Battle of Saltville, Virginia, Civil War

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American Civil War: Virginia Saltville History


Maj. Gen. George Stoneman
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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 various medications.
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 the Confederacy."
The 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
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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 raid concluded.

Civil War Saltville Battlefield Map
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High Resolution Map of the Battle of Saltville and the Civil War Saltworks Campaign

The Salt Capitol of the Confederacy

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Saltville 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.

Saltworks Campaign

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
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Confederates make a determined stand but the end is near

Battle of Saltville History
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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 ropes.

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
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Strategic significance of Saltville during the Civil War

Second Battle of Saltville

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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.)

Recommended Reading: 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.

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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…

The 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 photographs.


Recommended Reading: 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 below…

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.


Recommended Reading: The 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.


Recommended 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…

With Shenandoah 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).


Recommended 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…


"The author's 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)

"[Shenandoah 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)

"The narrative 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)

"Shenandoah 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)

"Scott Patchan 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 )

"[Scott Patchan] 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).

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