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Doc. 53. the Saltville expedition.

A National account.

Mt. Sterling, Ky., October 13, 1864.
Having seen, in several papers, very conflicting details of the Salt-works Expedition, and feeling that the facts have not yet been placed before the public as they occurred, and as justice to the officers and men demand, I ask a place in your columns for the publication of as accurate a report as, I think, can be made, having been an eye-witness, and, I assure you, an impartial one, to the incidents and results of this expedition. For the correctness and accuracy of my statements, my only reference will be the brave officers and men who composed the force, the two leading objects of my communication being to adhere strictly to the truth and to award to each gallant soldier his share of honor in this movement, which, if it was not a victory, was no less a test of their courage, endurance and forbearance, under the most trying circumstances, the responsibility of which rests not with them. I will not enter into the details of the expedition before reaching Prestonburg, as the march was without incidents worthy of recital. I will only mention, in the opening of my account, the fact which was, of itself, a most shameful error, six hundred of the horses which were to be used in this move, belonging to the First division, having been inspected by the Division and Brigade Inspectors, were condemned as unfit for service for a single day. A large number besides these were reported by the inspectors as probably fit for a march of three days. Upon these animals, broken down by thirty days service with General Hobson in driving Adam Johnson from Western Kentucky, the men were started; the result was that many of the soldiers were dismounted after a few miles' travel, and walked the remainder of the trip to the salt-works and back.

The expedition left Prestonburg on Sunday, the twenty-sixth day of September, under the immediate command of General McLean, the whole under the command of Brevet Major-General Burbridge. The brigade marched in the rear from Prestonburg to Ivy Mountain, crossing this dangerous pass in the night, the road being so rough and narrow that the battery under command of Lieutenant Wallace had to be taken to pieces to effect the crossing, which would only admit one animal or man at a time. The column was occasionally bushwhacked up to the Virginia line, when we struck the Virginia State Road, one of the finest mountain roads in the United States, notwithstanding one correspondent has represented it as almost impassable. No skirmishing occurred until we were near the rebel General Berran's house, in the Richland Valley, where the Fourth brigade was engaged in two slight skirmishes for a short time, in which they drove the enemy before them. The troops encamped at General Berran's on the night of the thirtieth of September. The following morning, October first, the march was resumed, the First brigade in advance. Four miles from this point we reached the foot of Clinch Mountain, the Thirtieth Kentucky, Colonel Alexander, with two companies of the Fortieth Kentucky, under Colonel Litteral, being [424] the advance guard. By felling trees the rebels had completely blockaded the road over the mountain. This was naturally a very strong position. Several hundred rebels, under the command of Giltner, having taken possession of, and secreted themselves on the side of the mountain, poured a galling fire into the head of the column. The Thirtieth, Forty-fifth and Fortieth Kentucky were by General Hobson dismounted immediately, and ordered to drive the rebels from their position. The Fortieth Kentucky was sent to the left to co-operate with the Forty-fifth and Thirtieth Kentucky, who were on the right. After stubborn fighting the rebels yielded their position, with the loss of several killed and wounded. Two Federals were killed, and about ten or twelve wounded, among whom was Captain Adams, Forty-fifth Kentucky. All the officers and troops behaved with great gallantry. The column proceeded to Laurel Gap, where they again encountered the rebels. This also was a formidable position, and had it been held with tenacity, it would have been almost impossible to dislodge the enemy. By the masterly handling of his troops General Hobson compelled the enemy to fall back. The Fortieth and Thirteenth Kentucky, under command of Colonel True, were enabled, by their position, to do most of the fighting, and pouring a galling fire into the enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, Colonel Alexander, Colonel True, Colonel Starling and Captain Page displayed great courage, as did the entire command. Any rash movement upon the part of Hobson. at this place would certainly have brought heavy loss to his men. The troops encamped a little beyond this point, about six miles from the salt-works. The march was resumed the following morning, the Third brigade having the advance, when we arrived within two miles of the salt-works, when the skirmishing commenced, and there was constant fighting from this point to the works. Colonel Hanson and all his troops acted with marked courage, and finally drove the rebels to their lines near the salt-works. Here the troops were arranged to deliver battle, the various regiments holding the following positions: The Third brigade on the right, the First brigade the centre, and Fourth brigade the left. Our lines thus formed a semicircle. The fight was opened on the left by Colonel Ratcliffe, early in the day. Terrific fighting occurred. The action soon became general along our entire line. Our attack developed, in less than thirty minutes, the fact, that in addition to the strongest natural fortifications, the rebel position had been strengthened by the most formidable earthworks, erected with skill and mounted with rifled guns of heavy calibre and long range. It was also quickly discovered that they had received heavy reinforcements, as their long lines of infantry and cavalry, which were held in reserve, were plainly in view. The position assigned Colonel Hanson and his men exposed them to a withering and deadly fire from both artillery and musketry, thereby rendering useless all their efforts to accomplish the end intended. The position that Hanson was expected to carry was a heavy fort, protected on its left by an extensive rifle-pit, situated on the top of a cliff not less than one hundred and fifty feet high, in order to reach which he would have been compelled to ford a river from ten to fifteen feet deep, and ascend the cliff, which was almost perpendicular. The gallant Hanson could not execute impossibilities, and has probably lost his life in attempting to lead his men where it would have been certain destruction to them.

Colonel Hanson was supported by Colonel True, with the Fortieth Kentucky mounted infantry, and Forty-fifth Kentucky mounted infantry, until Hanson fell, when True was ordered to take command of Hanson's brigade, and held the position until the troops were ordered to withdraw. I may here mention that at one time Colonel Ratcliffe's brigade (Fourth) drove the enemy into the town of Saltville, and held a position nearer the salt-works than any other portion of the command. Lieutenant-Colonel Bentley distinguished himself greatly, commanding the Twelfth Ohio volunteer cavalry. About one o'clock the Thirtieth Kentucky mounted infantry and Thirteenth Kentucky cavalry were ordered by Hobson to cross the river at a point opposite the centre of our line, and carry the rebel centre, which they did, with unflinching bravery, under fearful fire from rebel batteries, killing and wounding a number of rebels. Here we also lost heavily in officers and men, but our men not only held their position, but drove the enemy to their works. Supporting this move, a detachment of the Eleventh Kentucky cavalry of seventy-five men, under Lieutenant-Colonel Grier, made a dashing charge. At this critical moment, Lieutenant Wallace, Fortieth Kentucky, was ordered to bring up his howitzer battery for the purpose of shelling the rebel lines, the reports from which sounded like pop-guns, when compared with the thunder of the rebel artillery. Of course all these movements occupied time, and about four o'clock General Hobson was ordered by the commanding general to assume command of all the troops, and withdraw them from the field, our ammunition being exhausted, the men without rations, and exposed to almost certain capture. When the facts became known to the troops that the command had been turned over to Hobson, there were outbursts of joy and many demonstrations of confidence; and during our entire subsequent march he was received by the troops with cheers and shouts as he moved backward and forward, looking after their safety and interests. General Hobson ordered fires to be built along the lines, and as soon as it was dark he withdrew his army in order and without confusion. He immediately sent forward two regiments to take possession of, and hold Laurel Gap, to prevent a flank movement by the rebels. The army marched this night eighteen miles, arriving at Berran's the following morning, where we [425] found Generals Burbridge and McLean. I must here remark that had the rebels been permitted to reach the gap before us, the entire command would probably have been captured, generals and all. General Hobson personally superintended the crossing of the troops through the dangerous pass of Laurel Gap that night, and was the last man to leave.

During our retreat the troops suffered great privations, substituting paw-paws, wild grapes, &c., for rations. The enemy was skirmishing constantly with our rear, in which Lieutenant-Colonel Mason, of the Eleventh Michigan, was killed. General Hobson sent detachments forward to hold the road on both flanks, to prevent the enemy from getting in our front, and to him the entire command feels indebted for bringing them safely back to Mount Sterling.

Before closing, I may mention that a detachment of the First Kentucky cavalry and Third Kentucky mounted infantry, consisting of two hundred men, under Major Keene, were sent through Pound Gap, to make a diversion in our favor. They had a fight with Prentice at Gladesville, Virginia, and whipped him, scattering the rebels and capturing their cannon. I am unable to give any account of further movements of Generals Burbridge and McLean, as they were not with the troops at any time after the command was assumed by Hobson. But I have learned that they arrived safely in Cincinnati almost a week previous to the arrival of the troops in Mount Sterling. I have endeavored to be brief and just, and if any have not been mentioned, whose bravery deserved it, the neglect is unintentional, for all deserved great praise. Although I have been in several expeditions previous to this, I have not before fought under either of the three Generals of this expedition, and can, therefore, honestly disclaim any of that preference which too frequently leads to misrepresentations. Public comment alone can rectify the wrong wherever it may be.

A Southern account.

For the truth of history, it is proper that we should give the country the facts connected with the late battle fought at Saltville, on Sunday the second instant. We have the facts, given us by an intelligent and reliable friend, who was present and witnessed almost the entire engagement.

It was the purpose of the enemy, under Burbridge, to take the salt-works and then form a junction with Gillem, and destroy the lead and iron-works, and then by rapid movements, form a junction with Sheridan, at or near Lynchburg. The success of these plans would have told heavily on our cause and on our country; but, thanks to the skill and valor of our officers and men, these schemes, so cunningly devised, and so extensively planned, have failed; the enemy with a large force, has been whipped, and his disorganized and scattered ranks driven from our lines.

Colonel H. L. Giltner, of the Fourth Kentucky cavalry, met the enemy, and for three days and nights contested, with great energy, his advance; but his superior strength finally pressed the gallant Giltner and his men back on the salt-works. We had, by this time, collected a little less than seven hundred reserves, and a number of pieces of artillery. Colonel Trigg, of the Fifty-fourth Virginia, had volunteered his services, and was actively engaged in disposing of the forces, when Brigadier-General A. E. Jackson arrived.

The enemy were now in our front in full force, with eleven regiments and eight pieces of artillery. The contest seemed almost hopeless, yet surrender would have been disgraceful.

All the ammunition belonging to the six-pound guns, and much of that belonging to the small arms had been sent back the evening before, nine miles distant, to Glade Springs. It seemed almost madness to yield, and yet destruction to contend. This was early in the morning, before ten o'clock. Just then, Brigadier-General John S. Williams, with his magnificent division, composed of three brigades, arrived. A new feeling and spirit at once came over the face of affairs. He promptly assumed command of all the troops present, and made his dispositions. The First Kentucky, Colonel Griffith; Tenth Kentucky, Colonel Trimble; Fourth Kentucky, Colonel Giltner; two battalions of reserves, Brigadier-General Robertson's brigade, Colonel Debrill's brigade, and Colonel Breckinridge's Ninth Kentucky cavalry, constituted our line of battle, extending from left to right in the order in which they are mentioned. We had also a number of artillery, well posted in the redoubts, so as to command the enemy as he advanced. These were well served-all of them. The fight was severe along our whole line, but the severest and most destructive was on our right. Colonel Debrill's brigade mowed down the advancing hosts of the enemy with terrible slaughter. All our troops behaved most admirably. The reserves acted well their part, and deserve all praise; but the heaviest and severest portion of the fighting was done by General Williams' division, and by Giltner's brigade.

It is to Colonel Giltner, who held the enemy in check, and kept him back from the salt-works for a period so long, and to General Williams, who placed the troops and did the fighting on the day of the battle at Saltville, on the second instant, that the credit is due for saving the salt-works, and, incidentally, the country. It is to him, and the valor of the troops under him--Brigadier-General John S. Williams--that the credit of this glorious and important victory is due.

There was not a General present ranking him, or one who assumed the responsibility of that important engagement, until the last gun was fired. And yet, strange to say, from the published accounts, made by telegraph and others [426] wise, no one would suppose that this gallant and distinguished officer was even present.

The loss of the enemy was. very heavy — it could not have been less than seven hundred or eight hundred in killed wounded and missing. They left dead on the field one hundred and four white and one hundred and fifty-five negro soldiers, who were buried the next day after the battle. The number of wounded and captured was much larger still.

The loss on our side is comparatively small, less than one hundred in number, killed and wounded. Among those who fell gloriously discharging their duty was Colonel Trimble, Tenth Kentucky cavalry, and Lieutenant Crutchfield of the same regiment. Their deeds of valor will long be remembered by their countrymen.

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