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© The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Sunday , 10/31/1999

Section: Reader Letter: C Page: 1 Words: 836

Researchers delve into Civil War massacre

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson / Staff

Correction: 11/4/99, Page A/2: Madam Russell: In some editions of Sunday Reader, a photo caption incorrectly described the Saltville, Va., home of Madam Russell. It is a reconstruction.

Saltville, Va. -

Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the white of an egg?

Job 6:6

First of two parts

The battle was about salt. Salt that supplied the Confederates and kept precious provisions from spoiling.

Before the fight, a Union officer gave a pep talk to his men. Destroying the saltworks, he said, would do more to bring down the South than the capture of Richmond.

It was an October day, not unlike the one when I saw it. Foggy, cool, the salt pools puffing cumulus-shaped vapor into crisp valley air.

From a hilltop overlooking the southwestern Virginia village of Saltville, the picture now is of idyllic peace.

Not so Oct. 2, 1864. A month earlier, Sherman had captured Atlanta. Union Gen. Stephen Gano Burbridge wanted to seize the moment --- and the so-called Salt Capital of the Confederacy.

That fall day a group of ragtag Rebel defenders repulsed a Union army twice its size, saving, for a time, the valuable saltworks. An undetermined number of black soldiers of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry were left behind by their retreating comrades --- then summarily shot by Confederates.

It was, by almost all accounts, a massacre, and has been called "one of the most diabolical acts of the War." It was not the only time black prisoners were killed during the Civil War. But at Saltville, the black soldiers were not only prisoners but wounded prisoners; some even lay in their hospital beds. The killing continued days after the fight. What might have been a minor mountain battle became something else altogether . . .

"Raised on stories of Nat Turner's rebellion and the recent memory of John Brown, Southerners felt that the presence of blacks on the battlefield raised the stakes from that of a civil war of independence to that of a total war over race," historian Thomas D. Mays writes.

There is dispute over exactly how many ex-slave soldiers were killed. Educated guesses range from six to 150. A reputed mass grave has never been located. One local legend has it at a sinkhole near the battle site, where a community pigpen was put and maintained for years.

"There may well have been more than one grave," says Cliff Boyd, professor of archaeology at Radford University. "You might find one location and still not have the complete answer."

The dead of Saltville are missing, not forgotten. In 1998 the first memorial service for the black soldiers finally was held. This year there was another.

And NASA has funded a $150,000 grant that may, or may not, help solve the macabre mystery. The broad study by a Radford University team that includes Boyd will use NASA technology to search for industrial and military artifacts of the Civil War era.

Last spring, NASA mounted a modified U-2 spy plane with infrared and radar equipment to take high-altitude pictures of the area. They were looking for artifacts of all kinds --- salt kettles, salt furnaces, fortifications. The results of that first "fly-over" are pending, while the Radford team's search on the ground continues.

Would finding the grave and physical evidence bring historic closure at last?

"If the federal government can spend millions on a fingernail of a lost pilot in Vietnam, they can spend something to find these men as well," historian Mays says. "They were federal soldiers, too. Accounting for the Vietnam MIAs is important. And this is just as important."

Mays believes his own probe of regimental records and eyewitness accounts proves at least 46 to 50 black soldiers were killed. And he hopes to be there next spring when the Radford team will dig at one possible burial site.

"We have some leads about where the black soldiers might be," team leader and Radford geology professor Bob Whisonant says. Already, without benefit of NASA data, they have unearthed what may be the "Georgia" furnace of the old saltworks. The furnaces were named for the states they supplied.

"We're not looking exclusively for the black soldiers' grave," Whisonant says.

Some say there are things more important than a head count, anyhow.

"It doesn't matter so much if it were two or 200 who were killed," Charlie Totten says. "It's much more important that it (the massacre) has finally been acknowledged. Before it was spoken of in closets, if at all."

Totten is Saltville's tourism director. Local legends, he says, point to at least 10 possible grave sites.

"These gentlemen (the black soldiers) were put in a no-win situation," Totten says. "They were what was called in Vietnam 'on-point.'

That means the first to go down, the most vulnerable."'

All the Radford representatives praise local cooperation with this sensitive study.

And that makes sense. The space-age search of a place shrouded by fog and time might help to finally bury the past.

Coming Monday: Is there an emotional statute of limitations?

Our regional columnist

e-mail: rhetagj@aol.com

Type: Column

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