Campaign: Burbridge’s Raid into Southwest Virginia (September-October 1864)
Date(s): October 2, 1864
Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Stephen Burbridge [US]; Brig. Gen. Alfred E. Jackson [CS]
Forces Engaged: Divisions (11,000 total)
Estimated Casualties: 458 total
Result: Confederate victory
Saltville, Virginia is nestled inside a great valley in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Saltville is a small town, yet it played a key role in America's Civil War. The area had a great abundance of salt, which was vital for the sustenance of the South. The links at right will assist you in navigating this page as you learn more about this fascinating town, and the events that occurred here in the 1860's.
When many people think of the South during the years of the American Civil War, they think of cotton. Although cotton was a vital part of the Southern economy, no product was more essential for the survival of the general population than salt.
Salt's main value was as a food preservative. If the Union controlled the salt of the Confederacy, they controlled the Southern diet. Union control of the main food preservative would have surely starved the South into submission.
It is interesting to note that the Ice Box was invented in 1840, and by 1861 was available for home use through mail order catalogs. In this region especially, the Ice Box was considered by many to be just a passing fad, because of the difficulties involved in its use. Ice must be obtained, the melted water disposed of. The boxes were cumbersome and offered little storage capacity. Salt was just so much easier for the average person to use. Meats of all kinds could be salt-cured, and remain edible for years. Most rural homes had a smokehouse where the salt cured meat was kept. The Ice Box couldn't compete with the convenience and reliability of preserving food with Salt.
Salt was abundant in the pre-war South. There were salt wells in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and sea salt operations in Georgia and Florida. Early in the war, Union forces captured key Confederate salt works in Louisiana and Texas. Federal troops then targeted Florida, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
Salt was essential to sustain the food supply of the Southern population. Small local works throughout the South kept civilians meagerly supplied. There are reports of Southerners scraping salt from their smokehouse floors to try and obtain the precious mineral. By the end of 1862, Saltville was the Confederacy's last major salt supplier, "The Salt Capitol of the Confederacy."
Local businessmen Stuart, Buchanan, & Co. owned the Saltville works throughout the war. Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, brother of Partner William A. Stuart, sent his wife and children to live with William in Saltville during the war. He believed Saltville to be the one of the best defended locations in the Confederacy. 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".
Over the next three and a half years, Stuart, Buchanan, & Co. managed to do this and more, with production reaching a peak of 4,000,000 bushels in 1864. By 1862, the scarcity of salt throughout the Confederacy caused Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, as well as Virginia, to negotiate contracts to obtain Saltville's salt. Some states, like Georgia leased the land for the mineral rights, and built their own salt furnaces. Georgia's leased land occupied the space that became the site of the old Mathieson Salt Plant after the war.
Some states did not lease land for making their own salt, and contracted directly with Stuart, Buchanan, & Co. In September of 1862 the State of Mississippi contracted 40,000 bushels of salt at the rate of seventy-five cents a bushel. This $30,000 deal was only the first of many such lucrative contracts for the local firm.
War Comes to Southwest Virginia
By early 1863, Federal Generals began planning a major advance into Southwest Virginia. The Saltworks in Saltville, the lead mines at Wytheville, and the crucial Virginia & Tennessee Railroad made attractive targets. The lead mines in nearby Wytheville, were essential for making ammunition. The Virginia & Tennessee Railroad ran from Lynchburg to Bristol and beyond, and was used by the Confederacy to move troops as well as distribute salt, iron ore, and other materials. The combination of the three targets proved to be irresistible to the North.
Federal command in West Virginia ordered the first raid on the salt mines in the summer of 1863. Federal Col. John Toland and about 1,000 mounted infantry and cavalry were sent toward Saltville. They were soon repulsed by Confederate troops in Abbs Valley (Tazewell County). After that, Toland was concerned that Saltville's defenses might be alerted to his plans. He figured the town of Wytheville and its lead mines would make a safer target. That did not prove to be the case for Col. John Toland as he was killed in battle at Wytheville on the 18th of July. The remaining Federal forces withdrew. Again in September 1863, another group of Union forces advanced to within 35 miles of Saltville but also withdrew after a skirmish.
In May 1864, Federal Gen. George Crook led forces from West Virginia into southwestern Virginia. Their goal was to destroy the salt works and cut the vital Virginia & Tennessee railroad by burning the rail bridge over the New River. Gen. Crook sent General William Averell's cavalry to attack Saltville. Averell learned that the defense of the salt operations was in the hands of the formidable Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Like Toland before him, Averell chose to attack Wytheville instead, yet Morgan did not let this attempt go unnoticed. Morgans' Confederate troops caught up with Averell just north of Wytheville and forced Averell's command to withdraw back to West Virginia without causing any serious damage.
Most of the details concerning the prelude to the first Battle of Saltville and the bloody battle itself, which occurred on October 2, 1864, are not disputed by Civil War scholars. However, two recent historical works that chronicle this chapter of Civil War history provide two sharply different interpretations of what occurred after the battle. The two conflicting accounts of history are The Saltville Massacre by Thomas D. Mays, published in 1995 by Ryan Place Publishers, and "The Battle of Saltville: Massacre or Myth?" by William Marvel, which appeared in the August 1991 issue of _Blue and Gray Magazine _(Volume VIII, Number 6).
In his book, Thomas Mays concludes that forty-six black men were murdered after the Battle of Saltville and asserts that "Saltville stand[s] as possibly the worst battlefield atrocity of the Civil War." Conversely, William Marvel contends that "Five black soldiers, wounded and helpless, were definitely murdered at Saltville on October 3, and as many as seven more may have suffered the same fate there that day... But amid the context of a bloody battle in so bitterly contested a theater of the war, can we still call it a "massacre?"
How could two researchers, who base their findings on many of the same historical documents, arrive at such different conclusions?