At a reenactment and festival, one never knows what might be encountered. This year’s event at Saltville, Virginia, proved to be one of those special times. Though the rain was torrential in nature, the spirits of those present were not dampened. Several TV personalities were present to watch and learn. Most had never seen a reenactment and were determined to see one. They didn’t go away disappointed. Spencer Two Dog Boljack of Hillbilly Blood (actor, educator, singer with movie credits of Golden Blade II), Greg Shook and Tiffany Sparks of Appalachian Outlaws, Big Jim Bordwine (the salt maker from Mountain men), Greg Newsome with his art depicting and honoring Black soldiers during the War Between the States, Fred Powers (author, story teller, coal miner) and his wife were there to teach and learn. Then there were living historians, Native American representation, and the different units that had come to reenact and share their expertise with others. They all came to honor the history of Saltville, the Salt Capital of the Confederacy.
Saltville’s claim to fame is its world renown salt. It also is the valley of dinosaur fossils, salt works, ponds containing the taste of brine, JEB Stuart’s family, a grand museum, and the battles that took place within the confines of the valley. Laced within the circular valley are still the remnants of artillery batteries and breastworks.
Each year, the Federal artillery camps on the island and fires towards the Confederate artillery a few hundred yards across the pond. The sound of shot and shell reverberates and echoes up and down the valley reminding all that hear the sounds, of the battles that took place on that sacred ground. The night fire is spectacular and makes the island sparkle, as the flames dance outward from the barrel. This year, the second battle of Saltville, which took place on December 20, 1864, was honored. The following is a synopsis of the engagements.
Union General Stoneman left Knoxville, Tennessee, on December 10th with General Alvan Gillem and his regiment of Tennessee troops. Stoneman ordered General Stephen Burbridge to march his Kentucky troops, which included the 5th and the 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry, toward Tennessee to meet him for the raid into southwest Virginia. The combined armies would consist of more than 5,500 troops. The Yankees pushed aside General Basil Duke’s cavalry at Rogersville on December 13th and continued through Kingsport to Bristol; destroying all railroad bridges and anything else that Stoneman thought was of benefit to the Confederate cause.
On December 14th, Stoneman began to push Duke and his men from Bristol back toward Abingdon, Virginia. The next day, Stoneman and his army moved into Glade Spring. During the next few days, Stoneman would be involved in a battle with Major General John C. Breckinridge and his small army of less than one thousand (1,000) men near Marion, Virginia. On December 17th and 18th Stoneman’s large army would be held at bay by this small but brave Confederate force. While engaged with Breckinridge’s troops, Stoneman sent two regiments of Kentucky troops under the command of Colonel Harvey Buckley to destroy the lead mines and smelting facilities at Austinville near Wytheville. Breckinridge and his men had stopped Stoneman’s raid only temporarily. Almost out of ammunition, Breckinridge had to retreat back into the hills during the night of the 18th. The way was now clear of any major obstacles that would prevent the destruction of the salt works at Saltville.
When General Breckinridge left the fortifications at Saltville to attempt to stop Stoneman’s destructive raid, Colonel Robert Preston took over command of the defense of Saltville. Unfortunately, Preston only had five hundred or less men to defend the salt works with. To make his job even more difficult, most of these men were reserves and workers from the salt works who had been called upon to help defend the town. Most of these men were trained to operate the artillery that ringed the ridges that overlooked the small town. Considering the ring of cannons located at strategic points overlooking the valley, one can get a sense of the dale being impregnable, but it proved to not be so. Though it was considered a natural fortress, events would soon show that all fortresses had their weakness.
On the 19th of December, Stoneman’s army advanced within visual sight of Saltville and encamped near Preston’s farm. After noon on the 20th, General Gillem and his men approached Saltville on the road from Glade Spring while General Burbridge approached through Lyon’s Gap. Both prongs of the attack stopped to allow their artillery to begin a duel with the smooth bore cannons of the small town’s defenders. Burbridge prepared his men to assault the defense fortifications known as Fort Statham, while Gillem’s men formed in front of the fortifications called Fort Breckinridge. Burbridge was ordered to attack first but allowed the night to fall as he kept delaying the attack. Gillem, following orders to wait for Burbridge’s attack, also let darkness fall without advancing. Fortunately for them, one of their subordinate officers did not set upon his haunches and wait.
Lieutenant Colonel Brazilliah Stacy, commander of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, discovered that one of his men had lived and worked previously at the salt works. He led them around the foot of Preston’s Hill, and amazingly, no indication of their presence was observed by the Confederate defenders. Stacy and his men advanced up the steep hillside, leading their horses until they reached the crest of the hill. The Confederate defenders of Fort Breckinridge finally realized they were being attacked, but it was too late. They managed to fire a few volleys before Stacy’s men galloped over the earthen walls and scattered the would-be defenders.
Having taken over Fort Breckinridge, Stacy and his men rode back down into the valley containing the salt works. While some of his men began to put the torch to the sheds and buildings housing the salt producing facilities, Stacy lead the remainder of his men up the back slopes of Fort Statham, only to find it already vacated by its defenders. The men of Gillem and Burbridge’s commands looked on in amazement. The dread of attack that had delayed them had probably saved many of their lives. For once, their own fear had worked in their favor.
The conquering soldiers were ordered to destroy the salt works and any equipment that they found. It was reported that they threw cannon balls down the wells to disable them. They burned down the buildings and torn asunder the furnaces. Fearing that the glow of the fires would bring Breckinridge and his men down from the hills to attack them again, they left as quickly as they had come. But in their haste, they had not completely destroyed the capabilities of the salt works to continue to make salt. Half of the kettles were not destroyed, apparently having been hidden or had not been found. An engineer came up with a method to drill the cannon balls out of the wells that had been blocked. Within a short time, the salt works were back up and running. But damage had been done and another blow to the Confederacy had been rendered. The hay-day of the salt works had come to an end.
Breckinridge and his troops felt that they had failed in their mission of protecting the lead works and the salt works. They did not realize that Stoneman’s respect for their fighting capabilities had convinced him to stop short of his plan of total destruction of all civilians’ crops and supplies in southwest Virginia, such as Sherman was doing in Georgia. The small army of brave men dressed in gray had shown Stoneman that he still faced a formidable foe. Stoneman and Gillem returned to Knoxville while Burbridge returned to Kentucky through Pound Gap. (Taken from Appalachian Rebels; Brown and Chaltas)
Next year the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Saltville will be held on August 16-18, 2019. This promises to be a grand event honoring our soldiers that wore the blue and gray. Also, there will be a festival and several new personalities and surprises. Please put it on the calendar and let us remember the good, the bad and the ugly of our history so we will be watchful for the future generations. For more information about the 2019 heritage festival event, contact Terry Hunt at 276-496-5988 or Dee Dee Holmes at 276 685-9597. The website is www.battlesofsaltville.wordpress.com
By David Chaltas