Saltville Virginia, 1864
As the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew down the James Peninsula, hounded by Grant’s Army of the Potomac, guerrilla actions occurred in areas behind the main battle lines, often attacks on Union re-supply columns. Other actions occurred along the lines of communication between the major Confederate commands.
Confederate guerrilla units were often formed from local militia, occasionally supported by regular troops, and frequently operated barely within the law. One such group which operated in Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, and Southwest Virginia was a band led by Champ Ferguson. Ferguson’s activities once led to his arrest by Confederate authorities, but evidence against him (in the form of testimony by a witness) vanished before he could be tried and he was released.
Saltville was an important military objective because of the salt works located there, salt is important both for the preservation of meat and the health of draft animals and cavalry mounts. Union troops including the 5th United States Colored Cavalry attempted for three days to break through Confederate lines held by Ferguson’s guerrillas and Confederate Home Guard units commanded by Huston Robertson which defended the salt works. They were finally repulsed.
After the battle, wounded Union troops regardless of race were taken prisoner by the Home Guard. Ferguson’s guerrillas killed those wounded which they encountered on the field, and then attacked the wounded in the Home Guard hospitals, murdering them in their beds, or gathering the ambulatory outside where they were killed. The murders ended with the arrival of regular Confederate troops, and Ferguson and his men fled. Estimates are that 45-50 wounded prisoners were killed.
After the war, Ferguson returned to his home in Eastern Tennessee where he was arrested by Union troops and transported to Nashville. He was tried for 53 murders (he admitted to killing ten personally) and was hanged in October 1865. He was one of two men to be hanged for war crimes during the Civil War, the other being Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville.