On this day in 1864,a Union cavalry column strikes Saltville in southwestern Virginia, but is defeated by a Rebel force patched together from several reserve units. The Confederacy’s main source of salt, used as a preservative for army rations, was secured as the war entered its final phase.
Southwestern Virginia was important to the Confederacy though few battles were fought there. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad ran through the region, connecting the eastern and western theaters of operation. Additionally, salt and lead mines located in the area were vital to the Southern war effort. In September 1864, Union General Alvan Gillem planned a raid from his base in eastern Tennessee. He requested the assistance of General Stephen Burbridge, head of the District of Kentucky. Burbridge thwarted Gillem’s plan by requesting permission from Union army Chief of Staff General Henry Halleck to launch an expedition toward Saltville from Kentucky while Gillem threatened the area from the southeast.
With nearly 8,000 soldiers, the two Union forces converged on the area; the Confederates had barely 1,000 men to stop them. Some of those were used to slow Gillem’s advance, but only a few hundred men under the command of Colonel Henry Giltner were available to face Burbridge. On October 1, Giltner delayed the Yankees at Clinch Mountain, but by October 2 the Yankees had reached the outskirts of Saltville. Confederate General John Williams arrived just in time with cavalry reinforcements, and Burbridge suddenly faced more than 2,500 Rebels. The determined Confederates dug in and repulsed a series of attacks. By nightfall, Burbridge’s men were running low on ammunition. The Yankees withdrew during the night, and the Confederates pursued them to the Kentucky border. The glory of the victory was tarnished, however, when the Confederates massacred wounded Union soldiers from the 5th and 6th Colored Cavalry.
The Union suffered 329 men killed, wounded, or missing at Saltville, while the Confederates lost 190 men. It was a stunning victory for the Confederates, since they were vastly outnumbered. However, winning the Battle of Saltville did little to delay the collapse of the Confederacy, which was complete just six months later.