Marvel's Process of Elimination

Excerpted from "The Battle of Saltville: Massacre or Myth?" by William Marvel, Blue and Gray Magazine, August 1991.

"In an official report written on the [Union] retreat, the chief Federal surgeon tallied 22 soldiers from the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry killed in battle at Saltville, another 27 wounded, and 53 missing, though he confessed the figures were premature. His total of 112 nevertheless closely parallels the 118 counted by the regimental commander 16 days later and four of the casualties were white officers."

"The number missing is barely half of the '100 or more' supposed to have been massacred--a discrepancy explained away by speculation that casualties for the other black units attached to the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry were not recorded. Yet carded medical records for the regiment in the National Archives do include those recruits who were ultimately assigned to the 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry and assortment of other black regiments raised in Kentucky."

"Those carded casualty lists compare precisely (118) with the final official count of black losses at Saltville. Four of the number are obviously duplicated: two privates named Joseph Anderson, for instance, both in the same company, were both wounded in the right thigh, and are more than likely the same fellow, counted twice; the missing included Kane Scott and Cain Scott; and two others can be explained away under similar circumstances. The remaining loss breakdown as follows: 20 killed outright, 63 wounded, and 31 missing. Many wounded were not treated until they made their individual way back to Kentucky, as late as 15 days after the battle, hence the sharp reduction in the number of missing and a corresponding increase in the number listed as wounded."

"That leaves only 31 missing. By April of 1865, one white officer and 15 enlisted men had returned to duty. Some had been prisoners of war, but several were tried for desertion. At least two men reported missing in the battle had actually deserted days earlier, before the column left Mount Sterling Kentucky."

"Surgeon Gardner complained of five black men murdered October 3; he said two more were killed at the Emory and Henry College hospital on October 7. Capt. Guerrant adds news of an eighth victim in his diary--a wounded black trooper killed by a citizen named Stinson. This complicated process of elimination accounts for all but seven of the Negro Soldiers. Those seven may have indeed died at the hands of ruthless Southerners the morning of October 3, but the simple odds of the battlefield suggest that some or all of them either crawled away to die uncounted or deserted somewhere between Mouth Sterling and Saltville, never to return. Most white units shed flocks of skulkers in their first campaign, and there is no reason to believe a black regiment would be immune to such attrition."
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