Saltville – the name says it all – there is salt there. Set near the North Fork of the Holston River in a beautiful valley a few miles off Interstate 81 in Smyth County, there are salt marshes in the middle of town. Salt has given the valley incredibly rich layers of paleontology, archeology and history. Mastodons left their bones in the salt licks. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunters were there 14,500 years ago. Mississippian Indians built a town on the spot to exploit the local riches. This Indian town, located on the present site of Northwood High School, prospered until 1567, when its chief sent a threat to the commander of a Spanish fort in North Carolina that he was going to eat the Spaniard and his dog. The Conquistadors responded by burning the town and killing 1,000 of the inhabitants. This was 20 years before the Lost Colony at Roanoke was “lost” and 40 years before Jamestown, reminding us that Virginia history does not start with John Smith and Pocahontas.
The locals fared a bit better in October of 1864 when Yankees came to burn the salt works. In 1864, Saltville was a town of critical importance to the Confederacy as the blockade and Yankee incursions cut off alternative sources of salt. In an age before refrigeration, salt was essential to the preservation of meat. No salt … no meat … you lose the war. Additionally, lead mines in the area were important to the war effort. The Confederacy fully appreciated the strategic importance of the little town and had crowned the surrounding hills with forts, batteries and breastworks, garrisoned by a few hundred Home Guard reserves. Traces of many of these earthworks still exist today.
So, in October of 1864, as Sheridan and Custer are busy burning the Shenandoah Valley, Yankee General Stephen Burbridge launches a raid from eastern Tennessee, while General Alvan Gillem comes up from the southeast. The converging Yankee forces number about 8,000, while the defenders are barely 1,000. A few hundred Confederates under General Henry Giltner slow the Yankees at Clinch Mountain, but by October 2nd Federal troops are on the outskirts of Saltville. Fortunately 2,500 Confederate cavalry arrive as the Home Guard mans the trenches and farmhouses on the ridges overlooking the ford on the Holston.
On the morning of October 2nd, The Yankees come on in three columns, encountering Confederate pickets. Trimble attacks the oncoming columns, then falls back slowly to a line along the Holston. Midmorning, the Yankee columns assault Saunders’ hill on the Confederate right, where Confederate reserves are barricaded in the farmhouse. The reserves fight well until they are surrounded. Then they panic and retreat down the hill towards Chestnut Ridge; the slope is afterwards littered with greybeards and teenage boys of the Home Guard. The Yankees are halted on Chestnut Ridge and fall back down the slope.
The three Yankee columns now try the ford the Holston for an uphill assault on Trimble’s men entrenched near Elizabeth Chapel and hunkered down among the tombstones of the Elizabeth Cemetery. There is fierce fighting for about thirty minutes; the Yankees are turned back, but Colonel Trimble is killed. In the center, the Yankees are thwarted by Confederates on high cliffs above the Holston. They attempt to ford where the modern bridge is; well-sited trenches on the facing slope rain lead onto the ford, while a battery above and behind these trenches hammers them with shell and case. This assault fizzles as well and the fighting trails off around 5:00 p.m. That night Burbridge disengages and in the dark of October 3rd heads for Kentucky. His losses are 329 killed, wounded and missing. Confederate losses are probably fewer than 100. The salt works are untouched.
Unfortunately, Burbridge leaves behind him on the field and in a field hospital at Emory and Henry College a number of wounded. Even more unfortunately, many of these wounded are black troopers from the Fifth and Sixth Colored Cavalry. As we know from Fort Pillow and the Crater, the not-quite-official Confederate policy on Colored troops by 1864 was “no quarter.” And so it was at Saltville – while there is argument as to the extent of atrocities, there is little doubt Federal soldiers, predominately black troopers of the Fifth Colored Cavalry, were murdered after surrendering or being rendered hors de combat by wounds.
Confederate surgeon George Mosgrove claims that on October 3rd, three armed Confederates entered his field hospital and shot five Colored troopers in their beds. Confederate Captain Guerrant noted the sound of gunfire on the battlefield on the 3rd, which he interpreted as the execution of the Colored wounded, stating that no Negroes were spared. No one knows how many were executed versus killed in combat, but it is certain that some, perhaps forty, were in fact murdered. One Richmond newspaper reported without condemnation that 155 Colored troopers had been killed and that the Confederates took no prisoners, conveying the sentiment that this was a good thing. There is a story that the massacred were concealed in a sinkhole. Local relic hunters have discovered a sinkhole littered with homemade lead buttons, as if a body of ill-equipped troops had swapped clothes with better-dressed Yankees and left their own tattered duds behind. Is this sinkhole a mass grave?
Mosgrove’s complaints were ignored. Though the reports of atrocities disgusted Lee, the Confederacy convened no courts of inquiry. However, a local partisan, Champ Ferguson, became one of two Confederates to hang for war crimes (the other was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville). Ferguson was undoubtedly a mean hombre – he readily admitted to having killed over 100 men, some of whom he decapitated. Post-war, he was tried for 53 of those killings. This included a Lieutenant Smith who had once humiliated Ferguson’s wife by undressing her in public; Ferguson put a bullet in his head on October 8th as he begged for his life from a hospital bed. Ferguson was found guilty and his neck broke on a Federal gallows just a year after the battle.
The Yankees did not give up on Saltville and were back in December of 1864 for a second try. This time they succeeded in destroying some of the buildings and equipment needed to process brine. However, the town repaired the damage within two months. Saltville was still feeding the Confederacy at the end of the war.
In September of last year, my friend Bill Hoffer and I took off for Saltville to tour the battlefield ourselves. We met local historians Terry Hunt and Eleanor Jones at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians, which is worth a trip in its own right. The curator, Harry Haynes, is well up to speed on the site’s Indian and Conquistador connections. And, while the museum contains vast treasures of Pleistocene and American Indian artifacts going back 15,000 years, it is the modern section on salt works and Civil War battles we have come to see. Terry is a relic hunter and amateur archaeologist who records his finds to help tell the story of the battles at Saltville. Terry shares the story of lead buttons in the sinkhole as hinting at a mass grave. He also tells of finding “skid-marks” of buttons at the base of Saunders’ Hill, testimony of local boys shot in the back as they retreat, tearing off buttons as they slid to rest. Terry additionally corrects the notion that the Colored Cavalry went into battle encumbered with muzzle-loading Enfields; in fact they were well armed with breech-loading Starr carbines. The abundance of spent Starr bullets recovered testifies that they fought hard and put out a lot of lead on October 2nd.
Many battlefields are haunted and Saltville reportedly has its share of ghostly orbs that one comes to expect from such sites. But Saltville is unique in that the dead show up at reenactments of the fighting to participate as enthusiastically as if it were the real thing. Thus participants are sometimes startled by a rush of shells overhead, notwithstanding the cannon cannot possibly be firing live ordnance. Similarly, it is unsettling to hear the hiss of lead in the air, even if the bullets are ethereal. On one occasion, the Union reenactors received a full volley from a tree-line where their opponents were forbidden to be. Protesting this breach of protocol, the Bluecoats were surprised to learn that the sharp volley had not come from living Confederates, as their counterparts were on the other side of the river. Terry Hunt shared a photo of a Confederate sergeant major dressing the end of Terry’s line – the problem is that this guy is not in his unit and that one can see through him. Take a look at the photo and decide for yourself.
Better, come to the reenactments held each August and see for yourself. Or spend half a day at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians and discover slices of Virginia history served nowhere else. There is no friendlier town or prettier valley in Virginia. Don’t overlook it.
Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Museum of the Middle Appalachians, http://www.museum-mid-app.org/; Saltville, Jeffrey C. Weaver; Remembering the Saltville Massacre, Tonia Moxley, http://home.comcast.net/~5thuscc/Moxley.htm; Battle of Saltville, http://thomaslegion.net/battleofsaltville.html; 16th Century Spanish Invasions of Southwest Virginia, Jim Glanville, http://www.holstonia.net/files/Conquistadors2.pdf