Sunday service will honor black Union soldier

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 1, 2000

A journey that began nearly five years ago will culminate Sunday in Utica with a memorial service at the burial site of a veteran of the U.S. Army.

The story of this soldier begins 156 years ago in Bourbon County, Ky., where Tom Scott was born into slavery.

“My goal, for me and my family, is to help bridge the gap between slavery and freedom,” said Marie Davenport, whose research has identified her to be Scott’s great-granddaughter.

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Davenport, who has been a federal employee working in Europe, said her series of discoveries began with her own grandmother, Bettie Scott Davenport, who told her tales of her “Pappy” who had run away as a child and later joined in the fight for his own freedom.

Little is known about the life of Scott before the Civil War because few records of slaves were kept. The handful of facts Davenport has gathered after years of research are that her ancestor was born in 1844, was owned by James Scott and he worked on a horse farm in Kentucky.

“Prior to 1864, I don’t know anything about him,” Davenport said.

It was that year that Army recruiting officer Capt. James Fidler began signing up blacks from his office in Lebanon, Ky., for the war. Scott was one of about 600 men who joined the newly formed U.S. 5th Colored Cavalry.

Like the vast majority of former slaves who served in the Union Army, Scott could not read or write. To serve as a sergeant or even a corporal, a man had to be able to read written orders, leaving Scott a private for his two years of service.

The 5th Colored Cavalry was given three months in a “camp of instruction.” Upon graduation they were issued untrained horses and Enfield single-shot rifles and soon sent into what would be one of the worst battlefield atrocities of the Civil War.

“They weren’t prepared or trained, but they knew this was an opportunity to obtain their freedom,” Davenport said.

On Oct. 1, under the command of U.S. Maj. Gen. Steven Gano Burbridge, the men of the 5th Colored Cavalry headed into their first major battle at Saltville, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. For two days, the fighting was fierce and many wounded were left on the battlefield.

Scott survived what would later be known as the Saltville Massacre after a Confederate company of ruffians sought out and slaughtered wounded black soldiers and dumped the bodies in a shallow ditch.

Scott would participate in five other major battles before the end of the war.

After the war, Scott moved to Rocky Springs where he became one of the first blacks to own land in the community southeast of Vicksburg in Claiborne County. He spent the rest of his days working his farm of cotton and horses.

“I think he came to Mississippi because he had family here,” Davenport said. “I wish I knew.”

On Aug. 19, 1925, Scott was buried without military honors or a permanent headstone in the cemetery adjacent to the Second Union Baptist Church, where records say he attended and served as a deacon. On Sunday, a permanent marker will be placed in the cemetery.

As for the rest of Scott’s life, “I’m still searching,” Davenport said. “It’s not over yet.”