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.