Salt, Saltville and American Civil War

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Dusk, in the fading twilight on October 1, 1864, 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.

Battle of Saltville, Virginia, Map
Wikimapia Battle of Saltville, Virginia.jpg
The contest for Saltville was a series of battles fought during the Saltworks Campaign in Virginia


"Welcome to Scenic SALTVILLE - Salt Capital of the Confederacy" the sign proudly proclaims as one enters this small town in northwestern Smyth County, Virginia. And justifiably so, because this great salt-producing center during its peak war year in 1864 manufactured about 4,000,000 bushels (200,000,000 lbs.), an estimated two-thirds of all the salt required by the Confederacy (Lonn, 1933). No wonder, then, that this remote area found itself in the 1860s thrust into the very center of military activity in southwestern Virginia as North and South clashed over these vital salt operations.

Virginia's mineral contributions to the southern war effort during the American Civil War are numerous (Boyle, 1936; Whisonant, 1996). By the 1860s, Virginia was the main mineral-producing state in the South (Dietrich, 1970). Among the principal mined resources, in addition to salt, were lead, iron, niter (saltpeter), and coal. Interestingly, except for the coal which came primarily from the Richmond Basin, nearly all of the production of these resources was located west of the Blue Ridge with the main operations centered in southwestern Virginia. Even southwestern Virginia coal played an important role during the Civil War. According to Dietrich (1970, p. 147), coal from mines in Montgomery County fired the engines of the southern ironclad Virginia (more commonly referred to as the Merrimack) during its battle with the Monitor. Furthermore, the Virginia's armor came from Oriskany iron ore produced at the Grace Furnace Mines in Botetourt County.

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 (Lonn, 1933; Holmes, 1993). Of course, salt is essential in the human diet and during the Civil War, every soldier's ration included it. Salt is also necessary 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 (Lonn, 1933). During Civil War times, 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 (Holmes, 1993).

By the mid-1800s, three methods of producing salt were typically used: extracting salt from saline water wells (the most common), boiling down sea water or water from inland salt lakes, and mining deposits of rock salt (Lonn, 1933). At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Southern states had five principal salt operations available, these being (1) the "Licks" on the Great Kanawha River, near Charleston, WV; (2) the Goose Creek Salt Works near Manchester, KY; (3) the wells in the counties of southwestern Alabama; (4) the Avery Island operations in southern Louisiana; and, above all, (5) the great wells in southwestern Virginia at Saltville. Salt was also produced in places along the Confederate sea coast and a large industry of this type developed in Florida during the war (Holmes, 1993).

The Goose Creek works were lost to the Confederacy almost immediately after the war began, as were the facilities in West Virginia. After Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, all of the extensive Louisiana sources were denied to the eastern Confederacy. Thus, by midsummer 1863, although the Alabama wells still serviced the Gulf Coast area, the Stuart, Buchanan, and Co. salt works in Smyth County, Virginia, had to supply the rest of the struggling South (Marvel, 1991). The presence of these crucial salt operations, together with the lead mines in southern Wythe County and the Virginia and Tennessee railroad over which these and other vital wartime commodities (as well as troops) moved, dictated Union military strategy in southwestern Virginia for the last two years of the war (Donnelly, 1959; Whisonant, 1996).

Saltville, Saltworks, Minerals, and Civil War
Saltville, Saltworks, and Minerals.jpg
Saltville and the Civil War


The town of Saltville, located in the northwestern part of Smyth County near the Washington County line, lies in a small valley within the Valley and Ridge province of the Southern Appalachians (Figure 1). Geology and human history are intimately intertwined here, beginning with the arrival of Paleo-Indians in the Saltville Valley perhaps as early as 14,000 B.P. (MacDonald, 1996, cited in Roanoke Times, 1996). These early people may well have been attracted by the availability of salt from the natural brine springs and ponds; probably they hunted the "hordes of Pleistocene mammals" (Cooper, 1966) who also came to the salt licks. Thousands of years later, Thomas Jefferson recorded in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1787, cited in Cooper, 1966) the first known vertebrate fossil taken from this region when Arthur Campbell presented him with a "large jaw tooth of an unknown animal lately found at the Salina."

Because of the unique combination of paleontological, archeological, and historical features of the Saltville region, as well as the great economic significance of the salt and gypsum deposits, the geology of this area is well known. Key references include Rogers, 1836; Boyd, 1881; Eckel, 1902; Watson, 1907; Stose, 1913; Butts, 1940; Cooper, 1966; Ray and others, 1967; and Sharpe, 1985. The brief synopsis below of the Smyth and Washington County evaporite deposits is taken largely from these works.

The Saltville Valley is underlain by the Maccrady Formation of Mississippian age, roughly 350 million years old (Figure 2). The Maccrady consists primarily of drab red and green shale and siltstone, limestone, dolostone, and evaporite. The Mississippian strata are part of a large regional structure known as the Greendale syncline (Figure 3). The southeastern limb of this feature is overturned and dips toward the southeast. The thickest masses of salt, gypsum, and anhydrite, which have been commercially exploited since the late 1700s and early 1800s, occur within the Maccrady in the overturned limb. Overturning was caused by thrusting of Cambrian limestone, dolostone, shale, and sandstone over the younger Mississippian rocks in the syncline. The great thrust fault along which this movement occurred is aptly named the Saltville fault; it is a major Appalachian structure that can be traced for hundreds of miles from Alabama to central Virginia. In the Saltville area, the thrust fault crops out along the base of the prominent hills formed by the Cambrian rocks in the hanging wall of the fault to the east and south of town. The low ridges on the north and west side of the valley are composed of Mississippian limestone in the Greendale syncline. Beyond these to the west is the main drainage in this region, the southwest-flowing North Fork of the Holston River.

The evolution of geologic thinking concerning the origin of the Maccrady evaporites is interesting to trace. C. R. Boyd* (1881) was one of the first to note the relationship between the salt and gypsum occurrences and tectonic movements. Writing eloquently in his Resources of South-west Virginia (p. 102, 1881), he described the "extraordinary deposits of salt and plaster which mark the line of a great fissure in the crust of the earth"; this fissure "brings up the limestones of the Lower Silurian division . . . against a downthrow of Proto-Carboniferous rocks . . ." He ascribed this fissure, which he later called the "North Fork Fissure Line," to great pressure (from southeast to northwest). Changes in geologic age terminology aside, Boyd very accurately recognized the presence of the Saltville fault and its effect on localizing the salt and gypsum deposits. Not so presciently, he went on to say that the great fissure yawned open, great pieces of rock fell into the chasm, and ultimately, waters from the surrounding strata poured thousands of tons of salt and gypsum into the opening.

By the early 1900s, a clearer picture of the Saltville fault and its relationship to the overturned southeastern limb of the Greendale Syncline had emerged (Eckel, 1902; Watson, 1907; Stose, 1913). Eckel (1902) reached a correct interpretation concerning the depositional origin of the evaporites themselves when he concluded that both salt and gypsum were deposited as part of the original sedimentary sequence through the evaporation of sea water. (Earlier thought had interpreted, for example, the gypsum as an alteration product of limestone.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Charles R. Boyd is a fascinating individual. A Wythe County native, he served in the Confederate Army as an engineer during the Civil War, during the course of which he helped prepare the defenses for Saltville. After the war, he obtained a degree in geology from the University of Virginia and wrote extensively on the economic mineral resources of southwestern Virginia (M. McKee, unpublished materials, 1995, Virginia State Library). On one of his maps, he even signed himself "State Geologist, ex officio," a title he may have used somewhat loosely.

Cooper's 1966 paper is noteworthy because he stressed the tectonic brecciation of the salt and gypsum beds that created the "boulder zones" style of occurrence. He noted that the interbedded salt, anhydrite, limestone, and variegated shale in the Maccrady were sheared and macerated during overturning of the southeastern limb of the Greendale syncline by overthrusting along the Saltville fault. As the salt began to move, interbedded shale, anhydrite, and dolomite beds were broken and dismembered; these broken fragments were then engulfed by the flowing salt. Cooper's account explains why so little bedded evaporite material has been found in the Maccrady in this area.

Finally, Sharpe (1985) gave the most recent detailed account of the depositional environments associated with the evaporites. He placed much of the Maccrady in a mud-rich sabkha environment. "Sabkha" is an Arabic term for a wide tidal flat complex developed along a coastline in a hot, arid region, such as today's Persian Gulf region. In this model, the evaporites originated as bedded diagenetic minerals precipitated within the sabkha sediments from briny interstitial pore fluids. Later, the evaporite beds underwent post-depositional tectonic alteration and deformation as described by Cooper (1966). Sharpe suggested that ancient (Mississippian) southwestern Virginia may have resembled a modern environment such as where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of California.

Sometime near the end of the Pleistocene, by at least 14,000 years B.P., natural salt springs, seeps, and ponds, created by ground water dissolution of the salt-bearing overturned Maccrady strata, attracted large mammals into the Saltville Valley. Cooper (1966, p. 28) called Saltville the great "salt lick" in the southeastern United States. Among the large vertebrates found here are mammoths, mastodons, musk oxen, giant ground sloths, caribou, moose, deer, and horses. The large mammal remains are contained in a fluvial gravel layer of late Wisconsin age (MacDonald, 1984); above this stratum are late Pleistocene to Holocene beds of fluvial marsh, lake, and valley-fill origin that contain a variety of plant and animal fossils. MacDonald (1984, p. 22-23) reported a number of Paleo-Indian artifacts recovered from the Saltville Valley. Work continues on these intriguing and important Pleistocene and Holocene paleontological and archaeological materials.


Stoneman destroys the salt works
Gen. George Stoneman and staff.jpg
Gen. George Stoneman and staff in Virginia in 1863

No one knows precisely when humans began to use the salt available in the Saltville Valley. According to Marvel (1991, p. 11), thousands of years ago Native Americans camped here to hunt and evaporate some of the brines in the salt ponds for salt acquisition. By the 1750s, the property containing most of the saline springs and ponds belonged to Charles Campbell, who obtained a patent of land at the Salt Lick from Lord Dinwiddie in the name of King George II. Upon his death, the grant passed to his only son William. During the Revolution, William Campbell attained the rank of general and commanded the victorious American forces at the Battle of King's Mountain. William's cousin Arthur (presentor of the "large jaw tooth" to Thomas Jefferson) began the first commercial development of the salt in 1782; other Campbell family members soon became involved in salt manufacture. These early salt works of the late 1700s consisted of wells from which the brine was drawn, furnaces in open sheds in which the saline waters were boiled in kettles, and salt houses where the salt was stored (Kent, 1955). The kettles used were camp kettles of the times, which had an 8- to 12-gallon capacity.

Competition began to develop in 1795 when William King began his own salt production on land adjoining the Campbell family. In 1799, King dug a 200- foot-deep shaft, intending to mine the bedded salt deposits; this is the first known salt mine (albeit unsuccessful) in the U.S.A. Before the shaft encountered the rock salt, the well began filling with water. Unable to overcome his water problems, King reverted to the use of wells and furnaces for salt production (Saltville Historical Society, undated). Meanwhile, the original Campbell family operations passed by marriage into the hands of Francis Preston, who retired in 1797 after two terms in Congress to devote full time to salt manufacture. Thus, by the turn of the nineteenth century, competing salt works were in place in the Saltville Valley that supplied the immediate area covering parts of five states and even some markets beyond. For the next 60 years, the two salt operations grew and intertwined, being known generally as Preston's and King's salt works (Marvel, 1991).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, southwestern Virginia experienced commercial development of a number of mineral resources besides salt. Gypsum or "plaster" was prospected for and mined from the Maccrady in the vicinity of Plasterco, just a few miles southwest of Saltville, as early as 1815 (Cooper, 1966). Originally used mostly to "sweeten" or condition the soil for farmers, gypsum production increased as new uses such as plaster products were found (Sharpe, 1985). Other regional mineral resources were also exploited, so that by the 1850s, southwestern Virginia produced an abundance of salt, plaster, shot, pig iron, and lead for the area between the Cumberlands and the Smokies (Marvel, 1992). The completion of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in 1856 from Lynchburg to Big Lick (Roanoke) and then down the Great Valley to Bristol and beyond greatly aided economic development in this region (Noe, 1994). Of particular interest to the salt works was the construction of a railroad spur from Glade Spring on the main line over to Saltville in 1856 (Kent, 1955).

The technological aspects of the salt manufacture at Saltville is an interesting story. In the 1750s, Charles Campbell, original owner of the salt ponds and springs, followed the Indian practice of simple boiling down the salt from the surface occurrences to meet his own needs (Marvel, 1992). By 1800, William King was producing 200 bushels a day by using open shed furnaces to evaporate water bucketed from his wells. (Surprisingly, brine evaporation by boiling in kettles continued as the basic salt production technique until 1892.) In 1840, a shaft was dug to intercept the brine stream, but at a depth of 210 feet rock salt was encountered (Watson, 1907). Even though salt thicknesses of several hundreds of feet were eventually discovered in the subsurface, commercial production was always by brine extraction methods (Bartlett, 1971). By 1842, production from six wells reached 200,000 bushels annually.

A fascinating sketch of the Saltville area appeared in an 1857 article in Harper's magazine (reprinted in Saltville Confederate Times, undated) that gives a detailed account of how the salt was manufactured in the mid-nineteenth century (Figure 4):

"The salt is procured by sinking wells to the depth of the salt bed, when the water rises within forty-six feet of the surface, and is raised from thence by pumps into large tanks or reservoirs elevated a convenient distance above the surface. The brine thus procured is a saturated solution, and for every hundred gallons yields twenty-two gallons of pure salt. The process of manufacturing it is perfectly simple. An arched furnace is constructed, probably a hundred and fifty feet in length, with the doors at one end and the chimney at the other. Two rows of heavy iron kettles, shaped like shallow bowls, are built into the top of the furnace - in the largest works from eighty to a hundred in number. Large wooden pipes convey the brine from the tanks to these kettles, where the water is evaporated by boiling, while the salt crystallizes and is precipitated. During the operation a white saline vapor rises from the boilers, the inhalation of which is said to cure diseases of the lungs and throat. At regular intervals an attendant goes round, and with a mammoth ladle dips out the salt, chucking it into loosely woven split baskets, which are placed in pairs over the boilers. Here it drains and dries until the dipper has gone his round with the ladle. It is then thrown into the salt sheds, immense magazines that occupy the whole length of the buildings on either side of the furnaces. This process continues day and night without intermission for about a week, when it becomes necessary to cool off to clean the boilers, which have become thickly coated with a sedimentary deposit which impedes the transmission of heat. This incrustation, sometimes called pan-stone, is principally composed of the sulphates of lime and soda, and its removal is the most troublesome and least entertaining part of the business. The salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow. Indeed, on seeing the men at work in the magazines with pick and shovel, a novice would swear they were working in a snow-bank; while the pipes and reservoirs, which at every leak become coated over with the snowy concretions, sparkling like hoar-frost and icicles in the sun, serve to confirm the wintry illusion."

This is the technology that produced the Smyth County salt during the Civil War. Thus, the South strove mightily to defend these priceless wells, pumps, pipelines, furnaces, and kettles. And the North fought just as ardently to destroy them.


Confederates are determined to hold the SALT
Saltville Civil War History.jpg
Saltville Civil War History

Fighting broke out between Union and Confederacy on April 12, 1861, when rebel batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, SC. By that fall, the Saltville works had been acquired by Stuart, Buchanan, and Co., who conducted operations throughout the Civil War and for a few years thereafter. (Interestingly, partner William A. Stuart was the older brother of famed cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, whose wife and children spent much of the war in Saltville under William's care.) Shortly after the war began, the firm negotiated a contract with the Confederate government to provide 22,000 bushels of salt per month "to and for the uses of the Confederate State armies" (Saltville Historical Foundation, undated). Over most of the next three and one-half years, Stuart, Buchanan, and Co. managed to do this and much more.

In the decade before the war, the Saltville operations at times consisted of only a single furnace and about 70 kettles (Saltville Historical Foundation, undated). At its peak in 1864, the works included 38 furnaces and 2,600 kettles. (After the war, Yankee raiders claimed to have seen as many as 300 buildings prior to the destruction of the salt-producing facilities.) The huge salt output during the war years (reaching a peak of 4,000,000 bushels in 1864) commonly exceeded the ability of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad to transport it (Rachal, 1953). According to contemporary accounts, it was "a common thing to see as many as a thousand salt wagons at one time" lining the roads for miles waiting their turn for salt. Each wagon would bring a load of wood, needed for the furnaces, as part payment for the salt; the rest was paid in Confederate currency (Kent, 1955).

By fall of 1862, the Saltville output had become so important to the South that the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Florida, as well as Virginia, had all negotiated contracts to purchase salt or erect their own operations (Saltville Historical Foundation, undated). Several state-owned operations sprang up in the valley; the Georgia furnace, for example, occupied a space that became the site of the old Mathieson Salt Plant after the war (Kent, 1955).

But salt operations of this magnitude could not go on unchallenged by the Union, particularly since Federal forces occupied much of nearby West Virginia from the spring of 1862 onward. In summer 1863, with Lee's invasion of the North turned back at Gettysburg, Federal high command in West Virginia ordered the first attempt to get at the salt mines (Walker, 1985). Colonel John Toland and about 1,000 mounted infantry and cavalry were assigned the task, but after a brief skirmish with Confederate troops in the Abbs Valley area of Tazewell County, Toland feared that Saltville's defenders would be alerted. He changed his plans to a raid on Wytheville and possibly the lead mines beyond. Toland was killed in a sharp firefight in Wytheville on July 18 and the Union raiders retreated back to West Virginia. In September 1863, a strong Union force got within 35 miles of Saltville but withdrew after a skirmish (Rachal, 1953).

In May 1864, Federal soldiers in West Virginia, this time under General George Crook, once again moved into southwestern Virginia, determined to destroy the salt works and cut the vital Virginia and Tennessee railroad by burning the "Long Bridge" over the New River at Central (Radford) (McManus, 1989). Crook detached General 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 General 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 (McManus, 1989).

The next major military action involving the salt works occurred in fall 1864. By late September, Union General Stephen Burbridge (Figure 5), the widely despised military governor of Kentucky, decided to move on Saltville (Marvel, 1992). 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. Marvel (1992, p. 105) 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, General John Breckinridge (Figure 5), 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, General John Echols, was working miracles pulling together scattered forces for the defense of the salt works. 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 his more famous cousin, Stonewall Jackson (Davis, 1971). 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 (Marvel, 1991).

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 (Davis, 1971). Davis (1971, p. 11) describes 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 a total of 350, most of them left behind on the field (Davis, 1971). The Battle of Saltville was a clear southern victory that kept the salt works safe for another few months. As Davis (1971, p. 48) points out, it could have led to more significant things but the Confederacy was too weak to exploit the victory.

One historical note of great interest to Civil War scholars concerning this engagement is the intensely debated "Saltville Massacre" (Davis, 1993). According to some (Davis, 1971), rebel soldiers, after the battle, shot many wounded Union troops, especially African-Americans, lying helpless on the battlefield; other Federals were murdered some days later in the Confederate hospital set up at nearby Emory and Henry College. Marvel (1991, 1992) vigorously disputes this and refers to the alleged massacre as a "legend." The interested reader is directed to these sources for detailed accounts.

Salt, Saltville, and the Civil War
Salt, Saltville, and the Civil War.jpg
Strategic significance of southwestern Virginia

A second Battle of Saltville occurred in December 1864 when Union forces under General George Stoneman (Figure 6) invaded southwestern Virginia. Stoneman, an ambitious commander with a spotty record thus far in the war (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called him "one of the most worthless officers in the service"), was eager to regain his lost prestige (Evans, 1993). On December 10, Stoneman left Knoxville with about 5,500 mounted troopers and four artillery pieces. His objectives were to destroy not only the salt works 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 (1992, p. 134) 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 salt works 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 (Lonn, 1933). Several weeks later, the furnaces were going once more and salt was again being furnished to the various states (Kent, 1955); 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.


After 1865, salt manufacture continued at Saltville until Mathieson Alkali Works ceased production in 1906. Thereafter, this company made a variety of salt by-products until all operations in Saltville ended in the early 1970s. Gypsum production continues from the Maccrady evaporites at the Locust Cove Mine a few miles northeast of Saltville; the gypsum is transported to the manufacturing plant at Plasterco to produce a variety of wallboard products (Lovett, 1995).

During the Civil War, the production of salt from the Smyth County works was of inestimable value to the Confederacy. Although salt shortages occurred during the war, especially for civilians, thanks to Saltville more than any other source these shortages were never severe enough to cause serious problems for the army. The Confederate Commissary-General Lucius B. Northrop, noted on January 25, 1865, that "the supply of salt has always been sufficient and the Virginia works were able to meet the demand for the army" (Holmes, 1993).

Today, there is much to see of historical interest at Saltville. Beautiful reconstructions of the salt furnaces with kettles, the walking beam brine pumps, and the wooden pipes through which the corrosive salt solutions were transported, are located at the Salt Park on the south side of town (Figure 7). Historical markers call attention to the important events in the development of the area. Salt ponds dot the floor of the valley, as they have for thousands of years. Most interesting of all to Civil War buffs, one can walk the hills and visit the sites over which North and South fought in the 1860s. (Caution: landowner permission is required in some cases.)

Finally, above all, I recommend a visit to Elizabeth Cemetery (Figure 8), situated on a small knoll on the north side of town. Here one finds burial plots, some of which predate the Civil War, of persons of historical importance, such as William Stuart and his family. But, even more intriguing, this little hill and cemetery occupied just about the center of the Confederate lines on October 2, 1864. On this very ground Yankee troopers charged Rebel soldiers, who eventually held firm and saved the salt works. Standing here silently among the tombstones one imagines, whispering in the evening breezes, the ghosts of those men who gave the "last full measure of devotion" in the little-remembered battles for Saltville so long ago.


This article is part of an on-going study examining the relationship between the geology of southwestern Virginia and the Civil War military history of that region. I am grateful to Stan Johnson and Palmer Sweet of the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources (VDMR) for providing initial materials at the beginning of the project. Ms. Marianne McKee and Ms. Petie Bogen-Garrett at the Virginia State Library have been especially helpful during my research. As concerns this Saltville article, I thank Charles Bartlett (Abingdon consultant), Douglas Ogle (Virginia Highlands Community College), Jim Lovett and Al Taylor (VDMR, Abingdon office) and Jerry McDonald (McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company) who provided me with much valuable material. I particularly appreciate the help of Ms. Sharon Hollaway, who prepared the manuscript.

References located at bottom of page.

Credit: Preceding article by Dr. Robert C. Whisonant concerning geology and the Civil War in southwestern Virginia and was originally published in Virginia Minerals, a quarterly publication of the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources in Charlottesville; Robert C. Whisonant, GEOLOGY AND THE CIVIL WAR IN SOUTHWESTERN VIRGINIA: THE SMYTH COUNTY SALT WORKS (Department of Geology, Radford University), published in Virginia Minerals v. 42, August 1996, Division of Mineral Resources. Reprinted with permission. Figures and photographs from original article are unavailable at this time

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: 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: Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester (Campaigns and Commanders) (Hardcover). Description: The battles of Front Royal and Winchester are the stuff of Civil War legend. Stonewall Jackson swept away an isolated Union division under the command of Nathaniel Banks and made his presence in the northern Shenandoah Valley so frightful a prospect that it triggered an overreaction from President Lincoln, yielding huge benefits for the Confederacy. Continued below…

Gary Ecelbarger has undertaken a comprehensive reassessment of those battles to show their influence on both war strategy and the continuation of the conflict. Three Days in the Shenandoah answers questions that have perplexed historians for generations. About the Author: Gary Ecelbarger, an independent scholar, is the author of Black Jack Logan: An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War and "We Are in for It!": The First Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862.


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…

He also provides insights into the personalities, careers, and roles in Shenandoah of Confederate General John C. Breckinridge, Union general George Crook, and Union colonel James A. Mulligan, with his “fighting Irish” brigade from Chicago. Finally, Patchan reconsiders the ever-colorful and controversial Early himself, whose importance in the Confederate military pantheon this book at last makes clear. About the Author: Scott C. Patchan, a Civil War battlefield guide and historian, is the author of Forgotten Fury: The Battle of Piedmont, Virginia, and a consultant and contributing writer for Shenandoah, 1862.


"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)

Try the Search Engine for Related Studies: Salt and the American Civil War, Battle of Saltville Virginia, Battlefield History, Salt works Uses, Saltworks, Destruction, Capitol Capital of the Confederacy, Confederate Union Army in Shenandoah Valley


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Boyd, C. R., 1881, Resources of South-West Virginia: John Wiley and Sons, New York, p. 101-108.

Boyle, R. S., 1936, Virginia's mineral contribution to the Confederacy: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin 46, p. 119-123.

Butts, C., 1940, Geology of the Appalachian Valley in Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin 52, 568 p. and map.

Cooper, B. N., 1966, Geology of the salt and gypsum deposits in the Saltville area, Smyth and Washington Counties, Virginia, in Rau, J. L., editor, Second Symposium on Salt, v. 1, Geology, Geochemistry, and Mining: Northern Ohio Geological Society, Cleveland, p. 11-34, figures 1-12.

Davis, W. C., 1971, The massacre at Saltville: Civil War Times Illustrated, v. 9, p. 4-11, 43-48.

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