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The historical significance of Saltville

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 2:28 pm

As you descend into a lovely Virginia valley, you are greeted with a breathtaking view.  The valley and villa is surrounded by lovely peaks that once housed several breastworks protecting the salt capital of the Confederacy.  During the weekend of August 18-20, 2017 within this setting, a recreation of historic events took place.

 

On August 18, 2017, an educational day was held for local schools and those interested in Saltville’s unique history.  Saturday witnessed several events, included Spencer Two Dog from Hillbilly Blood, Jim Bodine, the Sailmaker on Mountain Men, a flag display, presentation at the Ladies Tea by Mrs. Davis (Joan Howard), Mrs. Lee (Janice Busic), and David Chaltas in the persona of Robert E. Lee.  A medical field doctor talked of protocol and procedures during that timeframe.  Federal and Confederate troops talked to the spectators and shared local history for the early foundation of Saltville to current plans.  The reenactment represented several battles that occurred during the War Between the States on Saturday and Sunday.   Sunday witnessed a tremendous turnout for church service, as prayers were offered for this nation and peace to prevail among all Americans.  ‘Chaplain Chaltas offered a sermon on Heroes and He Keeps Sending Us Angels.’  The following synopsis is of one battle that took place in October.

 

The city of Saltville is nestled in the majestic mountain range boarding the two Virginia counties of Smyth and Washington.  It was founded in the middle of seventeen hundred but it was not until William King established the salt works in 1795, did it start to flourish.  It possesses a spectacular panoramic view of the flowing valley surrounded by a mountain range of unparalleled beauty and within its boundaries one can become mesmerized by the sense of serenity.  Within the marshlands exists a rare commodity for the area:  salt.  It was one of the most important commodities in the South’s possession and had to be defended.  That wondrous preserver of food must be guarded at all costs!

 

The only other substantial salt works was at a community known as Brashearsville (now Cornettsville) in the deepest region of eastern Kentucky.  This area was extremely difficult to navigate due to poor roads and mountainous terrain.  In addition to these conditions, bushwhackers and Union sympathizers also made it dangerous to obtain and keep the commodity.  Therefore, the Confederate army of the Department of Southwest Virginia was given the charge of protecting the salt works at Saltville.  They attempted to accomplish this through an elaborate artillery perimeter that overlooked and encircled the pristine valley.  This elaborate artillery defense was necessary because the department was undermanned and outgunned.  The preparation would soon be put to the test due to Union efforts to destroy the salt works that were being planned.

 

General Stephen Burbridge, commander of Union troops in Kentucky, devised a plan to invade Virginia and destroy the salt works at Saltville.  The plan would be a two-pronged attack.  He would enter Virginia through Pound Gap with approximately five thousand (5,000) troops and General Alvan Gillem would come from Bulls Gap in Tennessee with twenty-five hundred more men.  Saltville would be attacked from two fronts with many more men than the Confederate defenders.  General Henry Halleck (General Burbridge’s superior commander) approved the plan and left it to Burbridge to work out the details.  Burbridge and Gillem knew that timing and coordination would be essential for the plan to succeed.     The troops that Burbridge would lead into Virginia were all Kentuckians except for the 11th Michigan Cavalry and 12th Ohio Cavalry.  Attached also was the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, a unit of almost five hundred (500) U. S. Colored Troops (USCT) that was formed from former slaves and free Negroes from Kentucky.  Colonel Robert Ratliff and other white officers commanded the unit of black soldiers.

 

The defense of Saltville fell upon the shoulders of Brigadier General Alfred Jackson.  He had been recently appointed commander of the Department of Southwest Virginia.  This department was a skeleton of itself, having ordered most of its troops to the defense of Richmond.  The majority of the troops left to defend the southwestern portion of Virginia consisted of a brigade comprised mostly of Kentuckians under the command of Colonel Henry Giltner.  The Giltner’s Brigade was comprised of the 10th Kentucky Cavalry, the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles and the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry.  Two independent companies of Kentucky cavalry commanded by Captains Barton Jenkins and T.W. Barrett had attached themselves to Giltner’s Brigade.   Jackson also had two battalions of Virginia Militia under his command.  They were the 4th Virginia Reserve Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Preston and the 13th Virginia Reserve Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Smith.  Located near Kingsport, Tennessee, was a small division of troops of the Army of Tennessee, commanded by General John S. Williams, which could report to Saltville if needed.

 

General Burbridge’s plan began to fall apart from the beginning.   He was delayed in his start for several days.  This allowed time for southern sympathizers in Kentucky to send word of Burbridge’s movements to Confederate authorities in Virginia.  Hoping to surprise the Confederates, Burbridge changed his route into Virginia from the original plan of using the road through Pound Gap to going up the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.   Burbridge did not realize that this road into Virginia was a dangerous and narrow pathway that would be hard for his mounted men and six mountain howitzers to traverse.  This would delay his schedule even more, forcing Gillem’s army to stay in the vicinity of Bulls Gap longer than they preferred.

 

To complicate things further, Gillem was having his own problems, having three small brigades of Confederate cavalry constantly harassing him. Even though all three brigades combined were much smaller than his force, the general knew better than to take them lightly.  Three highly respected brigadier generals commanded these brigades: Basil Duke, George Cosby, and John Vaughn.

 

General Vaughn was the senior officer and therefore was overall commander.   Knowing he could not stop Gillem’s army by direct force, he began to attack him at Bulls Gap with hit and run tactics.   Gillem pushed Vaughn and his ragtag force back to the Watauga River where Vaughn’s men dug in on the high ground overlooking the opposing Union army.  At this time, Gillem received orders from Union headquarters that the mission was being called off by General William Sherman.   As he began moving his army back toward Bulls Gap, he sent overland couriers to inform General Burbridge of the change in orders.  Unfortunately, General Burbridge was already in hostile country and never received the message.  The confident, Union general and his army continued marching toward Saltville.

 

Colonel Giltner sent Colonel Edward Trimble and approximately one hundred and fifty men from the 10th Kentucky Cavalry and the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry to Richlands (located forty miles west of Saltville), with orders to slow the Union army down as best they could.  Trimble and his men skirmished with the Yankees but were forced to slowly fall back toward Saltville.  Fortunately, the skirmishing had the desired effect of slowing down the Union invaders.

 

On October 1st, Giltner spread his small army of men out on the slopes of Clinch Mountain overlooking General Burbridge’s army as they were encamped below at General Bowen’s farm.  The large Bowen’s farm was about three miles from the foot of the mountain.  At approximately 10:00 A.M., the Union soldiers approached the foot of the mountain.  The vastly outnumbered Confederate soldiers were amazed with the sight below them.  Not only did the line of Yankee horsemen look endless as they stretched out for three miles, they were being led by a brigade of men riding white (commonly called ghost) horses!  This unit was the 30th Kentucky Mounted Infantry.

 

The road that passed over Clinch Mountain at this location meandered up the mountain, allowing the defenders that were dug in above, several targets to fire upon with the first volley.   The 4th Kentucky Cavalry and the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles were stationed above the road with their Enfield rifles aimed at the Union cavalry below.  Their first volley emptied several saddles of the “white horse brigade”.   The 30th Kentucky and the regiments behind them immediately dismounted and began to fight their way up the steep slopes.  After an intense and hot battle that lasted for almost half hour, the Rebels slowly retreated up the mountain.  In an effort to slow the invaders down, the gray-clad soldiers cut down trees as they climbed up the mountain.

 

Upon reaching the top of the ridge commonly called Flat Top Mountain, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles joined forces with the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry.  Together, they hastily constructed breastworks and dug in, vainly hoping the Yankees would decide that they had enough of the fight and would retreat back toward Kentucky.   It was not to be, and at approximately 2:00 P.M. the Union soldiers swarmed up the mountain in front of the Confederate defenders.

 

Reluctantly, Colonel Giltner ordered his men to fall back to what is sometimes called Laurel Gap, a strong, natural defensive position.  The 4th Kentucky Cavalry and the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles lined the cliffs on the left of the gap while the 64th Virginia climbed above the cliffs on the right side.  The 10th Kentucky Cavalry was sent up the valley to prevent the gap defenders from being flanked.

 

At 5:00 P.M., the Union army attacked in large numbers on foot in a frontal assault.  At the same time, a portion of their army came charging down the hill from above the 64th Virginia, pushing them out of their breastworks.  This action threatened the flank of the defenders on the left of the gap.  Realizing the futility of staying and fighting, Giltner ordered his men to fall back down to the Holston River.

 

In hopes of slowing the Yanks down, Colonel Giltner and his men destroyed the bridge after crossing the Holston River.  At this time, the confident Yankees decided to go into camp on their side of the river, believing that they could easily take Saltville the following morning.  The battle-weary, Rebel defenders at that moment probably thought their chances of victory would be slim if none.   The fighting of the day that is referred to as the Battle of Laurel Gap had ended.  All knew that the battle for the survival of the saltworks at Saltville would commence again the next morning.

  

The delaying tactics that Colonel Giltner’s Brigade had fought on Saturday, October 1, 1864, proved to be the turning point of the battle.  General John S. Williams had pushed his troops all night and by early Sunday morning, October 2nd, the lead elements were beginning to arrive at Saltville.  If Burbidge had pushed his men on into Saltville on Saturday night, he would have probably been able to destroy some of the saltworks.  Now that Confederate re-enforcements had arrived, his men would have a much tougher fight to accomplish their goal.   Regardless, his army still outnumbered the Confederate defenders by more than two-to-one.  Burbridge’s soldiers were also much better armed than the Rebel defenders. The 11th Michigan Cavalry had Spencer repeating rifles and the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry had the Starr breech-loading rifle, both rapid firing weapons.  The 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles had great respect for the 11th Michigan Cavalry as they had been on the receiving end of the lead spitting, Spencer rifles in their skirmish with them back in May in Letcher County, Kentucky and again in June at the Battle of Cynthiana.

 

The sporadic firing of the pickets by both armies suddenly disrupted the tranquility of Sunday morning.  Colonel Robert Ratliff led the 11th Michigan, the 12th Ohio and the 5th Colored Cavalry in a charge against the 4th Kentucky, which remarkably held for a short while.  As the 4th Kentucky fell back, Trimble and the 10th Kentucky Cavalry charged Ratliff’s front, surprising the Union troops, and stalling for the 4th Kentucky to join the 64th Virginia and the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles along their breastworks on the top of Sanders Hill.

 

While preparing for the charge that all knew was coming, the Confederate defenders saw a welcome site behind them.  General Felix Robertson with approximately two hundred and fifty men of the Confederate Cavalry had taken up positions on Chestnut Ridge behind them.  To the right of Robertson, Colonel George Dibrell and some Tennessee cavalry units arrived and immediately began to build breast works.

 

General John S. Williams had also arrived and had taken over command of preparing for the defense of the saltworks.   Ratliff and his men now surged forward, pushing Giltner’s Brigade off the crest of Sanders Hill.  As Giltner retreated past Governor James Sanders house, the colonel attempted to convince Colonel Smith and his men of the 13th Virginia Reserves to regroup on Robertson’s left.   The 13th Virginia stubbornly refused to leave, gallantly but foolishly, willing to face the enemy alone.  Probably, the thoughts of fighting the armed black troops in front of them clouded the thinking and judgment of the day.

 

Colonel Giltner immediately lined his brigade up on the left of Robertson, placing the 10th Kentucky Cavalry on the bluffs overlooking the ford of the river near the cemetery, and to their left were the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles, the 64th Virginia, and the 4th Kentucky.  The Kentuckians that had chosen to wear the gray were now facing Brigadier General Edward Hobson and his Kentucky troops that had chosen blue.  Colonel William Breckinridge with the 1st and 9th Kentucky Cavalry had arrived and positioned themselves on Giltners far left.  Breckinridge and his men were facing Colonel Charles Hanson and his Kentucky troops.  As with other battles of the war, Kentuckians would again be killing each other for the cause that each fought and believed in.

 

At 11:00 A.M., Colonel Ratliff ordered his men to charge the 13th Virginia that had taken up positions around the Sanders house.  Both Ratliff and the Confederate soldiers observing on the high ground behind Sander’s house were sure the men of the 13th Virginia would immediately run away due to the militia regiment being comprised of old men and young boys with no actual military training.  All observing that day were stunned when the 13th Virginia fiercely fought like demons and stalled the massive attack in front of them.  As the 13th Virginia was predictably being pushed back, they suffered heavy losses.  Later, veterans from both sides would tell of the sorrow of seeing gray-haired old men and young, boy warriors laying side by side in the terrible spectacle of death.  Such was the price paid for this war between brothers.

 

Ratliff and his troops now had to charge up Chestnut Ridge against Robertson and Dibrells furious Tennessee troops.   The men had worked themselves into a fury at the sight of the Negro troops charging up the hill.  One report had two brothers that were both lieutenants of the 8th Tennessee charging the Negro troops, resulting in the death of one and the serious wounding of the other.  The men of the 5th Colored Cavalry were in a terrible situation, they would have to keep charging into the buzz saw of the Confederate defenders in their front or face the wrath of the white Union soldiers in their rear.  They elected to charge gallantly with disastrous results, being mowed down in great numbers.  A Tennessee battery had arrived and joined in on the repulse of the Yankee attack.  The casualties contributed to the artillery were minimal but the psychological effect was tremendous.  As the physical features of the hills surrounding Saltville were shaped like a bowl, one cannon shot would echo and sound like numerous shots.

 

Meanwhile, the battle between Kentuckians had also begun.   Hobson lead his men across the river and through Broddy’s Bottom under the withering fire from Giltner’s Brigade.  The main assault struck Trimble’s 10th Kentucky fortifications and began to push them back.  Colonel Giltner rushed the 64th Virginia and the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles to Trimbles aid.  Even with the re-enforcements, the attacking force of Union soldiers was still too much for Giltner’s men to hold back and pushed them back into the cemetery behind them. Colonel Giltner rushed to Colonel Preston and asked him to send the 4th Virginia Reserves to help turn the tide.  The 4th Virginia ran up to the cemetery and fired one volley into the ranks of the opposing blue-clad soldiers.   On seeing the huge number of Union soldiers coming toward them, the 4th Virginia turned and raced back down the hill.  Seeing that they were about to be over-run, the Colonel Trimble charged toward the Yankees with his sword held high.  Giltner’s Brigade got caught up in his daring and also charged, thereby startling, and stopping the Union advance.

 

Colonel Trimble paid for his daring and courage with his life, as he was shot through the head at the height of the charge.  Several other officers were lost due to their courage in their desire to stop the Union attack: Lieutenant James Crutchfield of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles was killed, gravely wounded were Major Lum Cox and Lieutenant James Honaker of the 10th Kentucky and Lieutenant Jonathan Richmond of the 64th Virginia.  On the left of Trimble’s last stand, the 4th Kentucky, with the help of what remained of Preston’s 4th Virginia Reserves, fought off a flanking action.  The Confederate line had held on the edge of the cemetery.

 

To Giltner’s left, Colonel Breckinridge was holding the high ground on the bluffs above the river.  Colonel Hanson and his soldiers in blue were having a hard time trying to get across the river and scaling the bluffs.  Each attack would be beaten back by the Rebel riflemen entrenched on the high ground.   The Union soldiers attacking would have to be inspired each time by Hanson, as he would expose himself to the constant volleys of gunfire.  Eventually, Hanson pushed his luck and courage too far and was seriously wounded, which resulted in him being carried from the field.  The loss of their leader took most of the fight out of the boys in blue on this particular area of the battlefield.

 

At approximately 3:00 P.M., Captain Bart Jenkins and his small band of Kentucky cavalry approached Burbridge’s flank and began to attack, using hit, and run tactics that had proved so successful.  General Burbridge had no idea how big the attacking force was and sent four hundred of his men to defend the flank.  These men had been held in reserve to aid in the frontal attack and were now effectively out of the main fight.   The diversion created by Jenkins could not have come at a better time.

 

The last charge of the day almost succeeded for the Union soldiers that were still trying to dislodge Robertson and Dibrell from Chestnut Ridge.  The 12th Ohio managed to create a breach between Robertson and Dibrell.  The 11th Michigan and a portion of the 5th Colored Cavalry soon joined them.  Dibrell and his men did not panic but slowly moved back into their last line of breast works on the backside of the ridge.  At this point of the battle, the loss of the reserves sent to confront Jenkins cost the Yankees dearly.  The Union soldiers that were in position to overrun the last of the Confederate defenders had finally exhausted their ammunition rations.  With their cartridge boxes empty and no reserves to replace them, they had no choice but to retreat and leave the field.  The last chance for Burbridge to succeed had passed as the evening sun began to set.  If any hope of a victory still remained, it was dashed upon hearing the cheering of the weary Rebel soldiers.  Burbridge was informed the cheering was for the arrival of General John C. Breckinridge and Brigadier General Vaughn’s cavalry.  The stage was now set for a Union disaster.

 

General Burbridge ordered his men to regroup and camp on their side of the Holston River.  Burbridge knew of the hatred that the Kentuckians in gray had for him and did not want to fall into their hands.  Therefore, he turned over command of his army to General Hobson.  Leaving Hobson with the army, Burbridge left for Kentucky with only a detachment of bodyguards and part of his staff.  From most accounts, his men were glad to see him go as they blamed him for their defeat.  During the night, Hobson had several fires built to deceive the Rebels into believing he was staying for another fight in the morning.  Under cover of darkness, the once confident, Union army retreated back toward Kentucky, leaving many killed and wounded comrades upon the battlefield.

 

The following morning, the low hanging mist and fog hid the carnage on the battlefield.  Over four hundred men were lying on the field of battle, either wounded, dying or dead (overall, three hundred Yankee soldiers were taken prisoner).  Reportedly, several of these wounded soldiers were murdered, as they lay defenseless on the field.  When General John C. Breckinridge was advised of the killing, he ordered it to cease immediately and if it continued, he would have the person shooting unarmed and/or wounded men executed.

 

There are several accounts of what happened the morning after the battle and of the notorious work of Champ Ferguson and other renegade soldiers.  One eyewitness to the event wrote that several wounded, black soldiers were murdered on the field and also in the hospital at nearby Emory and Henry University.  The controversy still continues today as to how many black soldiers were murdered, with estimates of at least a dozen men to as many as a hundred.  Regardless of the number, the Confederate victory of the day was tainted.  One thing that most historians do agree on is that a few boys in gray went among the wounded and shot black soldiers (at least two white Federal troops were murdered as well).  Champ Ferguson was later tried and hung for war crimes. Upon hearing of the alleged incident, General Robert E. Lee became furious and wrote his condemnation of such actions.

 

Though the battle was a major victory, the treachery of the following day dampened the celebration of the conquest.  After the Northern press released what some feel were exaggerated horror stories of the events, the reaction of outrage for revenge was expected.  Union officials now possessed the ammunition they needed to request another attack upon the salt works.  This time the planning would be conducted by a man whose name would be forever more remembered in southwest Virginia, Major General George Stoneman.  The infamous Stoneman’s Raid was set to commence and this time the outcome would be different.  (Taken from Appalachian Rebels by Richard G. Brown and David Chaltas)