Second Battle of Saltville
After defeating a Confederate force at Marion on the December 17-18, Stoneman’s expedition advanced to Saltville. After determined skirmishing on the part of the outnumbered Confederate defenders, the Federals captured and destroyed the saltworks, accomplishing the objective of their raid. (NPS summary)
The departure of Breckinridge left the way to the long sought after salt works open. The only defense left was Colonel Robert Preston and his 400 reserves and two small batteries of guns at Fort Breckinridge. Preston was desperately hoping that help was on the way, either from Breckinridge or Lynchburg. The Confederate high command was scrambling to reinforce the area. General Lee ordered Early to forward an infantry brigade as soon as possible to the hard pressed region. The efforts would prove for naught as Stoneman would get there first.
BG Gillem arrived first around 1400 and began deploying the 9th Tennessee Cavalry (US) and his artillery to oppose the Confederate position. Preston boldly sent a party down a ravine from his works in the hope that they could surprise the Union troopers. His plan was discovered and the 8th Tennessee (US) was sent to drive them back into their works. An assault by Burbridge and then Gillem was driven back by the stout reservists.
As darkness overtook the field the 13th Tennessee (US), commanded by Colonel Stacy, made a wide arc around the Confederate position and approached from an unexpected direction. Mistaking the approaching column for the reinforcements they were promised the pickets allowed the Union troopers to get too close to the works. Stacy and his men took advantage of the situation and “dashed” into the works. The surprised defenders were overcome. At the sound of the firing on top of the hill a general advance was ordered by Stoneman. Within minutes the militiamen were fleeing in all directions. The last defense of Saltville was over. After 14 months the objective was finally in Union hands.
The destructive work began immediately after the fall of Fort Breckinridge. Fleeing Confederate defenders reported that “flames leaped into the air” providing light for their movements. The destruction of the works was not the only thing on Stoneman’s mind, however. He was seriously worried about the possibility of Breckinridge, Vaughn or other Confederate reinforcements arriving to reclaim the town. He had his troops assume the works that had just been won in expectation of a counter attack. At sunrise the following morning Duke’s men attempted to find a soft spot in the defenses. A brief skirmish was enough to show him that the Union defenses around the city were too strong to attack. With the guidance of the chief engineer of the works Stoneman rendered the salt wells and furnaces nearly useless.
In addition to the destruction of the salt works and iron works at Marion Stoneman totaled the accomplishments of his raid in his Official Report as:
“The lead works in Wythe County were captured and completely destroyed by Colonel Buckley’s brigade. Gillem’s brigade , re-enforced by the Eleventh Kentucky and Eleventh Michigan, of Burbridge’s command captured Marion, drove Vaughn from that point beyond Wytheville, destroyed all the railroad bridges from Marion to Reedy Creek, captured and destroyed Wytheville with all its depots and stores, embracing 25,000 rounds of fixed ammunition, a large amount of ammunition for small arms, pack saddles, harness, and other quartermaster stores, a large amount of subsistence and medical supplies, several hundred wagons and ambulances (serviceable and unserviceable), 15 caissons and 10 pieces of field artillery, 2 locomotives, and several cars. Quite a large number of horses and mules were also captured; commissioned officers and 198 enlisted men were captured and paroled.”
Also claimed from the operations at Bristol were “all the railroad depots, five railroad trains filled with supplies, about 1,000 stand of arms, and a large amount of fixed ammunition, wagons, ambulances, etc.” The list continued with claims from the other actions of the raid. The claims, no matter how exaggerated, signaled the complete success of the raid. Despite the spirited defense of Breckinridge’s outnumbered men Southwest Virginia was no longer a viable supplier of resources to the Confederacy.