.W. flag, and small interpretive podium.

Interestingly, not a stones trow away, Lincoln Institute was founded in 1912. Lincoln Institute was founded in the wake of the Day Law, passed in 1904 in Kentucky, which forbid blacks and whites to be educated together. For more on the Day Lay see:

Whitney M. Young, probably the school's most famous alumnus was born at Lincoln Institute in 1921. Young, a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as the director for the National Urban League until his death in 1971. For more on Young see:

1 comment:

  1. I just found this 2012 posting, and as a Simpsonville native, I wondered if you had stopped just a few miles past Simpsonville near Eastwood to the sight of Abraham Lincoln's grandfather's cabin. This is the spot where he was killed by Indians, and his son Tom, (Abraham's father) was saved by a nearby settler. The spot is now the graveyard of the old Long Run Baptist Church.