The Battle of Marion
December 17 and 18, 1864
David Chaltas and Richard Brown
It was a peaceful town that had for the most part been spared the ravages of the fighting upon its soil. But as in the case of all the south, Marion had suffered with the loss of her sons, had felt the division of families as they sadly chose to follow their conscience. The city had also contributed to the cause. But the mountains and geographic location had afforded them some protection for the ravages of war. That is, until the winter of 1864.
The town of Marion was located on the Middle Fork of the Holston River in Smyth County, Virginia. It was approximately half way between the salt works of Saltville and the lead works near Wytheville. The town and the outlying farms had escaped most of the destruction that so many areas in Virginia had suffered in the first three years of the war. Their luck was about to run out though. Major General George Stoneman, commander of the Union army in Kentucky and Tennessee, was planning a raid into southwest Virginia. General Stoneman, like his superior officer General William Sherman, believed in the concept of total warfare. Stoneman planned on destroying all facilities and supplies that would help support the war effort. His belief was that civilian supplies and their possessions fell into this category and would be destroyed accordingly. This destructive raid that would create hardships and bitter feelings in this area would forever after be called Stoneman's Raid.
The purported massacre of wounded Negro soldiers after the Battle of Saltville created uproars by the Union press and a call for revenge was given. Even though these stories were unproven, Stoneman could care less. His plan for a raid into southwest Virginia now began to gain support from his commanders, as they wanted to appease the outspoken Union public. He suggested that the same troops that had been on the failed attempt to destroy the salt works be assigned under his command for a return trip. These troops, commanded by General Stephen Burbridge, included the 5th and the 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry. His plan was approved and he immediately contacted Burbridge and ordered him to bring his army of approximately four thousand men through Cumberland Gap where they would meet in Tennessee. Stoneman left Knoxville on December 10th with General Alvan Gillem and his fifteen hundred Tennessee troops. On the 13th of December, Stoneman's large army easily pushed aside General Basil Duke's cavalry at Rogersville, Tennessee.
When Stoneman approached Kingsport, he began to implement his plan of total destruction. All railroad and telegraph facilities were destroyed as were anything that he considered a benefit to the southern cause. This included all supplies or food that civilians had in their possessions, regardless if they held an apparent military value. On the 14th, the Union army began to push Duke's cavalry back toward Abingdon. The next day, Stoneman and his cavalry went into camp at Glade Spring, which was about 13 miles west of Marion. On December 16th, Stoneman's cavalry rode toward Marion, destroying everything in their path.
The job of stopping the destruction of southwest Virginia fell upon the shoulders of Major General John C. Breckinridge, commander of the Army of the Department of Southwest Virginia. This army was for the most part an army on paper only. His command consisted of approximately one thousand regular troops with another five hundred militia reserves. Most of the army had been transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia to help in the defense of Richmond. General Breckinridge was a Kentuckian as were most of his troops. His small army consisted of Colonel Henry Giltner's Brigade formed from the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, 10th Kentucky Cavalry, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles (later designated the 13th Kentucky Cavalry) and the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry. General Basil Duke's cavalry, General George Cosby's cavalry and Colonel Vincent Witcher and his 34th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry completed the short list of available ragged soldiers in gray. Though small in number, all of these men were seasoned veterans and formed a formidable army.
General Breckinridge had a decision to make, should he continue to guard Saltville or attempt to stop the total destruction of southwest Virginia. On the night of December the 16th, he decided to move out of Saltville in an effort to stop Stoneman. Taking the regular troops with him, he left Colonel Robert Preston in charge of the five hundred militia men to defend the salt works. General Breckinridge sent Witcher and his men of the 34th on ahead of his main force and ordered them to harass the Union army. At approximately 3:00 A.M., Breckinridge and his small army began to travel across Walkers Mountain in the cold rain that had been falling for the last couple of days, making travel difficult across the muddy roads. At 4:00 A.M., they reached the main road near Seven Mile Ford where Breckinridge decided to wait for daylight before continuing. In an attempt to gain some sleep, most of the men tried to curl up along the fencerow to get out of the cold, wet mud.
The First Day of Battle December 17, 1864 -- Around noon, Breckinridge's mud-caked men mounted their horses and began the muddy ride toward Marion. Meanwhile, Stoneman had sent Gillem and his Tennessee regiments to Wytheville to destroy anything that looked valuable. Stoneman also sent Colonel Harvey Buckley and two regiments of Kentucky cavalry to destroy the lead mines and smelting facilities that were located about ten miles from Wytheville. Stoneman and Burbridge continued on toward Marion where they encountered Withcer and his men. Burbridge's front regiment, the 11th Michigan Cavalry, were armed with Spencer repeating rifles and easily began to push them back. Withcer's small brave band would stop long enough to fire a volley into the horsemen in blue, then race on toward Marion. He sent a courier racing on ahead to inform Breckinridge that they were coming on the double quick toward their comrades dressed in gray.
Breckinridge's front regiment was the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles, under the command of Colonel Benjamin Caudill. The regiment rode under a blue flag with a white cross with the name 'Caudill's Army' stenciled across it. As Caudill and his men neared the covered bridge that crossed the Middle Fork of the Holston River, they saw Witcher and his men riding at a gallop toward them with the 11th Michigan hard on their heels. Caudill's men quickly dismounted and fired a volley into the Union cavalry, emptying several saddles. This made the fourth time in less than six months that these two regiments had faced off against each other. The 11th was caught unprepared for this new threat and immediately retreated.
As the rest of Breckinridge's troops began to arrive on the scene, Colonel Caudill noticed that Stoneman's men had secured the high hill overlooking the river. Knowing that these hills were the best defensive positions in the area, he immediately ordered the men of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles to charge up the hill and dislodge the Yankee soldiers. The rest of Giltner's Brigade realized what he was doing and joined in the charge, routing the surprised Yankees. The high ground on the north side of the river now belonged to Breckinridge and his small army. With the best defensive position now his, Breckinridge now faced another problem. The defense line needed to contain the Union army when it attacked was longer than he had men to defend. To compensate, every sixth man became a horse holder, instead of every fourth one. This allowed Breckinridge to line the hill with a very thin but formidable defense. The 4th Kentucky constructed their breast works in front of the covered bridge with the 2nd Kentucky to their right and the 64th Virginia, the 10th Kentucky and Caudill's Army to their left. Duke and Witcher's men made up the far right of Breckinridge's defensive line.
Burbridge began to form his men up in columns to attack the Rebel defenses, staggering the 5th and 6th Colored Cavalry between the white units. As soon as the men were in position, he ordered all columns to charge in unison. With bugles sounding, a blue wave of gallant men surged forward, knowing they faced the Enfield rifles favored by the Rebels entrenched in front of them. Before the Union soldiers could fire their first shot, a volley from the entrenched Confederates dropped many of them. The vastly outnumbered Rebels fired round after round into this sea of blue as Major Richard Page and his small battery of four Parrott cannons opened up, hoping to stem the tide. The intensity of the firing stunned the Yankees causing them to begin to fall back. At the sight of the backs of the boys in blue, the boys in gray gave a large Rebel Yell. The yell was premature however, as the Union officers reorganized their men and with a yell of their own, charged again. Like the previous one, this charge also was beaten back. As the sun began to set, the union soldiers were asked to charge once again. Courageously the men formed and prepared to face the withering fire that they knew would come from the breast works in their front. For the final time that day, the blue line charged into the hailstorm of bullets with the same results as the previous charges. The thin gray line had held on this first day of battle.
After darkness had set in, Breckinridge ordered his men to move forward and build new breastworks. The new defensive positions placed the two armies less than one hundred fifty yards apart. Even though cold, wet and muddy neither army would build fires that night, not wanting to give away their positions. The men would try their best to get some sleep with little success. Sporadic gunfire that lasted all night kept both armies edgy and on their guard, fearing a night attack. The wounded Union soldiers would have to spend the night on the cold wet battlefield. During the night, one Union officer would make a decision that would adversely come back to haunt him the following day. Under the cover of darkness, he and approximately seventy-five men would take up positions in and around the covered bridge. This would be the only advance of the night by the Union army.
The Second Day December 18, 1864 -- The fall of rain met the two armies at daybreak adding more misery to the ranks as each side looked across the battlefield at each other. The Union men that had taken up positions at the covered bridge began to fire a few rounds just to harass the Confederates in their front. Later in the day they would regret making the 4th Kentucky soldiers that were entrenched in front of the bridge mad. Burbridge waited for the fog to lift and for the rain to stop before commencing his attack. To entertain themselves, soldiers from both armies began to hurl insults across the fields between them. About midmorning Burbridge decided that the light rain probably would not stop falling any time soon and had his officers prepare to commence the battle.
With bugles sounding and both armies raising their battle cries the second day of battle began. Columns of men in blue again charged across the mucky fields into the same contemptuous fire they had received the day before. Though their hands and fingers were cold and wet, the men of the thin gray line managed to load and fire their muzzle loading Enfields rapidly. No doubt many a cartridge and percussion cap hit the ground in their haste to stem the tide. Even if the men had known that later on these cartridge would be so valuable, they probably could not have prevented their numb hands from dropping them.
A combination of the colored and the white troops managed to push the 4th Kentucky and Cosby's men back. Cosby rallied his men and counter charged, retaking their breastworks. The men that had taken positions at the covered bridge began to take considerable heat from the 4th Kentucky in their front. They realized their location was not a healthy one and some began to try to run back to the Union lines. As these men would attempt to leave the bridge, the Enfields of the 4th would bark and each time a soldier in blue would fall to the ground. This soon became a morbid amusement for the men of the 4th as each one of them wanted to pick off one of the fleeing Yanks. The Yankees decided to wait out the battle after at least fifteen of their brothers in blue had paid the price for attempting to leave the bridge. Major Page tried to convince them to make a run for it by using his artillery to dislodge the trapped soldiers. The boys in blue decided to take the chance of being blown up rather than to expose themselves to the rifles that to them seemed could not miss. Later in the day Burgridge ordered one of his regiments to charge across the bridge on horseback to relieve the pressure on the trapped men. All that was accomplished was the emptying of several saddles. The men at the bridge would have to wait for dark to slip out of the trap of their own making.
On the far right General Duke was being pressed hard by the heavy columns of attacking soldiers. Seeing this, Colonel Giltner sent the 2nd Kentucky to reinforce Duke. Before the 2nd arrived, Duke and his men countercharged the Yankee line and routed it. Now that Duke had the 2nd Kentucky to take his old position, he and Witcher combined forces and charged the Union's extreme left flank. The colored regiment that turned to meet these wild charging and screaming gray clad soldiers was completely routed. Seeing his flank being driven back shook Burbridge and his men, which resulted in a disorderly retreat. A Rebel Yell echoed up and down the thin gray line at the sight of the Union soldiers retreating. Their rail breastworks had held, turning the muddy fields in their front into murky crimson stained ones instead. But the holding of the line had resulted in the use of a huge amount of ammunition. Each Rebel defender had shot at least seventy-five rounds with some having fired as many as a hundred shots. The men holding the horses had sent up all of their ammunition as their comrade's cartridge boxes became empty.
At approximately 4:00 P.M. the firing became sporadic as the Union stopped their charges across the gruesome killing fields that they would have to cross to take the Rebel breastworks. At this time the celebrating Confederates saw a long column of Union cavalry coming down the road to join their comrades in blue. This was General Gillem and his Tennessee troops whom Stoneman had called back from his raid on Saltville. The unexpected fighting capabilities of the small Confederate army had temporarily created a reprieve for the salt works.
As darkness began to engulf the battle scene, each army began to hunker down behind their breast works on their respective sides of the battlefield. The men from both sides were weary, cold, muddy and hungry. It must have seemed to these warriors that the cold Virginia rain would never cease. Someone had informed the citizens of Marion that the Rebel soldiers had not eaten in two days causing the motherly instincts of the ladies in the surrounding area to take over. Even with their own shortage of food the pioneering blood that ran through these southern ladies would not allow these poor boys to go hungry. Using food that their own families desperately needed to last them through the winter, the ladies cooked the first warm meal these boys in gray had tasted in days. Sharing what overcoats that were available, the men covered themselves up best they could and devoured the best meal in the country. The boys in blue were not privileged to share such a meal but did get a small army type meal. Both sides had to build fires as some of the men became numb and insensible.
Breckinridge ordered his field officers to make an inspection of the troops and to report back with the condition of his small army. The news he received was not good. The number of men wounded and killed had depleted his army to the point that he could no longer feel confident in holding back the enemy in his front. To make matters worse, each man had no more than ten cartridges apiece. With their supplies destroyed by Stoneman's raiders at Wytheville and Abingdon, there was no hope of being resupplied in time for the next day. At 11:00 P.M., Breckinridge reluctantly ordered his men to withdraw from the battlefield. A small detail of pickets was ordered to remain until around 1:00 A.M., firing sporadic shots to convince the Yankees that the Confederates were still in position. Though the men faced miserable conditions, they were confident they could hold the field the next day. Angrily they obeyed orders and silently began to move out with Colonel Ben Caudill and his Mounted Rifles leading the way.
An advance scout returned to report that Colonel Buckley and his Kentucky cavalry were blocking the road that Breckinridge was retreating down. If the Rebels had remained on the battlefield, no doubt Buckley would have struck their flank the next day. Breckinridge ordered the men to turn off the road and to begin the hard climb across the mountain range to safety. The remainder of the night would be spent traversing the muddy horse trail.
The next day, December the 19th Stoneman's men woke to find themselves alone on the battlefield. Though they were men of courage, they no doubt were glad to find the troublesome Confederates gone. At least this day they would not have to face a scornful fire and cross a mud and blood soaked field. Stoneman continued on to his objective and destroyed a portion of the salt works at Saltville. In his haste to avoid facing Breckinridge again, Stoneman did not take the time to completely destroy the facilities of the salt works. Stoneman and Gillem fell back into Tennessee while Burbridge went back to Kentucky through Pound Gap.
Though the battle at Marion was considered a Union victory, Breckinridge and his men had accomplished several things. The respect for the Confederate fighting abilities had convinced Stoneman to suspend his devastating raid and contributed to his inability to completely destroy the salt works. The vastly outnumbered Rebels had also inflicted heavy causalities on the Union army.
64th Virginia Infantry Regimental History; Weaver, Jeffery; H.E. Howard Publisher; copyright 1992
The Battles for Saltville; Marvel, William; H.E. Howard Publisher; copyright 1992
Diary of a Bluegrass Confederate; Guerrant, Edward; Louisiana State University Press; copyright 1999
Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie; Mosgrove, George; University of Nebraska Press; copyright 1999