Richmond Times Dispatch

Autopsy for a massacre/Radford researchers enlisting NASA's aid in Saltville project

Monday, August 23, 1999

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

An enduring mystery of the Civil War -- one that highlights an ugly chapter of Confederate history -- could soon be solved at last, as Radford University researchers have enlisted NASA to help determine the size of the 1864 Saltville massacre.

The Radford team, with the aid of high-altitude NASA images, is making the first systematic search for a mass grave where between half a dozen and 150 black Union cavalrymen were buried after they were executed on Oct. 2, 1864.  

Historians argue over the exact number of blacks killed in the battlefield atrocity. Eyewitness accounts lack specific numbers.  "There's a lot of controversy about the size of the massacre," said Radford geology professor Bob Whisonant, leader of the team. "You've got this choice between 'Not much of anything happened' to 'As many as 150 were massacred.' The magnitude of what happened that day is unknown. I'm hoping that something we do during this project provides some answers."

Black soldiers of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry were summarily shot by Confederate soldiers after the daylong First Battle of Saltville, in which Rebel troops defeated a larger Union force. The blacks had been wounded and left behind by retreating Union soldiers, according to historical accounts.

Last year, for the first time in anyone's  memory, a ceremony was held in Saltville to honor the victims. A local preacher declared the battlefield consecrated ground. Charlie Totten, the town's tourism director, said he's told thousands of tourists about the massacre, but has been unable to give specifics. Local legends point to 10 sites as the possible location of the mass grave. 

"We're hoping this Radford project maybe will give us some definitive answers," Totten said. "But I don't think, as time progresses, that the head count or the location of the mass grave is going to be as important as the acknowledgment, at last, that this [massacre] happened."

Whisonant said locating the mass grave and trying to determine how many black cavalrymen were killed are just two tasks of a larger archaeological investigation of the area. The team is also looking for entrenchments, fortifications and remnants of the town's formerly massive saltworks. 

"This area is poorly known and has never been looked at in any detail," Whisonant said. "What was known has been lost."

Toward the end of the Civil War, with Southern supplies running low, Saltville took on strategic significance because of its salt production. Salt was critical to the preservation of food and the process of tanning leather, and in 1864 the town's saltworks turned out 200 million pounds of the mineral, more than was produced by all other Confederate saltworks combined.

In September 1864, an army of nearly 5,000 Union troops set out from Kentucky to destroy the saltworks. The force included the 600-man 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, led by abolitionist Col. James Brisbin and composed nearly entirely of former slaves. The men had been hastily assembled and issued Enfield infantry rifles, which were difficult to reload on horseback.

According to Brisbin's correspondence, on the way to Saltville the black troops patiently endured the taunts and insults of the white soldiers, most of whom were from Kentucky, one of the Union's slave-holding states. Once in battle, the black troops distinguished themselves. Again according to Brisbin: "I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and never saw any
fight any better."

However, due to the caution of Union commanders, Confederate forces were able to stealthily reinforce their positions before the attack. On Oct. 2, 1864, a Southern force of 2,800 repulsed the Union troops.

What followed the battle is the subject of debate. Union casualty figure listed 118 members of the 5th U.S.C.C. as killed, wounded or missing. Confederate newspapers put the number of dead at 150. In his 1995 book "The Saltville Massacre," Thomas Mays relied on the account of Confederate soldier George Mosgrove and other eyewitnesses to conclude that, at a minimum, 46 black cavalrymen were executed after the battle.

Mosgrove wrote that he came upon a group of Tennesseans on Chestnut Ridge "killing Negroes . . . They were shooting every wounded Negro they could find. Hearing firing on other parts of the field, I knew the same awful work was going on all about me." Mosgrove said he personally witnessed a boy of about 16 line seven or eight blacks against a wall and shoot them.

Other historians say the massacre was significantly smaller. B. William Marvel, for instance, concludes that possibly the only blacks murdered were the five taken from the field hospital of Union surgeon William Gardner, who filed an official protest. Marvel discounts the statements of several Confederate soldiers, including Mosgrove's, as false or vague.

Whisonant, while emphasizing that he's a geologist and not a historian, said he thinks the massacre was large for two reasons: First, a Confederate soldier who took part in the killings, Champ Ferguson, was tried and hanged, one of only two men executed for war crimes after the Civil War; second, Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge was so appalled at what he saw of the killings that he tried to have the general he felt responsible punished.

Cliff Boyd, a professor of archaeology at Radford and a member of Whisonant's team (along with geography professors Lori LeMay and Berndt Kuennecki), said finding the grave is the only way to settle the dispute over the scope of the massacre.

"The question is, how much is exaggeration, and where were these guys actually buried?" Boyd said. "Something obviously went on there."

NASA, which has given the Radford team a $150,000 grant to carry out the three-year project, last month took aerial images of Saltville using specialized infrared and radar equipment mounted on a DC-8 and a modified U-2 spy plane.

Though Whisonant cautions that there's no guarantee the images will help solve the riddle of the massacre, the NASA scientist assigned to interpret the images, Ron Blom, has successfully helped archaeologists before. Earlier this decade, Blom, of the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used satellite images to lead searchers to the legendary Lost City of Ubar, a prosperous trading center that had vanished beneath the sands of the Middle East thousands of years ago.

Blom said NASA is using the Saltville investigation to determine whether the remote sensing technology should be put on satellites. The technology, capable of pinpointing disturbed soil and minute differences in vegetation, could help the Radford team zero in on possible sites of a mass grave, Blom said. "The remote sensing data is not a magic bullet, but it points to certain

The images are being processed and won't be ready for analysis until the fall, Blom said. Meanwhile, the Radford professors already have done some preliminary excavation of Saltville, turning up what may be one of the town's first saltworks furnaces behind a local hardware store, and another saltworks operation next to the fairway of the municipal golf course. Boyd said such sites, taken together with archival records and oral traditions of where the black cavalrymen were buried, could further zero in on a mass grave.

The team will need a little luck to find the grave, Boyd said. "I'm not sure it's going to work out. I'm anxiously awaiting the NASA data."