October 2, 1864
While Lee's army was besieged around Petersburg and Jubal Early's force was helpless to defend the Shenandoah, the Confederates in Southwest Virginia faced a grave crisis. Brigadier General Stephen Burbridge was advancing from his Kentucky base with over 5,000 Union troops on the vital saltworks at Saltville, Virginia. Fifteen hundred Union troops under Gen. Jacob Ammen advanced from East Tennessee through the relatively easy terrain of the Great Valley with the same object, while yet another force under Gen. Alan Gillem advanced from Bull's Gap. Neither Ammen nor Gillem would reach Saltville, but the threat from Burbridge was great enough.
At this point in the war, Saltville was one of only two major salt producers in the Confederacy, and salt was vital for armies and civilians alike to preserve meat. The Federals had attempted a raid in May but turned back. These Union raiders had balked at attacking the Saltville defenses and joined a force under Crook soon after his victory at Cloyds Mountain. This two-pronged raid had succeeded only in temporarily putting the New River railroad bridge out of action.
By October, the area had been stripped of most of its
defenders and was once again vulnerable. For the Union raiders,
the terrain was challenge enough, as several Union horses and men fell to
their deaths from the mountain roads, but Confederate forces delayed
the Yankee raiders just long enough for 2,800 men to assemble in Saltville
under Gen. Felix Robertson.
Diorama at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians - Western Defenses
This and the other two views of the model are looking from east to west. So north is to the right. The hills to the left were fortified with Fort Breckinridge and Statham to protect the town from the west and south. These forts would become a factor in December. The ridges on the far right near the top of the picture presented a significant obstacle to Burbridge, who came from the north. These hills were fortified, and although not included on the diorama, the North Fork of the Holston River ran in front of the ridge. Burbridge decided to flank these strong positions to the east, his left, which is off the lower part of the picture.
The area shown in the previous picture is at the top of this photo. Toward
the bottom we can see where Burbridge intended to flank the Confederate defenses.
The artillery position is a factor later in the battle.
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