Bluefield Daily Telelgraph
September 20,1999

Saltville service will remember Civil War tragedy

By Bill Archer of the Daily Telegraph staff

SALTVILLE, Va. -- The so-called "Saltville Massacre," continues to evoke strong reactions from people, although it has been almost 135 years since the last musket was fired in anger by either side in the American Civil War.

A large force of Yankee soldiers from Indiana commanded by Gen. Stephen Burbridge were being pushed on by the string of Union Army successes that started in Gettysburg in July of 1863, and continued through 1864, were primed and ready to break the back of the Confederate Army in Southwest Virginia.

On Oct. 2, Burbridge's 5,000 soldiers engaged in a day-long battle with a much smaller force of Confederate defenders commanded by Gen. John S. Williams. The Confederate forces were well-entrenched on the hillside north of Saltville's important salt furnaces, and although they were outnumbered, they managed to hold their position.

On the morning of Oct. 3, 1864, the Confederate forces arose to discover that Burbridge had withdrawn from the field, but had left the soldiers wounded in the fighting in field hospitals or on the battlefield. Most of the wounded were African-American soldiers, many of whom were recruited straight out of slavery only weeks before and with little training, led the line of battle up an a heavily-fortified enemy position. Accounts of the battle by both sides indicate the black troops fought with great courage and discipline.

In the early morning fog of Oct. 3, 1864, Confederate soldiers went into the battlefield and executed an undetermined number of wounded soldiers from the 5th and 6th USCC. Estimates of the carnage range from "a dozen or more" to as many as 155 soldiers executed. At the time, Confederate soldiers were under orders to execute any blacks they captured in Union Army uniform, on charges of committing "servile insurrection."

The legend of the "Saltville Massacre" had been passed from generation to generation, but mostly through the oral tradition. One Confederate officer, Champ Ferguson, was tried for war crimes and hanged on Oct. 20, 1865. Although Ferguson was charged with personally committing 53 murders, he was only convicted of killing one white Union officer. Ferguson and notorious Andersonville Prison Camp Commandant, Henry Wirtz, were the only Confederates executed for war crimes committed during the entire Civil War.

With the approval of the Saltville Town Council, several individuals combined their efforts to hold a "Memorial and Remembrance" service on Oct. 2, 1998, dedicated to the men of the 5th and 6th US Colored Cavalry who made the supreme sacrifice in the fight for freedom. During last year's service, children of a youth group at Bluefield's Scott Street Baptist Church placed 155 luminaries on the hillside of the Battlefield Overlook. An hour-long service of consecration was held and included prayers, songs, a poem presentation, the reading of the names of the men of the 5th and 6th USCC, wreath placement and taps.

Cpl. Charles Rawlins of the 54th Massachusetts Reenactors posted the 54th Regimental Colors during the ceremony in 1998. The 54th Massachusetts was an African-American regiment that was featured in a recent movie, "Glory."

In addition to Rawlins, David Brown, great-great-grandson of battle survivor, Samuel Truehart, participated last year. He spoke briefly during the service, and at its conclusion, he initiated the plan to hold the service again this year, and asked that a second service be scheduled for the morning of Oct. 3, 1999, specifically to honor the soldiers who were victims of the massacre. 

With the approval of Mayor Frank "T-bone" Lewis, and the Saltville Town Council, there will be two services this year honoring the men of the 5th and 6th USCC at the Saltville Battlefield Overlook. The second annual "Memorial and Remembrance Service" will be held at 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 2, 1999, and will include essentially the same activities as the inaugural service. Deacon Samuel Johnson will read the names of the men still listed as missing in action and Daniel wells will play "Taps."

At sunrise (6:30 a.m.) on Oct. 3, 1999, a service in memory of the massacred troops will be held. Among others on the dais, U.S. Rep. Frederick C. "Rick" Boucher, D-Va., will be the keynote speaker.

For additional information about the event, contact this newspaper at (304) 327-2811, Alcesta Wells at (304) 327-3948, or Joseph Bundy at (304) 325-7945.