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 © The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

 Monday , 11/01/1999

 Section: Local News Letter: D Page: 3 Words: 678

A town's tragic history keeps salt in its old wounds

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson / Staff

Saltville, Va. -

This is the second article of a two-part series. The first article was published Sunday.

The life of a town has many pages, like a big and difficult book.

So it is with Saltville, in a valley so pretty that one writer long ago effused that ". . . it stands in broken groups in a basin, cut by the hand of nature out of an emerald."

Few towns can boast lives with such fascinating chapters. In the local museum you find the bones and razor teeth of prehistoric animals, beasts drawn to the natural salt deposits the same way the buffalo, the Indians, the white settlers and the industrialists --- all in their turn --- later would be.

You can read of a tragic Christmas Eve in 1924, when the muck dam at the saltworks broke and killed 19. Or you can learn about the sister of patriot Patrick Henry, Madam Russell, once a Saltville shaker and mover. And, on a bittersweet page, how environmental concerns in the 1970s closed the factories of Saltville for good.

To its credit, the Saltville museum does not avoid the so-called Saltville Massacre, the brutal conclusion to an 1864 Civil War battle over the saltworks. The invading Union army was defeated and retreated, leaving many wounded on the battlefield. The Confederate troops, including a company under the command of miscreant Capt. Champ Ferguson, sought out and killed the black soldiers. The battle over a salt supply became a racial massacre.

Not all are intent on acknowledging, even remembering, this page of the Saltville saga. When a Richmond newspaper wrote a story last summer that described an ongoing, high-tech search for the black soldiers' mass grave, many readers complained, charging such accounts were racially divisive.

And that fits perfectly with what I've long observed. If you write anything about the Civil War, no matter the story or the context, you make someone angry. Thick scabs of many decades fall away; raw sores appear. The names of great-great-grandfathers are evoked, fierce wars with words are fought over flags and statues and pre-War politics and the right, if not the wisdom, of secession.

Few are dispassionate when the subject is The War.  I wrote recently of seeing the house were Stonewall Jackson died. The column --- not particularly a paean to Jackson --- brought one angry response from a reader who said I was "perpetuating the lie" that the general was a hero. Another reader claimed to be moved to tears by the inclusion of his dying words.

The Saltville story is a sad one, finally being told. Last month for the second year a memorial service was held for the missing soldiers of the U.S. Colored Cavalry of Camp Nelson, Ky. On the cover of the memorial service program was a picture of Samuel Truehart, a black soldier who survived Saltville. His great-great-grandson provided the tintype.

Faulkner was right when he said the past is not dead, not even past. For such relatively recent history to gel, it takes far more time and more study than our society has yet invested. From an amalgam of the inevitable  biases of each perspective will someday, with luck, emerge the truth.

Champ Ferguson was eventually executed for war crimes. (Confederate prosecutors had earlier tried to convict Ferguson themselves, but potential witnesses ran scared.) One wartime story had Ferguson fighting so viciously because Union raiders had abused his wife and daughter.

"There are still those who believe that, though Ferguson himself denied it on several occasions," historian Thomas D. Mays says. He has written a book on Saltville and is working on another about Champ Ferguson.

Not even the black hats are unanimous choices. A scoundrel is a hero is a scoundrel.

At the Saltville overlook, a 1927 marker tells of the battles over the saltworks and of their eventual destruction. No massacre is mentioned.

But if the mass grave in Saltville is located in coming months, a muck dam may break again. History sometimes hurts.

Our regional columnist

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