First Battle of Saltville

Coordinates: 36°53′09″N 81°45′33″W / 36.8857°N 81.7592°W / 36.8857; -81.7592
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First Battle of Saltville
Part of the American Civil War

View of part of the Saltville battlefield
DateOctober 2, 1864 (1864-10-02)
Result Confederate victory
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders and leaders
Stephen G. Burbridge Alfred E. Jackson
Units involved
5th United States Colored Cavalry Confederate Home Guard
5,000–5,200 [1][2] 2,000–2,800 [1][2]
Casualties and losses
450 [1]
Map of Saltville I Battlefield core and study areas by the American Battlefield Protection Program

The First Battle of Saltville (October 2, 1864) was fought near the town of Saltville, Virginia, during the American Civil War. The battle over a significant Confederate saltworks in town was fought by both regular and Home Guard Confederate units against regular U.S. Army troops, which included two of the few black cavalry units of the United States Colored Troops. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge, then commander of U.S. forces in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, led the U.S. Army troops.[3]

Confederates murdered both black and white wounded soldiers after the battle, in what has been called the Saltville Massacre.[3]

Saltville Massacre[edit]

The battle was a Confederate victory. It has become known primarily for the Confederate massacre afterward of white and black wounded U.S. Army troops. Both Confederate soldiers and irregular guerrilla forces under the notorious Champ Ferguson murdered white and black U.S. Army soldiers on the battlefield and later some wounded who were being treated at the field hospital set up at nearby Emory and Henry College. A U.S. Army surgeon reported that 5–7 black soldiers and Elza Smith, a white lieutenant, were murdered at the hospital.[3]

Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix Huston Robertson had bragged to another officer that "he had killed nearly all the Negroes."[4] William C. Davis, in his book An Honorable Defeat. The Last Days of the Confederate Government (2001), says that Robertson personally "join(ed) in the act of villainy", although he escaped prosecution. When General Robert E. Lee learned of Robertson's conduct, he communicated to General John C. Breckinridge, Commander of the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia, his dismay "that a general officer should have been guilty of the crime you mention" and instructed Breckinridge to "prefer charges against him and bring him to trial."[5]

Estimates of the number of men massacred at Saltville vary, with most sources indicating around fifty casualties.[1][2] Thomas Mays, in his book The Saltville Massacre (1995), argued that 46 U.S. Army soldiers were killed.[3][6] An analysis of the National Archives records by Bryce Suderow, Phyllis Brown, and David Brown concluded that 45–50 members of the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC) were murdered by Confederates.[4] William Marvel had earlier analyzed the same records and concluded in 1991 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."[7] The Confederates may have murdered as many as two dozen U.S. Army men.[3]


Felix Huston Robertson was never tried for his role in the massacre. He died on April 20, 1928, at the age of 89. However, Champ Ferguson did stand trial immediately after the war. He was tried by a military court in Nashville, Tennessee, for this and other non-military killings. He was found guilty of 22 murders and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed at the Tennessee State Prison on October 29, 1865.

Second battle[edit]

The Second Battle of Saltville took place two months later at Saltville.

Battlefield preservation[edit]

The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 107 acres (0.43 km2) of the Saltville battlefields.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Saltville – Virginia Center for Civil War Studies". Retrieved 2020-10-02.
  2. ^ a b c "Battle of Saltville Facts & Summary". American Battlefield Trust. 1917-06-14. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
  3. ^ a b c d e Encyclopedia Virginia: "Saltville During the Civil War"
  4. ^ a b "Was there a Saltville Massacre in 1864?" David Brown's analysis Archived 2010-04-30 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ McKnight, Brian D. Contested Borderland: Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2006. p. 211
  6. ^ Mays, Thomas Davidson, 1960-. The price of freedom : the battle of Saltville and the massacre of the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. OCLC 26567207.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Marvel, William (August 1991). "What Makes a Massacre?". Blue & Gray Magazine: 52–53.
  8. ^ [1] American Battlefield Trust "Saved Land" webpage. Accessed May 29, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bush, Bryan S. (2008). Butcher Burbridge: Union General Stephen Burbridge and His Reign of Terror Over Kentucky. Morley, Missouri: Acclaim Press. ISBN 978-0-9798802-5-4.
  • Davis, William C., and James I. Robertson. Virginia at War: 1862. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
  • Duncan, Richard R. Lee's Endangered Left: The Civil War in Western Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, 1990.
  • Mays, Thomas. The Saltville Massacre, Abilene, Texas: State House Press, 1995
  • Mosgrove, George Dallas. Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie, Reminiscences of a Confederate Cavalryman, Louisville, KY: Courier-Journal Job Publishing Co., 1895; republished 1957 by Mc Cowart-Mercer Press, Jackson, TN; that version reprinted in 1999 by University of Nebraska Press.

External links[edit]

36°53′09″N 81°45′33″W / 36.8857°N 81.7592°W / 36.8857; -81.7592