Haunted Saltville

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Haunted Saltville

October 1, 2014 by oldtowncrier 1 Comment

Ghost at Reenactment

Saltville – the name says it all – there is salt there. Set near the North Fork of the Holston River in a beautiful valley a few miles off Interstate 81 in Smyth County, there are salt marshes in the middle of town. Salt has given the valley incredibly rich layers of paleontology, archeology and history. Mastodons left their bones in the salt licks. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunters were there 14,500 years ago. Mississippian Indians built a town on the spot to exploit the local riches. This Indian town, located on the present site of Northwood High School, prospered until 1567, when its chief sent a threat to the commander of a Spanish fort in North Carolina that he was going to eat the Spaniard and his dog. The Conquistadors responded by burning the town and killing 1,000 of the inhabitants. This was 20 years before the Lost Colony at Roanoke was “lost” and 40 years before Jamestown, reminding us that Virginia history does not start with John Smith and Pocahontas.

The locals fared a bit better in October of 1864 when Yankees came to burn the salt works. In 1864, Saltville was a town of critical importance to the Confederacy as the blockade and Yankee incursions cut off alternative sources of salt. In an age before refrigeration, salt was essential to the preservation of meat. No salt … no meat … you lose the war. Additionally, lead mines in the area were important to the war effort. The Confederacy fully appreciated the strategic importance of the little town and had crowned the surrounding hills with forts, batteries and breastworks, garrisoned by a few hundred Home Guard reserves. Traces of many of these earthworks still exist today.

So, in October of 1864, as Sheridan and Custer are busy burning the Shenandoah Valley, Yankee General Stephen Burbridge launches a raid from eastern Tennessee, while General Alvan Gillem comes up from the southeast. The converging Yankee forces number about 8,000, while the defenders are barely 1,000. A few hundred Confederates under General Henry Giltner slow the Yankees at Clinch Mountain, but by October 2nd Federal troops are on the outskirts of Saltville. Fortunately 2,500 Confederate cavalry arrive as the Home Guard mans the trenches and farmhouses on the ridges overlooking the ford on the Holston.

On the morning of October 2nd, The Yankees come on in three columns, encountering Confederate pickets. Trimble attacks the oncoming columns, then falls back slowly to a line along the Holston. Midmorning, the Yankee columns assault Saunders’ hill on the Confederate right, where Confederate reserves are barricaded in the farmhouse. The reserves fight well until they are surrounded. Then they panic and retreat down the hill towards Chestnut Ridge; the slope is afterwards littered with greybeards and teenage boys of the Home Guard. The Yankees are halted on Chestnut Ridge and fall back down the slope.

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