Battle of Marion
Riding through the Cumberland Gap, Stoneman’s expedition advanced on the important lead mines and salt ponds around Marion and Saltville. On December 17, Stoneman defeated a makeshift force of Confederate defenders. On the 18th, the Federals destroyed the leadworks and mines. On the 20th, they captured and destroyed the salt works at Saltville. (NPS summary)
Battle of Marion
The actions at Bristol prevented Vaughn from uniting with Breckinridge. In an effort to maintain the split between the two Confederate forces Stoneman pressed his column forward. Skirmishes at Abington and Glade Springs did little to retard their progress. The advancing Federals left a wake of destruction in their path. Bridges, communications and anything else that was deemed to be capable of supporting the enemy was destroyed. The iron works near Marion and 53 bridges were destroyed by the 12th Kentucky Cavalry (US), under Major Harrison. BG Alvan Gillem wrote that he “regretted the necessity of giving orders that may cause suffering to non-combatants, but regarded this as the most effectual means of protecting the people of East Tennessee, whose welfare had been entrusted to me, and who already suffered, as the penalty of their loyalty, the loss of everything but life…”
Breckinridge had a difficult decision to make. He could remain in the defenses at the salt works or move to impede the destruction of the rest of southwest Virginia. Disregarding the military tenet that “he who defends everything defends nothing” he left Colonel Robert Preston and about 500 militiamen at Saltville and headed out to confront Stoneman. The first days march took them to Seven Mile Ford where they attempted to rest for the night in a cold rain.
In the early afternoon of December 17th Breckinridge broke camp after ordering LTC Vincent A. Witcher and his 34th Virginia Battalion into the advance. At 0930 Witcher reported locating Gillem’s brigade near Mount Airy. The plucky Virginia cavalier announced “if I had any support, I could drive them.” Instead he barely managed a delaying action against a superior force armed with Spencer Repeating rifles. He did send a messenger to Breckinridge warning that he was falling back rapidly onto his position at the bridge over the Middle Fork of the Holston River. The lead elements of the main body, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles, took up positions on the south side of the bridge and as the retreating troopers of Witcher’s Battalion galloped across fired on the pursuing 11th Michigan.
The volley stopped the Federal pursuit and the Michiganders began to deploy on a nearby hill. Realizing the potential defensive value of this key terrain figure Colonel Caudill ordered an immediate attack. Colonel Giltner, just arriving on the scene with his brigade understood the importance of the action and ordered his men to join in the attack. The combined forces of Caudill and Giltner overpowered the Union defenders and seized the important high ground on the north side of the river. Breckinridge wasted no time in establishing a defense for the inevitable counter attack. The Confederates quickly started work on breastworks. The defense had the 34th Virginia Battalion (Witcher) on the far right, the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (CSA) on the right, the 4th Kentucky Cavalry (CSA) in front of the bridge, and Giltner’s brigade (64th Virginia, 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles, and 10th Kentucky Cavalry) on their left. Joining Witcher was BG Basil Duke, returned from a sickbed after word of the Kingsport debacle reached him, and the remnants of Morgan’s command.
While assembling the forces necessary to attack Breckinridge, Stoneman did not forget his primary objective. He had Gillem dispatched the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (US), attached from Burbridge’s command, to attack Wytheville, which was sacked. Another portion of the command, Buckley’s brigade, tended to the destruction of the lead works after first having to swim 25 volunteers across the icy river to retrieve a ferry boat. Stoneman meanwhile was making his first attempt to dislodge Breckinridge at the bridge. Using the superior range of their Enfield rifles to great advantage the Confederate defenders broke up three attacks.
After dark Breckinridge moved his defensive line down the slope and dug another set of works. One enterprising Union officer sent 75 men to occupy a position near the bridge. The decision would prove to be fatal for many of the unfortunate men sent on this ill advised assignment.
Renewal of the hostilities on the 18th was delayed by a thick fog and steady rain that lasted until mid morning. Eventually the fog lifted and Burbridge decided that he could continue his assault through the light rain. The position in front of the bridge was driven out of their works but managed to regain them with a counter attack. The failure of the attack at the bridge left the small detail of Union soldiers near the bridge dangerously exposed. Realizing their plight some of the soldiers attempted a dash for the safety of the main Union line. None completed the run. At least fifteen were gunned down by Confederate sharpshooters before the efforts were discontinued. After the display of fine marksmanship from the troopers of the 4th Kentucky (CSA) the Union troopers could not be convinced to leave the sanctuary of the position even when one of the Confederate guns was dedicated to the that task. Even the prospect of a day long artillery barrage could not persuade them to attempt the run to friendly lines. The trapped troopers cowered under the barrage all day and finally managed to return under the cover of darkness as the Confederate began withdraw.
Again the assault dented but failed to break the Confederate middle. The main Union effort shifted to the right of Breckinridge’s line. This attack had initial success against Duke and Witcher but the tide changed when Colonel Giltner sent the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (CSA) to their assistance. Duke led the defenders on a wild counter attack against the 5th and 6th USCC that caught the Union left off guard. The Union forces were driven back in a disorderly rout. More importantly he nearly captured the Union support train and all the badly needed supplies.
The bold attacked shattered Stoneman’s confidence. He brought his forces back into defensive positions and dispatched couriers to the raiding parties ordering them back to the main body. The field settled down into a waiting contest in the cold and wet. Despite his success Breckinridge knew that his ability to stem the Union attacks was limited. He ordered a report from his field commanders on the status of their troops. Not surprisingly the two days of fighting had significantly degraded his manpower. The remaining troops held fewer than 15 rounds of ammunition per man and the loss of his supply train at Wytheville made resupply impossible. When the Federal troops returning from the destruction at the lead works were spotted Breckinridge had no option but to surrender the field. Against the wishes of some of his commanders he ordered a retreat to begin at 2300. To disguise the move a small group of pickets was supplied with ammunition and were ordered to maintain a steady fire into the Union lines until 0100.
The retreat was led out of the Confederate position by the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles. They had not progressed far when they discovered that the road they were using for their retreat was cut by Federal forces, under Colonel Buckley. Breckinridge ordered the column to abandon the road and strike out cross country. The going “was difficult for horsemen and deemed impracticable for artillery”. The valuable pieces were moved nonetheless “by the energy of Major Page and Captain Burroughs.” By daylight the entire column had reached the summit “of the mountains”.
The next morning Stoneman found himself alone on the field. The 12th Ohio Cavalry, commanded by LTC Bentley, was sent in pursuit of the retreating Confederates. In a final action Bentley’s troopers caught the rear of the Breckinridge’s column about 6 miles south of Marion. A saber charge captured two wagons and one caisson before the chase was called off because the road was blocked by trees felled by Southern pioneers. Although history records Marion as a Union victory it might as easily be used as an example of a great defense conducted by about 1000 poorly supplied men for two days against all odds.