Southwest Virginia Raid

Large wooden barracks building with African American soldiers standing in front of it during the Civil War.
United States Colored Troops stand in formation outside of their barracks at Camp Nelson during the Civil War.

National Archives and Records Administration

Readying for War

I wish the troops collected and sent forward. Clear out Lexington, Nicholasville, and Camp Nelson of all officers and men…Let all move, night and day, and have them armed and equipped and supplied with ammunition; draw from Camp Nelson.
- Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge, November 21, 1864

In a scene reminiscent of the Knoxville Campaign in 1863, Camp Nelson was a hub of activity in November and December 1864 as it served as a supply depot and assembly point for US Army forces preparing for war. The operation was a raid into southwestern Virginia to defeat the Confederate forces in the region and destroy the saltworks at Saltville and other enemy industrial infrastructure in the area. The expedition was under the command of Major General George Stoneman, the deputy commander of the Department of the Ohio, and consisted of various mounted units stationed in Kentucky and East Tennessee.

The forces from Kentucky were led by Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge, commanding the District of Kentucky. Burbridge ordered cavalry units scattered across the state to quickly concentrate first at Crab Orchard and then at Cumberland Gap. Camp Nelson was directed to supply and equip the troops gathering for the expedition. On November 17, Camp Nelson received instructions to send ten days rations for five regiments collecting at Crab Orchard along with “100 rounds of ammunition per man, and, in addition, 150 rounds per man…taken in wagons.” In the days that followed, many of the units participating in the operation passed through Camp Nelson, where they were issued arms, ammunition, and other equipment before being pushed on to the rendezvous points.

All the horses available at Camp Nelson and the surrounding area were pressed into service for the expedition. “Seize any and all horses to mount these men,” Burbridge ordered, “[A]ll horses in wagons and ambulances and in possession of officers and attachés” should be taken. Camp Nelson, Lexington, and various other places in Central Kentucky were emptied of cavalrymen. On November 23, Burbridge’s subordinates promised “to insure the marching of every available mounted man from” Camp Nelson. Two days later, Burbridge was informed that “every man fit for duty” would be sent to join him “as soon as they can possibly be mounted and armed.”
Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge in US Army uniform during the Civil War.
US Army Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge, commanding the District of Kentucky during the Civil War.

US National Archives

Eve of the Campaign

Haste was of the utmost importance, as Burbridge wanted to assemble as many soldiers as possible before the raid into southwest Virginia commenced. “Hurry them forward night and day; listen to no excuse,” he repeatedly urged his subordinates. Regiments were ordered to move by forced marches, meaning that the troops had to travel longer distances and at a faster pace than they normally would.

It was amid these hectic campaign preparations at Camp Nelson that the most tragic event in the military base’s history occurred. On November 23, over four hundred formerly enslaved African American refugees were expelled from the camp during a winter storm. The expulsion order was soon rescinded, and policies were enacted to welcome and care for Black refugees at Camp Nelson, but 102 civilians died of exposure and illness as a result of the removal.

Burbridge’s efforts to rapidly outfit and amass a large force for the expedition were successful. By early December 1864, approximately 4,200 cavalrymen had concentrated at Cumberland Gap. Burbridge’s troops moved south to Bean’s Station in East Tennessee, where they joined Stoneman and the other portion of the expeditionary force on December 11. The other column had prepared for the campaign at Knoxville and consisted of 1,500 men under the command of Brigadier General Alvan Gillem. Only once the US forces had united at Bean’s Station did Stoneman reveal the expedition’s objective. As Stoneman reported, “Up to this time no one knew where we were going or what were my intentions, not even my staff officers.” The next day, December 12, the Federal expedition departed and marched northeast toward the Tennessee-Virginia border.

The raid into southwest Virginia had begun.
Private Samuel Truehart in US Army uniform during the Civil War.
Private Samuel Truehart, 5th US Colored Cavalry.

David Brown

Camp Nelson Regiments

The battalions of the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry now at or near Ghent will be ordered at once to this point by the nearest practicable route.
- Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General J. Bates Dickson, November 17, 1864

The diverse materials of war were not all that Camp Nelson contributed to the southwest Virginia campaign of December 1864. Several of the regiments in Stoneman’s expedition had been organized at Camp Nelson.

Camp Nelson units in Burbridge’s force included the 5th and 6th US Colored Cavalry (USCC), two of only six regiments of African American cavalry formed by the US Army during the Civil War. Like all the Black units raised at Camp Nelson, the 5th and 6th USCC were composed primarily of formerly enslaved men who secured their freedom by enlisting in the Federal military. The December 1864 raid was the first active operation undertaken by the 6th USCC, but the 5th USCC had participated in an assault on Saltville in October. Though the regiment fought admirably, the operation was a failure and wounded Black soldiers were the victims of a massacre. The new expedition offered the 5th USCC an opportunity to complete the unfinished mission and avenge their unjustly killed comrades. As Burbridge had commanded the unsuccessful raid on Saltville, Stoneman’s campaign also gave him a chance to redeem his earlier failure.

Another unit formed at Camp Nelson in Burbridge’s column was Battery E of the 1st Kentucky Light Artillery. The battery had been assigned to garrison duty at Camp Nelson, Lexington, and other points in Kentucky since its creation in late 1863. Like the 6th USCC, Stoneman’s expedition was Battery E’s first taste of combat.

Gillem’s force from Knoxville also included two regiments wholly or partially organized at Camp Nelson. Instead of white or Black Kentuckians, these two units, the entirety of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry and a few companies of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, were composed of East Tennesseans. Loyal to the US government, the men had fled the Confederate occupation of their home region in the first part of the war and enlisted in the US Army at Camp Nelson and other Federal bases in 1863. For over a year, the 8th and 9th Tennessee Cavalry had served in Tennessee, performing guard and patrol duty while also battling Confederate forces. The Tennessee cavalrymen had recently fought some of the same enemy forces that they would once again face in the December 1864 expedition.

The southwest Virginia raid was unique in many ways in terms of Camp Nelson’s history. First, with a total of five of the fifteen regiments entirely or partially raised at the US Army camp involved, Stoneman’s expedition featured more Camp Nelson units than any other operation of the war. Second, the campaign of December 1864 was the only time that white and Black soldiers who served in Camp Nelson regiments fought together. The expedition thus merged the two phases of military recruitment at Camp Nelson: the enrollment of white troops in 1863 and the enlistment and emancipation of African American soldiers in 1864 and beyond.
Major General George Stoneman in US Army uniform during the Civil War.
US Army Major General George Stoneman, commanding the southwest Virginia raid of December 1864.

Library of Congress

First Clashes

This morning we crossed the river, attacked and captured and killed nearly the whole command and taking the whole wagon train.
- Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, December 13, 1864

The first engagement of Stoneman’s raid occurred on December 12, 1864, the same day that the campaign began. As the large US expedition marched toward the Tennessee-Virginia border, Gillem’s force of East Tennessean cavalrymen encountered Confederate forces at Big Creek near Rogersville and drove them away. The next day, Gillem’s troops clashed with the enemy again at Kingsport. The Federals were opposed by the Confederate cavalry force formerly commanded by the infamous raider John Hunt Morgan. One of Morgan’s brothers led the unit at Kingsport, where they were overwhelmed in a two-pronged attack by the East Tennesseans, including many members of Camp Nelson regiments. As Gillem reported:

So soon as the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry made its appearance on the enemy’s right flank, the Thirteenth and Ninth [Tennessee Cavalry] Regiments…charged across the river and attacked them in front. This movement completely surprised them, and after a feeble resistance, considering the advantage of their position, they fled in confusion, and were pursued for seven miles. The pursuit only ended when the enemy, losing all semblance of organization, scattered through the woods for safety.

The US soldiers not only defeated the Confederates, but also took many prisoners, including Morgan’s brother, and the unit’s supply wagons. Following the fighting at Kingsport, Stoneman’s expedition continued its advance, with Burbridge’s troops soon seizing Bristol at the Tennessee-Virginia border and capturing more prisoners and enemy stores.

The Federal forces moved into southwest Virginia, and Gillem’s column engaged Confederates in a running fight from near Marion to Wytheville on December 16. “I again attacked and drove the enemy from their position, pursuing them closely for twelve miles,” Gillem explained, “driving them from every position they attempted to hold, and charging them every time they attempted to make a stand.” The East Tennessee cavalrymen also captured several pieces of Confederate artillery during this fight, with one soldier of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry particularly distinguishing himself. According to Gillem, “Sergt. John H. Brown, Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, who bore his regiment colors far in advance of his command and planted them on a piece of the enemy’s artillery,” deserved special mention for his actions in the engagement.

Besides contending with the enemy in several other skirmishes, Stoneman’s expedition also targeted the Confederate industrial infrastructure in southwest Virginia. Elements of Burbridge and Gillem’s column destroyed stretches of the railroad and a large number of railroad bridges in the region, as well as razed the ironworks near Marion and the lead mines at Wytheville. At Wytheville, the Federals also destroyed immense quantities of enemy supplies and ammunition.
Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem in US Army uniform during the Civil War.
US Army Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, commanding a brigade that included Tennessee Cavalry troops during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

Battle of Marion

My colored troops, under Col. J. F. Wade, commanding Third Brigade, behaved splendidly, charging Duke’s brigade at Marion and driving him in confusion.
-Brig. Gen. Stephen Burbridge, January 3, 1865

The largest battle of the US raid on southwest Virginia occurred on December 17-18 near Marion when Burbridge’s column engaged the Confederate forces led by Major General John C. Breckinridge, the regional commander. Breckinridge had concentrated his available units to confront the US raiders, but they were significantly outnumbered, with approximately 1,000 Confederates versus 4,000 Federals. Over two days of furious fighting, Burbridge’s troops repeatedly attacked Breckinridge’s small army, which held strong defensive positions near Marion. “We fought all day, in the mud & in the rain & in the cold,” a participant recorded in his diary on the second day of the battle. The US soldiers pushed the Confederates back at times, but enemy countercharges would in turn drive them back. Despite their numerical superiority, Burbridge’s forces could not overrun the Confederate positions.

Although the enemy lines in the battle at Marion could not be broken, one of the regiments formed at Camp Nelson won acclaim due to its performance in the fighting. Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant-General of the US Army, reported:

A battalion of the Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry, 300 strong, attacked and whipped Duke's brigade, of 350 - the last remnant of Morgan's force. The rebels were driven half a mile, with a loss on their side of thirty men killed and wounded. They were on the crest of a hill at Marion, and the negroes charged over open ground, and did not fire a gun until within thirty yards of the rebels. This is the first time that any of these men were under fire.

The untested soldiers of the 6th USCC had proven themselves in battle and demonstrated their fighting ability.

Burbridge’s troops were unable to overwhelm the Confederates at Marion, but by the second night of the battle, Breckenridge’s men were running very short on ammunition. The Confederates were also in danger of being flanked and cut off by other elements of Stoneman’s army. Consequently, in the early morning hours of December 19, Breckenridge’s forces retreated into the mountains toward North Carolina, leaving the Federal expedition to advance unimpeded on Saltville.
Modern-day welcome sign to Saltville, Virginia, with snowy bushes and trees in the background.
Present-day sign at Saltville, Virginia, the location of an important Confederate saltworks and two battles during the Civil War.


Second Battle of Saltville

During the night, rushed in from all sides and overpowered the small garrison almost without loss. The next day was given up to devastation.
- Captain Frank H. Mason, 12th Ohio Cavalry

Following the battle at Marion, Stoneman’s army moved against Saltville, which was now defended by only five hundred Confederates. On the night of December 20-21, Gillem and Burbridge’s troops attacked Saltville and quickly overwhelmed the enemy defenses, with much of the outnumbered garrison retreating from the town. The victorious US forces proceeded to devastate the saltworks at Saltville. As Stoneman reported:

The whole of the day and night of the 21st was devoted to the destruction and demolition of the buildings, kettles, masonry, machinery, pumps, wells, stores, material, and supplies of all kinds, and a more desolate looking sight can hardly be conceived than was presented to our eyes, on the morning of the 22d of December, by the saltworks in ruins.

Once the work at Saltville was completed, Stoneman’s expedition left southwestern Virginia. The return journey was not easy, the Federals faced “a long and arduous march through rivers swollen by the recent and almost continuous rains, along roads which had become nearly impassable, and over mountains slippery with ice and covered with snow.” Burbridge’s column made its way back to Lexington in Kentucky, while Gillem’s command returned to Knoxville in Tennessee.

The raid into southwest Virginia was over.
1865 sketch of a town that includes a railroad and various buildings in the foreground, and hills in the background.
An engraving from the January 14, 1865, edition of Harper's Weekly that shows the town of Saltville during the Civil War.

Harper's Weekly

An Unquestionable Success

The expedition has been entirely successful and will be more felt by the enemy than the loss of Richmond.
- Brig. Gen. Stephen Burbridge, December 28, 1864

Stoneman’s brief campaign in December 1864 was a resounding success and accomplished all its objectives. The Federal expedition had defeated the Confederate forces in southwest Virginia that had repeatedly launched excursions into US-controlled East Tennessee, ending the enemy threat to the region. Stoneman’s soldiers had also captured or destroyed immense quantities of Confederate war materials, from supplies, arms, and ammunition to horses and mules. Lastly, the US raiders further undermined the Confederate cause by damaging the leadworks, saltworks, railroad bridges, and other industrial infrastructure in southwestern Virginia. The saltworks at Saltville and some of the other facilities were repaired and resumed operations in 1865, but they did not fully recover before the war ended.

Stoneman, Gillem, and Burbridge all commended the performance of the soldiers during the expedition. Stoneman wrote:

Of the conduct of the command I cannot speak in terms too high of praise, and with by few exceptions each and all merit the approbation of the Government, and have my sincerest thanks. Notwithstanding the terms of service of some had expired they were amongst the most willing in the performance of their arduous duties, and though others had as yet never been mustered into the service their conduct was all that could have been expected of veterans. Neither danger, long marches, sleepless nights, hunger, or hardships brought forth a complaint, and the utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed throughout.

Throughout every aspect of the raid into southwest Virginia, from fighting on the battlefield to undermining the enemy war-making capacity, the five regiments organized at Camp Nelson participated. Besides supporting Stoneman’s expedition with manpower, Camp Nelson had a major role in supplying and outfitting Burbridge’s column with the various materials of war.

The campaign of December 1864 was the last major military operation of the war that Camp Nelson was involved in. While the US Army base would continue to serve as a training site for African American troops and a refugee center for Black civilians fleeing slavery, it never again was involved in a large effort to fuel the US war effort by receiving, preparing, and forwarding soldiers, animals, and materials.

Last updated: December 17, 2022

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