Saltville during the Civil War


Saltville is a small town that lies mostly in Smyth County in southwestern Virginia, between the Holston River and the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Saltville was of strategic importance for two reasons: the railroad provided an important link between the eastern and western theaters of the war, and the town’s salt mines were crucial in supplying provisions for the Confederate army. As such, Saltville was the target of numerous Union raids. It was also the site of a battle on October 2, 1864, when outnumbered Confederate cavalry troops repulsed the advance of Union troops, including members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, under the command of General Stephen G. Burbridge. The next day, according to some accounts, Confederate soldiers killed a number of the wounded black troopers, who were being held as prisoners of war at nearby Emory and Henry College. The notorious and still-disputed incident is known as the “Saltville Massacre.”

The geology of Saltville is critical to its role in American industry and in the Civil War. Millions of years ago, the area around Saltville was submerged in salt water, and the deposits left behind fed everything from wooly mammoths to the first humans and, as early as 1567, enticed European settlers to trade with Native Americans living in the area. During the Civil War, salt was essential to preserving the provisions of the Confederate army and, indeed, Saltville mines supplied salt to much of the country during the summer of 1863. As the war progressed, the Union blockade and the encroaching armies of Ulysses S. Grant made supplies scarce and the Confederacy all the more dependent on Saltville.

Union general Stephen Gano Burbridge, a lawyer and plantation owner from Kentucky, commanded troops from the District of Kentucky, Department of the Ohio. In part to bolster his failing reputation and unpopular personality, Burbridge conducted a major raid against Saltville in the autumn of 1864 to destroy the salt works there. Several attempts at taking the town had already failed, but this time Burbridge, with more than 5,000 men, heavily outnumbered Saltville’s defenders, under the command of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson and aided by a retreating cavalry brigade under Colonel Henry L. Giltner. Burbridge’s attack on the morning of October 2 was uncoordinated and piecemeal, and while the Confederates were driven back, they were reinforced by a small division of cavalry under Brigadier General John S. Williams, bolstering Confederate numbers to more than 2,800. Burbridge’s forces came within sight of Saltville but in the end were forced to retreat.

On the morning of October 3, Confederate soldiers entered the hospital at nearby Emory and Henry College and, according to the account of a Union surgeon left behind there, killed from five to seven wounded prisoners who were members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, along with a white lieutenant, Elza C. Smith. Other wounded black soldiers were said to have been killed on the battlefield rather than taken prisoner, and one Confederate private later recalled, “We surely slew Negroes that day.” A wounded Ohio cavalryman, meanwhile, remembered “watch[ing] in horror as a Confederate guerrilla, the notorious Champ Ferguson, calmly walked about the battlefield killing white prisoners as well as blacks.” Ferguson was hanged for war crimes on October 20, 1865.

Nevertheless, the extent of the “Saltville Massacre” is disputed among historians. In his book The Saltville Massacre (1995), Thomas Mays has argued that forty-six Union soldiers were murdered in what was “possibly the worst battlefield atrocity of the Civil War.” William C. Davis has similarly suggested that the killings at Saltville were an even greater atrocity than the more famous murder of black prisoners at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, earlier that year. Scholar William Marvel, however, has written that a lower number of murdered soldiers, anywhere from five to as many as two dozen, is more likely, adding that “it would be a pity if evidence of widespread slaughter were necessary to convince anyone that the killings of October 3 constituted an atrocity.”

The failure of Burbridge at Saltville prompted his removal from command in favor of Union General George Stoneman. In December 1864, Stoneman returned to southwest Virginia and finally captured Saltville on December 20, 1864, destroying the works.

October 2, 1864
In Saltville, outnumbered Confederate cavalry troops repulse the advance of Union troops, including members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry.
October 3, 1864
At Emory and Henry College, the "Saltville Massacre" takes place. According to some accounts, Confederate soldiers kill from five to seven wounded prisoners who are members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, along with a white lieutenant.
December 20, 1864
Union general George Stoneman captures Saltville, destroying the town's salt mines which are crucial in supplying provisions for the Confederate army.
  • Davis, William C., and James I. Robertson. Virginia at War: 1862. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
  • Duncan, Richard R. Lee’s Endangered Left: The Civil War in Western Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, 1990.
  • Mays, D. Thomas. The Saltville Massacre. Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998.
APA Citation:
Dietzen, Elizabeth. Saltville during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/saltville-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Dietzen, Elizabeth. "Saltville during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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