Project would preserve mounds that stood guard over town during Civil War
By Debra McCown
Bristol Herald Courier
January 6, 2007
SALTVILLE – Atop the steep, muddy, overgrown hills that ring this town are some 140-year-old mounds of dirt with national significance.
Though eroded by time, the fortifications built to defend the town during the Civil War are still largely intact – and town officials plan to eventually make some of them accessible to the public.
The first step toward that goal was to find out what’s there and map it.
"We camped in ‘em when we were kids, we played in ‘em … but we never knew the significance," said Charlie Bill Totten, the town tourism director. "They’ve never been really documented."
Bob Whisonant, professor emeritus and research faculty at Radford University, wanted to change that.
His team recently completed the 2½-year process of mapping the fortifications in a project funded by a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program.
Now he’s hoping for a grant to fund the next step – a preservation plan.
"How are you going to let the public enjoy these and understand the Civil War history better without damaging them?" Whisonant asked. "We’re going to have to talk to a lot of people, have a lot of meetings."
Harry Haynes, who manages the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville, said the permanent fortification complex was constructed beginning in mid-1863. Parts may have remained unfinished even at the war’s end.
The complex, he said, was largely constructed using slave labor.
"There were half a dozen forts for multiple guns," Haynes said. "There were several forts for single guns. There were hundreds of yards of infantry trenches that surround the fortifications."
Three of the forts have recorded names – Statham, Breckinridge and Hatton.
One reason Saltville’s fortifications are so unique, Haynes said, is that Civil War-era fortifications around most cities and towns have been destroyed by sprawl and development.
Saltville, he said, is one of just two places in the nation with fortification complexes from that time period that are so complete. The other is in Mississippi.
One of the forts was bulldozed for a home site; another was damaged during the construction of power lines. The rest of the complex remains largely intact.
On black and white aerial photographs that hang on the wall at the museum, several forts are visible on the hilltops. The trenches scar the hillsides, which were clear of trees back in 1966, when the photographs were taken.
Totten said the hillsides were also virtually bare when war came to Saltville more than a hundred years before. The trees, he said, were burned in the prized salt furnaces, which made the town a military objective.
Although they proved insufficient for defending the town in December 1864 – the second attempt by federal troops to take Saltville – the fortifications survived the conflict and the ensuing years.
Ironically, the presence of the chemical industry helped to preserve the historic structures. They were protected for a long time by the fact that they were on company property in a company town, Totten said.
He said the hillsides were no longer maintained as pastures after the Olin Matheison plant shut down in 1972, but that "with the increased vegetation, it’s put another protective boundary around them."
David Lowe, a historian with the National Park Service, saw just a few of the features during a visit to Saltville in 2004. In his subsequent report, he wrote, "If the complex proves as extensive and as well preserved as described, Saltville likely would be considered a nationally significant site for the study of Civil War era military engineering."
Totten said some of the engineering used in these fortifications was used in later military conflicts, including World War I, World War II and even Vietnam – where he served.
"If you want to see a very good example of what Confederate engineers did in the Civil War, Saltville is a good place to go," Whisonant said. "Because you can see how they built the forts and constructed the trenches, and how they designed the whole system so one fort helped protect another one."
In more than 140 years since the conflict, the earthen fortifications have eroded and wooden parts of the defenses have rotted away. Even so, certain features – including cannon ramps and complex entryways – are still identifiable.
Rusty Cahill, chairman of the Saltville Industrial Development Authority, said he has a vision to make some of the fortifications accessible to the public. Some, he said, could even be made accessible to people who aren’t physically able to climb a hill.
"I would like to see them get this boundary out here on East Main Street, just past the stop sign on the left, the backside of it has some of the finest trenches in this area," Cahill said.
"It follows the railroad grade, where they could bring a small path up there and make it handicap accessible so that folks in wheelchairs could visit these sites."
Whisonant says he hopes the sites can be preserved for study as well – and for the people of Saltville.
"We have to understand our history," Whisonant said. "We have to know our history to understand ourselves as a people."
Those interested in seeing the fortifications can call Charlie Bill Totten, Saltville’s director of tourism, at (276) 496-5342, extension 33.