American Civil War: Virginia Saltville History
|Maj. Gen. George Stoneman
|Highest ranking Union prisoner-of-war was Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman
Although most historians don't mention
nor even give a nod to the "Saltworks Campaign," it occurred. Salt, the necessary mineral to preserve food and sustain life
was a strategic objective during the Civil War. Virginia was the leading producer of salt, lead, saltpeter, and coal for the
Confederacy, making it a strategic target. While lead was needed for minie balls, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was essential
for gunpowder, making the state vital to the war effort. But of all Virginia's mineral contributions, perhaps none was more
crucial to both the civilian population, as well as the military forces of the Confederacy, than salt.
Of course, salt was vital in the human
diet and during the Civil War every soldier's ration included it. Salt was also crucial for livestock; a hoof and tongue disease
that appeared among the cavalry horses of Lee's army in 1862 was attributed possibly to a lack of salt. During the four year
conflict, salt was by far the primary means of preserving meat. Additional uses included packing certain foodstuffs (particularly
eggs and cheese) and preserving hides during leather making, as well as being employed in numerous chemical processes and
Salt was used during the leather curing
process, and while an army may march and fight well on a full stomach, without leather it would have to it with the poorest
quality boots, footwear, and belts, and absent leather there would be no saddles and the much needed tack for horses.
Both the Union and Confederacy committed and lost many men in contested efforts to secure Saltville, the "Salt Capitol of
Union Army set out to deprive the Confederacy of its massive salt production facilities and engaged in a series of fierce
battles, with its goal to capture and destroy the saltworks of Saltville, Virginia. While two future U.S. presidents fought
in the Saltworks Campaign, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, it was the highest ranking Union prisoner-of-war, George
Stoneman, who would finally destroy the works in December 1864, and four months later the Civil War, the deadliest
conflict in U.S. history, would come to an end.
|Weapons used during Battle of Saltville
|Weapons used by Union and Confederate armies at First Battle of Saltville
The Union army conducted a series of incursions into southwestern Virginia
to destroy the major producer of salt for the Confederacy. Five Federal attempts meant five battles against a determined
foe who had been instructed to hold the position at all hazards. Many Southern and Northern men fought and died
simply because of limitless grains of salt. The general who finally brought Union victory during the fifth
and final battle of the campaign was deemed as "one of the most worthless soldiers in the Union service," according to
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The fifth and last attempt to sack Saltville was Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman's
brainchild, and he was eager to lead the charge and prove to his superiors that not even a former Vice President by the name
of Breckinridge (also cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln), turned Confederate general who was defending the salt, nor the
whole Confederate army can keep the New Yorker from being a man worth his weight in salt. Stoneman was the main
reason why we lost at Chancellorsville, barked Hooker to Lincoln. Stoneman had assumed much risk, according to Sherman, when
he attempted to free the Union prisoners at Andersonville, only to become a prisoner himself. Gen. Grant and Stanton even
co-signed the papers that were to forever remove Union blue from Stoneman, who would one day serve as governor of California.
On each occasion that would have been the final count for the 6'4" Stoneman, it was Maj. Gen. John Schofield, by way of Ohio, who
intervened. "I can lick Breckinridge," said Stoneman, if given an opportunity. Schofield reviewed his plan, made some amendments,
and then unleashed Maj. Gen. Stoneman and his division of veteran horsemen. While Union Gen. Crook had the single victory
in the vicinity of Saltville to date, success had evaded other fellow generals.
During December 17–18, 1864, Stoneman's troopers smashed into
and defeated Breckinridge at Marion and two days later re-thrashed the most senior U.S. public official to have ever
committed treason. Salt was sweet to Stoneman, because now Grant, commanding the entire Union Army, went from throwing
Stoneman out with the bathwater, to appointing Stoneman to personally lead the longest cavalry raid of the Civil War. Stoneman's Raid, which would occur March-April 1865, would grant Stoneman commendation
from President Andrew Johnson himself, who had assumed the presidency because Lincoln had been assassinated before the
|Civil War Saltville Battlefield Map
|High Resolution Map of the Battle of Saltville and the Civil War Saltworks Campaign
Salt Capitol of the Confederacy
was extremely important to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Since salt was the primary method of preserving food,
and Saltville was the South's only significant source of salt, the Confederacy wanted
to hold Saltville and the Union wanted to destroy it.
Before the war the saltworks had operated as many as 3 salt furnaces and
between 75 and 150 salt kettles. During the war, every Southern state from Mississippi eastward had salt furnaces or a contractor
in Saltville to supply their citizens with salt. The production of salt grew from 15,000 bushels to 4,000,000 bushels of salt
during the year of 1864.
In May 1864, Federal soldiers in West Virginia under Gen. George Crook moved
into southwestern Virginia, determined to destroy the saltworks and cut the vital Virginia and Tennessee railroad by burning
the "Long Bridge" over the New River at Central. Crook detached Gen. William Averell's cavalry to attack Saltville. But once
in Virginia, Averell learned that the defense of the salt operations was in the hands of the formidable Gen. John Hunt Morgan
and his terrible men. Thinking better of his assignment, Averell chose to attack Wytheville instead; however, Morgan caught
him at Crockett's Cove just north of Wytheville and punished Averell's command. Averell and Crook eventually withdrew their
troopers to West Virginia without inflicting serious permanent damage on the area. The
next major military action involving the saltworks occurred in fall 1864.
Two Civil War battles were fought in Saltville -- the first was fought on October 2, 1864,
and resulted in the defeat of a Union army of 5,200 men. The second battle on December 20, 1864, was led by Stoneman and it
resulted in the destruction of the Saltworks. Dusk, October 1, 1864 , in the fading twilight, Union General Stephen G.
Burbridge must have stared anxiously at the low range of hills before him in the rugged country of southwestern Virginia.
Tomorrow, Sunday, he would send his 5,000 soldiers to wrest these heights from their entrenched rebel defenders, for on the
other side lay Saltville
and its crucial brine wells, pumps, evaporating kettles and furnaces, and mounds of crystal-white salt. Tomorrow, men would
fight and die to determine whether North or South would control Saltville and its massive salt production facilities, by far
the single most important source of this precious mineral in the entire Confederacy. Though Burbridge and his 5,000-strong
force were repulsed, it signaled to the Rebs that the Yanks have embarked on what Breckinridge believed was going to
be one helluva fight over salt.
The objective being salt was a necessary staple to preserve food year round and for curing leather. The
location, however, was guarded by a determined Rebel garrison, commanded by Gen. John C. Breckinridge, because the
Confederacy relied greatly on the Virginia saltworks. The Saltworks Campaign consisted of the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain, May 9, 1864; Battle of Cove Mountain, May 10, 1864; First Battle of Saltville, October 2, 1864; Battle of Marion, December 17-18, 1864; and the final destruction of the Saltworks during the Second Battle of Saltville, December 20-21, 1864.
Upon hearing the news that the Confederacy's prized saltworks had been laid to ruins by Stoneman, it was
Stanton who was one of the first to congratulate the former repudiated trooper.
|Saltworks Campaign and Battle of Saltville
|Confederates make a determined stand but the end is near
|Battle of Saltville History
|The significance of southwestern Virginia during the Civil War
First Battle of Saltville
By late September 1864, Union Gen. Stephen Burbridge, the widely despised military
governor of Kentucky, decided to move on Saltville. On September 20, Burbridge left Kentucky with about 5,200 mounted troopers,
including the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry. Burbridge chose a particularly difficult invasion route into southwestern Virginia,
moving along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River through the rugged, deeply dissected plateaus country. One report gives
a very dramatic account of the Federals going over an especially difficult mountain on September 28 at night during a thunderstorm.
Perhaps as many as eight men and their mounts fell to their deaths from the precipitous trail. Others had to be rescued with
Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, Saltville's defense was the responsibility
of the newly reorganized Department of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. The Department's commander, Gen. John Breckinridge,
like Burbridge, a Kentuckian, had been campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley but was hastening back to southwestern Virginia.
As Burbridge approached Saltville on October 1, Breckinridge's chief lieutenant, Gen. John Echols, a VMI graduate, was
working miracles pulling together scattered forces for the defense of the saltworks. In Saltville itself, command fell to
General Alfred E. Jackson, derisively called "Mudwall" by his own men, a sobriquet he apparently earned by his ineptness compared
to "Stonewall" Jackson. But "Mudwall" prepared Saltville's defenses well; when the Yankees finally attacked, they found
the rebel soldiers firmly entrenched on the hills north and west of town.
The Battle of Saltville began around 11 a.m., Sunday, October 2. Arriving
just earlier that morning at 9:30 with 1,700 men, Confederate General John Williams commanded Saltville's 2,500 defenders
during the fight. Williams and the other Southern field commanders handled their troops well for the six hours of the battle;
conversely, Burbridge led his troops rather poorly. The Confederates commanded the heights and did terrible damage with their
long-range Enfields firing downhill at the struggling Federals. A group of Rebs had an almost mirthful attitude
among the Southerners, some shouting after a volley "Come right up and draw your salt." One soldier, after firing at a bluecoat,
yelled "How's that? Am I shooting too high or too low?" By 5 p.m., Burbridge knew he was beaten and withdrew. Thanks to their
excellent defensive positions, the Confederates lost fewer than a hundred killed and wounded; Burbridge reported losses of
350, most of them left behind on the field. The Battle of Saltville was a clear Southern victory that kept the saltworks safe
for another few months. The defenders lacked follow-up because they were too weak to exploit the victory. See also First Battle of Saltville.
|Saltville and Saltworks in the Civil War
|Strategic significance of Saltville during the Civil War
Second Battle of Saltville
The Second Battle of Saltville occurred in December 1864 when Union forces under Maj. Gen.
George Stoneman invaded southwestern Virginia. Stoneman, an ambitious commander with an unsatisfactory record thus far in
the war was eager to regain his lost prestige. On December 10, Stoneman left Knoxville with about 5,500 mounted troopers
and four artillery pieces. His objectives were to destroy not only the saltworks but to knock out the crucial lead operations
at Austinville in southern Wythe County and devastate the Virginia and Tennessee railroad. Driving weakened Confederate units
before him, Stoneman moved up the Great Valley, eventually wrecking the railroad from Bristol to a few miles north of Wytheville.
Many iron furnaces and production facilities were destroyed during this raid also, particularly in Wythe County. On December
17, a detachment of his troops overran the Austinville lead works. When Stoneman turned back toward Marion and defeated Confederate
troops led by Breckinridge on December 17 and 18, the way to Saltville lay open.
Stoneman's forces arrived at Saltville on December 20 and overwhelmed its
few hundred defenders, mostly young boys and old men. Marvel describes the "orgy of destruction" that followed:
"Sledge hammers rang against salt kettles and masonry kilns; artillery
shells and railroad iron rattled down the wooden well casings; soldiers broadcast sacks of salt like Romans at Carthage; everywhere
sheds, stables, and offices crumbled in flames."
Their work done, Stoneman's troops left Saltville and withdrew from southwestern
Virginia. But, incredibly, the saltworks had not been permanently disabled. A report to General Breckinridge a few days after
the Saltville raid said that fewer than two-thirds of the sheds and less than one-third of the kettles had been destroyed;
some of the sheds and furnaces were left untouched. Several weeks later, the furnaces were going once more and salt was again
being furnished to the various states; this continued until the end of the war.
Stoneman returned to Knoxville in late December, his devastation of southwestern
Virginia temporarily ended. Next spring, as the Confederacy collapsed, he returned and completed the destruction of the railroad
and lead mines. By then, no amount of lead or salt or any other mineral resource could save the exhausted South; Lee surrendered
at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The war was finally over and with it ended the struggle for the great mineral-producing empire
of southwestern Virginia. See also Second Battle of Saltville.
(Sources and related reading below.)
Saltville Massacre (Civil War Campaigns and Commanders). Description:
In October 1864, in the mountains of southwest Virginia,
one of the most brutal acts of the Civil War occurs. Brig. Gen. Stephen Burbridge launches a raid to capture Saltville. Included
among his forces is the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry. Repeated Federal attacks are repulsed by Confederate forces under the command
of Gen. John S. Williams. Continued below…
As the sun begins to set, Burbridge
pulls his troops from the field, leaving many wounded. In the morning, Confederate troops, including a company of ruffians
under the command of Captain Champ Ferguson, advance over the battleground seeking out and killing the wounded black soldiers.
What starts as a small but intense mountain battle degenerates into a no-quarter, racial massacre. A detailed account from
eyewitness reports of the most blatant battlefield atrocity of the war.
Recommended Reading: Lee's Endangered Left: The Civil War In Western Virginia, Spring Of 1864.
From Kirkus Reviews: A competent, well-executed addition to the ever-growing horde of Civil War literature, by Duncan (History/Georgetown
University). The author reconsiders Union General Ulysses S. Grants attempts to destroy the Confederates, led by General Robert
E. Lee, at their traditional stronghold in western Virginia and his efforts to threaten Lynchburg during the spring and summer of 1864. Continued below…
writing here is crisp; refreshingly, our chronicler pays sharp attention to the effects of the campaign on civilians as the
Union army penetrated beyond its supply lines and came to live off the countryside in one of the Confederacy’s richest
agricultural regions, bringing home the harsh realities of war to civilians. The campaign swung back and forth, with
Northern victories at Cloyd's
Mountain and New River Bridge
and Confederate routs at New Market, followed by a Union failure to seize Lynchburg.
Though the campaign proved costly to the South, overall the Unions hope to capture the Shenandoah Valley foundered and the
Confederates then went on to threaten Washington, D.C. Duncan sensitively employs a wide variety of sources, military and
civilian, to add to the coherence of his account. Still, the books scope remains narrow, focusing on a not terribly glamorous
period in the wars history; then, too, wed do well to have the volume trimmed by a third. Duncan’s
contention that the Unions severity in dealing with civilian populations was directly reciprocated when the Confederates took
Chambersburg, Penn., creating a chain of vengeance that culminated
when Sherman marched through the South, is insightfully argued,
offering a fresh analysis to the historical debate. Casual readers of the Civil War genre (and many die-hard buffs, as well)
may want to leave this superbly researched yet ultimately too specialized study for the historians to ponder. Includes 20
Saltville (VA) (Images of America), by Jeffrey C. Weaver (Author), The Museum of the Middle Appalachians (Author):
Description: Saltville, Virginia, lies on the banks of the
North Fork of the Holston River on the border
between Smyth and Washington Counties.
Its history began very long ago; in fact, archeological evidence suggests extensive human habitation there for more than 14,000
years. Saltville was named because it was a source of salt,-and by the end of the 18th century, a thriving industry was born.
During the Civil War, Saltville attained considerable importance to the Confederate government as a supply of salt. Continued
A large Confederate army garrison
was maintained there, and extensive fortifications were constructed. After the Civil War, the town led the way in industrialization
of the South. Flip through the pages of Images of America: Saltville to learn why Saltville is one of the most historic places
in the world. About the Author: The Museum of the Middle Appalachians, located on Palmer Avenue in Saltville, was established by the
Saltville Foundation in the 1990s. It has become the repository for fossils, artifacts, and photographs of the region. Author
Jeffrey C. Weaver holds degrees in American history from Appalachian State University, and after serving in the U.S. Army
for several years, he worked as a contracting officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. He is currently the manager of the
Chilhowie Public Library.
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 (McFarland & Company). Description: A
significant part of the Civil War was fought in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, especially in 1864. Books and articles
have been written about the fighting that took place there, but they generally cover only a small period of time and focus
on a particular battle or campaign. Continued below...
This work covers
the entire year of 1864 so that readers can clearly see how one event led to another in the Shenandoah Valley and turned once-peaceful
garden spots into gory battlefields. It tells the stories of the great leaders, ordinary men, innocent civilians, and armies
large and small taking part in battles at New Market, Chambersburg, Winchester, Fisher’s
Hill and Cedar Creek, but it primarily tells the stories of the soldiers, Union and Confederate,
who were willing to risk their lives for their beliefs. The author has made extensive use of memoirs, letters and reports
written by the soldiers of both sides who fought in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
Reading: Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign, by Peter Cozzens (Civil War America)
(Hardcover). Description: In the spring of 1862, Federal troops under the command of General George B. McClellan launched
what was to be a coordinated, two-pronged attack on Richmond
in the hope of taking the Confederate capital and bringing a quick end to the Civil War. The Confederate high command tasked
Stonewall Jackson with diverting critical Union resources from this drive, a mission Jackson fulfilled by repeatedly defeating
much larger enemy forces. His victories elevated him to near iconic status in both the North and the South and signaled a
long war ahead. One of the most intriguing and storied episodes of the Civil War, the Valley Campaign has heretofore only
been related from the Confederate point of view. Continued below…
1862, Peter Cozzens dramatically and conclusively corrects this shortcoming, giving equal attention to both Union and Confederate perspectives.
Based on a multitude of primary sources, Cozzens's groundbreaking work offers new interpretations of the campaign and the
reasons for Jackson's success. Cozzens also demonstrates instances
in which the mythology that has come to shroud the campaign has masked errors on Jackson's
part. In addition, Shenandoah 1862 provides the first detailed appraisal of Union leadership in the Valley Campaign, with
some surprising conclusions. Moving seamlessly between tactical details and analysis of strategic significance, Cozzens presents
the first balanced, comprehensive account of a campaign that has long been romanticized but never fully understood. Includes
13 illustrations and 13 maps. About the Author: Peter Cozzens is an independent scholar and Foreign Service officer with the
U.S. Department of State. He is author or editor of nine highly acclaimed Civil War books, including The Darkest Days of the
War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth (from the University
of North Carolina Press).
Reading: Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign. Description: Jubal A. Early’s disastrous battles in the Shenandoah Valley
ultimately resulted in his ignominious dismissal. But Early’s lesser-known summer campaign of 1864, between his raid
on Washington and Phil Sheridan’s renowned fall campaign, had a significant impact on the political and military landscape
of the time. By focusing on military tactics and battle history in uncovering the facts and events of these little-understood
battles, Scott C. Patchan offers a new perspective on Early’s contributions to the Confederate war effort—and
to Union battle plans and politicking. Patchan details the previously unexplored battles at Rutherford’s Farm and Kernstown
(a pinnacle of Confederate operations in the Shenandoah Valley) and examines the campaign’s
influence on President Lincoln’s reelection efforts. Continued below…
descriptions of the battles are very detailed, full or regimental level actions, and individual incidents. He bases the accounts
on commendable research in manuscript collections, newspapers, published memoirs and regimental histories, and secondary works.
The words of the participants, quoted often by the author, give the narrative an immediacy. . . . A very creditable account
of a neglected period."-Jeffry D. Wert, Civil War News (Jeffry D. Wert Civil War News 20070914)
Summer] contains excellent diagrams and maps of every battle and is recommended reading for those who have a passion for books
on the Civil War."-Waterline (Waterline 20070831)
is interesting and readable, with chapters of a digestible length covering many of the battles of the campaign."-Curled Up
With a Good Book (Curled Up With a Good Book 20060815)
Summer provides readers with detailed combat action, colorful character portrayals, and sound strategic analysis. Patchan''s
book succeeds in reminding readers that there is still plenty to write about when it comes to the American Civil War."-John
Deppen, Blue & Grey Magazine (John Deppen Blue & Grey Magazine 20060508)
"Scott C. Patchan
has solidified his position as the leading authority of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign with his outstanding campaign
study, Shenandoah Summer. Mr. Patchan not only unearths this vital portion of the campaign, he has brought it back to life
with a crisp and suspenseful narrative. His impeccable scholarship, confident analyses, spellbinding battle scenes, and wonderful
character portraits will captivate even the most demanding readers. Shenandoah Summer is a must read for the Civil War aficionado
as well as for students and scholars of American military history."-Gary Ecelbarger, author of "We Are in for It!": The First
Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862 (Gary Ecelbarger 20060903)
has given us a definitive account of the 1864 Valley Campaign. In clear prose and vivid detail, he weaves a spellbinding narrative
that bristles with detail but never loses sight of the big picture. This is a campaign narrative of the first order."-Gordon
C. Rhea, author of The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (Gordon C. Rhea )
is a `boots-on-the-ground' historian, who works not just in archives but also in the sun and the rain and tall grass. Patchan's
mastery of the topography and the battlefields of the Valley is what sets him apart and, together with his deep research,
gives his analysis of the campaign an unimpeachable authority."-William J. Miller, author of Mapping for Stonewall and Great
Maps of the Civil War (William J. Miller)
Sources: National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; The Museum of the
Middle Appalachians; Library of Congress; National Archives; Scott C. Patchan, Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign,
2009; Richard R. Duncan. Lee's Endangered Left: The Civil War In Western Virginia, Spring Of 1864 (Hardcover), 1999; Thomas
D. Mays. Saltville Massacre, 1998; Jeffrey C. Weaver. Saltville (VA) (Images of America), 2006; Bryan S. Bush. Butcher Burbridge:
Union General Stephen Burbridge and His Reign of Terror Over Kentucky, 2008; Graham MacGregor. Salt, Diet and Health. Cambridge
University Press, 1998; Frances Kennedy. The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 1998; David Heidler. Encyclopedia Of The American
Civil War; Angela M. Dautartas, C. Clifford Boyd, Rhett B. Herman, Robert C. Whisonant. Battles of Saltville: October 2nd,
1864 and December 20th, 1864 (2005).