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The team of volunteers from Shelby County who created the memorial site for African-American soldiers slain near Simpsonville is making a bit of its own history.
Representatives from the group will be in Frankfort next week to accept the award for Volunteer Organization or Group of the Year from the Kentucky Historical Society.
The presentation will be in a ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 11 in the House chamber on the second floor in the Old State Capitol in downtown Frankfort.
The memorial on U.S. 60 just west of Simpsonville honors the Skirmish Near Simpsonville, a permanent memorial to the 22 members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry who died there on Jan. 25, 1865, in an ambush by Confederate guerillas.
“I am gratified that all the hard work and cooperation of so many people has been recognized by the Kentucky Historical Society,” said Jerry Miller, a Shelby County native who spearheaded the project. “It certainly validates our belief that this is a hugely important site to the history of Kentucky, Shelby County, African-Americans and the Civil War.”
Miller said he submitted the project to KHS, gathering photographs and supporting documents to attach to the application.
“I thought our project was worthy of some type of award but didn’t anticipate the Shelby County Historical Society and the Skirmish Near Simpsonville team to win the Volunteer Organization of the Year award,” he said.
The skirmish project was a 4-year labor for Miller and his evolving group of volunteers.
They found the graves of the 22 soldiers beneath 3.5 acres of wooded land near the intersection of Webb Road, now identified by federal highway historical markers.
Newspaper reports say that about 80 soldiers were driving 900 head of cattle toward Louisville that cold January day when they were attacked from the rear by guerillas led by a Capt. Coulter. The 22 died at ambush, and another 20 were wounded, some of them later dying, too.
Those killed in the attack were buried at the site, reportedly in a mass grave.
Though no mass grave was located, Miller and his cohorts were able to map approximately 170 graves at the site.
They created and placed headstones to honor each of the dead, erected a permanent flag and a flat-cut stone sitting wall on the approximate site where these former slaves were gunned down.
Miller, who grew up in Clark Station and now lives in Eastwood, was the head of the state parks system several years ago when, while doing some family research, he came across a diary written by Julia Tevis, proprietor of the Science Hill School in Shelbyville, in which she described the loss of the troops.
Miller said he had help from 40 to 50 people who rotated through the project, but a few of them stayed with it.
He cited the efforts of Uley Washburn of the cemetery commission, Gail Reed from the Shelby County Historic District Commission, students from the nearby Whitney M. Young Job Corp Center, who did a lot of the masonry work, and of Hobie Henninger, who constructed the dry-stone wall. But there were a lot of others.
There is a cash prize with the award, but the KHS’s board would decide what to do with that money, Miller said.
He said he isn’t certain what the next step for the project would be, but he continues to push Shelby County Fiscal Court to acquire the land surrounding the memorial and convert it into a park that area scout troops would maintain.
“Or they can tell me if they aren’t, so I can talk to the Lincoln Foundation about assuming ownership,” he said.