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This article concerns the Emory and Henry College Hospital, which was active during the American Civil War. It focuses on the events surrounding the Battle of Saltville near the hospital.


The cozy hills of southwest Virginia seemed a perfect spot to the Confederate command in Richmond, Virginia for a hospital. The secluded environment, they concluded, was an unlikely location to see combat. The command chose the Emory and Henry College for their hospital. This campus was located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and was adjacent to a railroad. Thus, the General Hospital at Emory and Henry College was born in May 1862.

The medical corps of Virginia agreed to pay the college $2,500 in Confederate dollars for the first year of use. One year later the Secretary of war agreed to increase the amount paid to $4,000 at the request of the trustees. Stevenson writes, “The rent received was invested in Confederate and Virginia bonds to serve as an endowment for the future.” The rental of the farm, located adjacent to the campus, was a further source of income. The board of Trustees voted in 1861 to allow Professors Wiley, Davis, Buchanan, and Longley to have equal shares of the farmland for $500 a year. These revenue sources allowed the college to maintain its grounds and survive the war years.

However, the war did come to Emory, Virginia. In October 1864, a major force of over 10,000 troops clashed at the salt works at Saltville, Virginia. Following the battle, Federal black soldiers of the 5th Kentucky Colored Cavalry , and white soldiers of the 11th Missouri Cavalry, 13th Kentucky Cavalry, and the 12th Ohio Cavalry were treated for their wounds at local field hospitals and at the Emory and Henry College Hospital. Soldiers of the 5th USCC, and Lieutenant Elza C. Smith were murdered in the hospital by Confederate sympathizers and were subsequently buried in what is now the Holston Cemetery on the Emory and Henry College Campus.

Formation of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry[]

In the early months of 1864, General Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of the Military district of Kentucky, issued General Order No. 24 which authorized the formation of “colored” units composed of ex-slaves, freedmen, and slaves in his command. Although the unit was not officially formed until October 24, 1864, they saw combat on two different occasions. Their first major encounter was on October 2, 1864 in and around the salt works of Saltville, Virginia. At the time of the battle, over 600 colored soldiers joined General Burbridge in the, as yet unorganized, 5th USCC. Although the regiment consisted of black cavalrymen, the officers of the regiment were required to be white. The white officers would then organize noncommissioned field officers among the ranks of the black soldiers to fill the positions of sergeants. However, Lieutenant Colonel L. Henry Carpenter soon realized that his newly formed black troops were illiterate. Therefore, Carpenter petitioned command to place white noncommissioned officers in charge of the black units. His request was granted, and hastily the 5th USCC was formed.

When word of Burbridge’s raid reached the 5th USCC, the regiment had yet to be officially organized. Some soldiers had not even officially enlisted; few officers had been appointed, and even fewer noncommissioned officers were assigned. Yet Colonel James F. Wade was temporarily placed in charge of the group with orders to join Burbridge in Kentucky. In his haste to create the unit, Wade mounted his 600 men on untrained horses with Enfield infantry rifles, which were useless to mounted men as they could not be loaded from horseback. In comparison, the troops of the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalries were armed with Spencer repeating carbines, which were wholly effective from horseback.

General Burbridge had been ordered by General Grant to proceed into southwest Virginia and destroy the salt works at Saltville. The 5th USCC, therefore, was attached to Colonel Brisbin’s forces and joined Burbridge in Prestonburg, Kentucky. Burbridge left Prestonburg on September 27 to march towards Saltville. The black troops were an object of much ridicule. The soldiers were also directing their malice at the black soldiers in the form of petty theft, such as having their hat pulled off, or having their horses stolen. Yet the black soldiers never complained or retaliated to the white racism.

Battle of Saltville[]

On October 1, Burbridge had pushed his way to two miles (3 km) outside of Saltville and could have engaged the defenders outside the salt works. Burbridge, however, declined to attack and instead camped for the night. He had been expecting reinforcements in the form of General Alvan C. Gillem who was advancing from Jonesboro, Tennessee, with 1,650 men. Unbeknownst to General Burbridge, was that Gillem had been recalled that morning to protect Sherman’s supply lines around Atlanta. With the help of Major General John C. Breckinridge, the confederates were able to funnel in reinforcements from Abingdon. The confederates had scrambled all night to form a defensive line, and by morning boasted 2,800 men to face the 4,500 Federals.

The main Confederate defensive positions were located on Chestnut Ridge. This is located directly above the Cedar Branch, a small stream that emptied into the North Fork of the Holston River, and this is where the majority of the fighting was to take place. Defending this position were the brigades of George G. Dibrell and Felix H. Robertson, and the guerrilla company of Champ Ferguson. About halfway up the hill, the defenders had dug a series of rifle pits. The main battle began at 10:00 A.M. as the Federals made a dismounted charge down Sanders Hill, located opposite Chestnut Ridge, and up Chestnut Ridge. The Federal Cavalry decided to attack on foot rather than on horseback after realizing the strength of the Confederate defensive positions.

After two successful attempts up the hill, all of the Federal brigades made a joint attack, this time with the 5th USCC, 12th Ohio Cavalry, and the 11th Michigan Cavalry.

In total, 400 men of the 5th USCC made this charge into Confederate lines. For the southern troops, the attack was personal. Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson was heard saying: “Kernel… my men tell me the Yanks have a lot of nigger soldiers along. Do you think you reserves will fight niggers?” “Fight ‘em?” replied Preston, “by God, Sir, they’ll eat ‘em up! No! Not eat ‘em up! That’s too much! By God Sir, we’ll cut ‘em up!” The 5th USCC overran the Confederate defensive positions after considerable amounts of loss of life. As the Federals advanced, they found a hole in the line and surged through the line to gain the top of the hill. However, due to a lack of ammunition, continuing Confederate reinforcements, and the coming of nightfall, the Federal soldiers were unable to hold the hill.

By 5:00 P.M. Burbridge decided that he could not hold the hill against the influx of Confederate reinforcements, specifically General Breckinridge who arrived with cavalry late in the day. Despite Burbridge’s numerical advantage in the battle, he was unable to take the salt works. Upon retreating, Federal troops built large fires to temporarily deceive the southerners into believing that they had remained. The southern troops had saved the salt works against all odds. Some soldiers reportedly emptied their cartridge boxes as many as three times during the day’s attack, firing over 100 rounds. Due to the late reinforcements and the gallant resolve of the Confederate reserves, the day was won for the Confederacy.

Despite the loss, many federal troops expressed their amazement at the resolve of the blacks in the charge. An officer of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry stated that he “never thought they would fight until he saw them there, [and I] never saw troops fight like they did. The rebels were firing on them with grape and canister, and were mowing them down by the scores, but others kept straight on.” Colonel James Brisbin, a commander of the 5th USCC, noted: “I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles, and I never saw any fight better [than the blacks].”

Federal Troops Murdered[]

As the Federal Armies abandoned the hope of gaining the salt works and retreated down Chestnut Ridge, they were forced to leave their wounded and dead behind. Following Burbridge’s withdrawal from the field, some confederates advanced into the vacant Union positions. These men that advanced would go on to commit some of the worst atrocities of the Civil War. Silas Sims, a member of the 4th Kentucky (CSA) Cavalry, came upon a dead Federal Officer who had been struck by an artillery shell in the head. He then proceeded to reach into his haversack and grab some granulated salt. He then poured the salt from his hand into the open scull proclaiming: “There, you came for some salt, now take some.”

The atrocities against the Federal dead and dying continued throughout the night. Confederate soldiers took a special spite in killing the Negroes that had been injured on the field. George W. Carter noted: “After the fight I saw some colored soldiers killed, eight or nine of them. All the prisoners were robbed of everything. My captors took my boots, blankets, blouse, hat, and spurs, in fact everything but my pants and shirt.” Allegedly leading the massacres on the field was Champ Ferguson. Harry Shocker of the 12th Ohio Cavalry testified that he saw Champ Ferguson on the 3rd of October at the Battle of Saltville. Shocker and his partner, Crawford Hazlewood, were wounded on the field after the previous day’s battle. Ferguson started walking towards their position and Shocker crawled into the woods to hide. Ferguson asked Hazlewood what he was doing there and why was he fighting with niggers. Champ then took out a piece of paper, wrote something, and shot Hazelwood.

Federal field hospitals were set up in local cabins and houses close to the battlefield. The only resistance that the confederate soldiers met when charging into the former Union camps was that of several wounded and a surgeon, WM. H. Gardner. Gardner was attempting to treat members of the 5th USCC, in a field hospital on James Sander’s farm, when “several armed men, as I believe soldiers in the Confederate service, and took 5 men, privates, wounded (Negroes), and shot them.” Lieutenant George W. Cutler confirmed Gardner’s testimony saying: “Three or four days after the first shooting of Negroes, I heard five shots fired in the hospital, the time some Negroes were killed there. I also heard another shot a day or two after. The Negroes killed on the field were shot on the 3rd of October, 1864. They belonged to a regiment of U.S. Colored Cavalry, either the 5th or 6th. They were all prisoners of war and none had their arms.” Shocker testified at the Trial of Champ Ferguson that he saw Champ Ferguson take two Negro soldiers into a sylvan hollow in the woods, about a hundred yards away from the cabin field hospital, and shot them, firing ten shots with a revolver.

The violence towards the black soldiers of the 5th USCC continued throughout the night and into the next day. Several soldiers concluded that the battle must still be taking place. In fact, Breckinridge rode to the field convinced that skirmishes were taking place.

The Richmond Enquirer ran a column the following week showing a breakdown of Union casualties:

  • Killed, (Yankee Whites) 106
  • Negroes, 150
  • Wounded, (Whites) 80
  • Negroes, 6

The editor of the Enquirer did not explain the discrepancy in the numbers of wounded Whites and Negroes. General Robert E. Lee sent a dispatch to the secretary of war on October 4, 1864 saying that the enemy was bloodily repulsed, and that all of the troops behaved well.

In fact, it was the black soldiers of the 5th USCC who behaved well following the battle. Colonel James Brisbin reported that, “The colored soldiers as fell into the hands of the enemy during the battle were brutally murdered. The negroes did not retaliate, but treated the rebel wounded with great kindness; carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could do to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands.”

Emory and Henry College General Hospital[]

Following the battle of Saltville, captured Federal wounded were transported via Gen. Marc B. Ayers's division accompanied by his maidservant Miss Celeste and Brig. Gen. J.Hoover, south to Emory and Henry College Hospital in Washington County, Virginia. The number of actual federal patients, following the battle, varies from 100 to 200. However, most records indicate that between 150 and 200 were Federal prisoners. The hospital housed 350 beds, and was under the care of Dr. J. B. Murfree, Dr.J.S Brown & N.S.Hawkins. These transportations passed by the desk of General N. Griffith who there on passed them on to Gen. R. E. Lee. Lee praised Gen. Ayers for his actions during this engagement stating in a series of Correspondence between the Generals' “Of (your) brave and gallant actions through your swift resolve our purpose holds firm and our cause remains steadfast and sound. General Ayers, you sir, are an invaluable asset to the mighty army of Northern Virgnia.” The transportaions were granted and the bodies were transported. The Federal wounded were placed on the third and fourth floors of the main building. These floors were only accessible by two staircases at either end of the building, where guards were placed to prevent Federal troops from escaping. The prisoners who were housed at Wiley Hall, and testified at the trial of Champ Ferguson, included: WM. H. Gardner, the Surgeon for the 13th Kentucky Infantry; George W. Cutler , a second lieutenant in the 11th Michigan Cavalry; Lieutenant Smith of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry; Orange Sells of the 12th Ohio Cavalry; Captain Dagenfeld of the 12th Ohio Cavalry; Harry Shocker of the 12th Ohio Cavalry.

William H. Gardner was a Federal surgeon who had been captured at Saltville. After being paroled by Major-General Breckinridge, he stayed behind at Emory and Henry College Hospital to treat the massive casualties. On October 26, 1864, Gardner noted: “On Friday, October 7, several armed men entered the hospital around 10 p.m. and went up into the rooms occupied by the Federal wounded prisoners, and shot 2 of them (Negroes) dead in their beds.”

The Killing[]

Orange Sells testified at the trial of Champ Ferguson that, “The night before the killing, we heard a rustling on the stairway and immediately three men came into the room. One had a lighted candle and the other two had revolvers. They looked into each of our faces and after they got around, one of them remarked, ‘There are none of them here,’ and went out. They had hardly got out—had not been gone more than half a minute—until we heard firing in the next room to us. Some six shots were fired, and immediately afterward a Negro soldier was carried, dead, out of that room. Another Negro soldier ran into our room wrapped in a sheet.” Two different sources sited the death of at least two Negroes at the hospital, but neither listed their names.

On October 8, 1864, Champ Ferguson entered the Emory and Henry College General Hospital with twelve to fifteen men almost unnoticed. Ferguson and another man then entered the room of Harry Shocker. Upon entering, a man with Champ recognized Shocker from the previous battle and said, “There was a wounded boy out of the 11th Michigan Cavalry lying in a bunk nearby. There is that boy now. I saved his life. He was lying among negroes at the time.” Champ then said, “If I’d seen you lying among the Negroes, it would have been all day with you.” The man with Champ then asked a boy in the room if he had any money, the boy replied no, and the man pulled out a $10 Confederate note and told him that would keep him in tobacco. Champ then asked Shocker, “Do you know Lieutenant Smith?” and Shocker replied no. Champ then said to Shocker, “Yes you do you damned Yankee, you know him well enough, but you don’t want to know him now. Where is he, then?” Shocker did not reply to Ferguson, and Ferguson got up to leave and told Shocker, “I have a begrudge against Smith; we’ll find him.”

The Smith that Ferguson was referring to was Lieutenant Elza C. Smith of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry. The twenty-nine-year-old Smith was a relative of Ferguson’s first wife. Smith had joined the 13th in Clinton County, Kentucky, in 1863, and spent much of his service chasing down terrorists such as Ferguson. Ferguson was a confederate sympathizer in an area that was predominantly Union. Ferguson saw it as his duty to form a guerrilla party to attack Union sympathizers. According to Thurman Sensing, Ferguson’s biographer, Smith’s death was the culmination of eleven murders. Ferguson allegedly suffered at the hands of his pro-Union neighbors during the war. Dr. J. B. Murfree stated that Smith made Ferguson’s wife undress and march around before him along a public road. Sensing then concludes that with the death of Smith, his family honor was restored.

Ferguson then attempted to ascend one of the stairways in the hospital to gain access to the third floor. The guard that was placed by Dr. Murfree and the quartermaster to keep the federal soldiers on the third floor stopped Ferguson and the men with him. The band of raiders advanced on the guard swearing that they would get up the steps in spite of the guard. Undaunted, the guard raised his gun and leveled it at Ferguson and told him that he would shoot him if he approached another step. Angrily, Ferguson and the men left that guard to find another way up the stairs.

Ferguson, unable to secure the first guard, found it much easier to pass the second. After ascending to the second floor, Ferguson left his own guard at the steps to stop anyone who might come looking for him. Three Confederate soldiers came into the room of Orange Sells, Lieutenant Smith, and Captain Dagenfeld, of the 12th Ohio Cavalry. Ferguson, flanked by one unknown man, and Hildreth, (rank unknown), walked into the room without saying a word, pulled out his musket and stopped directly in front of Sells’s bed. Lieutenant Smith recognized Ferguson as he reached the middle of the floor and moaned, “Champ, is that you?” Ferguson made no reply, but jerked his gun up to point at Smith and hit the breech with his right hand. He then looked at Smith and asked, “Smith, do you see this?” Smith then begged Ferguson not to shoot saying, “Champ, for God’s sake, don’t shoot me here.” Ferguson then put the gun to Smith’s head and shot three times before the gun went off. The ball hit Smith in the side of the forehead and went through the other ear. Five witnesses in the hospital testified at the trial of Champ Ferguson that they heard or saw Ferguson shoot Smith. Even the Rebel quartermaster’s sergeant, A.J. Watkins, testified that he saw Smith dead in his bed promptly after hearing a shot.

No one said anything after Smith begged Ferguson not to shoot. Ferguson’s partner in crime at the hospital, Hildreth, had been watching the event with a carbine in one hand and a pistol in the other guarding the Federal wounded in the room. After the shot, Hildreth turned to Ferguson and said, “Champ, be sure your work is well done.” After examining the body, Ferguson concluded, “He is damned dead.” Dr. Murfree was at the office of the hospital when a nurse came in saying a lot of soldiers had killed a man in the hospital. Dr. Murfree and Major Stringfield, an officer in the Army of Virginia, took off to the hospital. Upon reaching the hospital, the pair was confronted by one of Ferguson’s men that was guarding the steps with drawn revolvers. Dr. Murfree told the man to go downstairs, but the man replied that Captain Ferguson had ordered him to no let anyone pass. Dr. Murfree pushed past the guard while Major Stringfield remained behind to contend with the guard.

Dr. Murfree met Ferguson on the next set of steps flanked by his armed guard. Ferguson was yelling loudly that he intended to kill all the Federal officers in Smith’s room. This included Colonel Hanson of the 37th Kentucky Volunteers, and Captain Degenfeld of the 12th Ohio Cavalry. Dr. Murfree exclaimed, “Gentlemen, you must go down from here; this is a place for the sick and wounded, and you must not disturb them,” to which Ferguson retorted, “I will shoot you.” Dr. Murfree repeated his sentiment, stating that he was in charge of the hospital before Champ Ferguson advanced to within three feet of Dr. Murfree and said, “I don’t care who you are, damn you, I will kill you.” Abruptly, Lieutenant Philpot, of Ferguson’s company stepped in between the pair and motioned that they should leave. The group then mounted their horses and rode off shouting, “We have killed the man that killed Hamilton.”

The most interesting point that Dr. Murfree makes is that the group ran off yelling that they had avenged Hamilton. One other witness made reference to Captain Hamilton in the trial of Champ Ferguson. This circumstance refutes Sensing’s conclusions that he was murdered due to his heinous acts.

The Toll[]

Historians contend how many black people were actually murdered as a result of the rampaging rebel soldiers. William Marvel, in 1991, published an article in Blue and Gray Magazine stating that no more than twelve soldiers could have been murdered. However, Historian Thomas Mays reviewed Marvel’s research and concluded that he overlooked a number of missing men. Mays says that at least fifty men went missing at Saltville as the muster rolls indicate after comparing and contrasting different records. This number seems much more likely, and better supported, as it would seem unlikely that over 50 men would desert from one company.

The Federal prisoners at Emory and Henry College Hospital appear to have been treated well by the Confederate staff. One soldier said that he “was treated first rate while in the hospital.” The board of trustees at Emory and Henry College met on November 12, 1864 to discuss the running of the hospital. They stated that the grounds were well taken care of; in fact, improvements were made to the facilities during the war. Unlike many schools during the Civil War, Emory and Henry College suffered no structural damage as result of the war. The only damage done in the hospital was to furniture and was repaired or paid for by the Confederate States of America. Following the massacres on the field and at the Hospital, both Union and Confederate commands started receiving reports of inhumane acts. The story made its way all the way to the secretary of war in Washington; he demanded the extradition of Ferguson to Federal authorities. In the case that the Confederacy refused to send Ferguson, the secretary said that “immediate retaliation [will] be enforced upon such Confederate prisoners as we may have in our possession, man for man.”

Ferguson's Downfall[]

On October 18, 1864, Federal courtiers delivered the letter to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters by a truce boat. General Breckinridge had already informed Lee of the murders, and Lee expressed that he was deeply disturbed that his troops and officers should have behaved in such a fashion. Lee then ordered the capture and court marshal of Ferguson. Ferguson was paroled, however, due to the lateness in the war. All of the witnesses that might have testified against him were dead or were off fighting in another part of the war, and could not be present. The United Stated Government caught up with Ferguson after the war. He became one of only two men to be executed for war crimes after a lengthy hearing. Men of the 15th Colored troops witnessed the hanging of Champ Ferguson on October 20, 1865. This added some poetic justice to the end of Ferguson’s brutal life.

The 5th USCC would return to Saltville two months later to try to gain the salt works. After two days of fighting on December 17–18, 1864, the Federals defeated Breckinridge along the Holston River and gained Saltville. General Stoneman, who commanded the second raid in conjunction with General Burbridge, ordered the destruction of the salt works, and other major commercial and militaristic facilities. Railroads, lead mines, and munitions stockpiles were destroyed all over the Abingdon-Saltville area.

End of the 5th USCC[]

The 5th USCC remained on duty for almost a year after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. On March 16, 1866, the 5th USCC held its final formation in Helena, Arkansas where the fifty missing soldiers from the ranks of the regiment were recognized. Although the likely location for the murdered black soldiers at Wiley Hall would be what is now the Holston Cemetery on Campus, this cannot be proven. Repetitious names from similar units, such as a John Willis of both the Federal and Confederate 5th Kentucky Regiment, bring some doubt as to the accuracy of the marking of the Confederate graves on the campus. This happens on several occasions, and may be due to duplication of a name, or the mislabeling of a grave. Many soldiers of the 5th USCC, who were scraped together from former slaves, freedmen, and liberated slaves, paid the ultimate price for their long fought freedom.


Primary sources[]

  • Emory and Henry College Board of Trustees, Minutes of the Board of Trustees. June 10, 1863-November 12, 1864.
  • Holston Cemetery, Emory, Virginia. December 5, 2005.
  • U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.; GPO, 1880–1901), 1st Ser., 39(1-2) 554, 555, 556, 557, 786.

Secondary Sources[]

  • David E. Brown, “History of the 5th Regiment Cavalry, United States Colored Troops” 8 August 2005 (2005 September 15).
  • Dr. L. B. Murfree, Personal account of Events at Emory and Henry College General Hospital. Quoted in Thurman Sensing, “Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla”. (Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Press, 1942) 178-186.
  • George J. Stevenson, “Increase in Excellence: A History of Emory and Henry College” (New York: Appleton Century Crafts, 1963), 93-95.
  • Mosgrove, George Dallas. Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie; Or, the Reminiscences of a Kentucky Cavalryman. (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Co., 1895) quoted in Thomas D. Mays, “The Battle of Saltville in Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era” ed. John David Smith (North Carolina: North Carolina Press 2002), 200-226.
  • “Regimental Personal Descriptions, Orders, Letters, Guard Reports, Council of Administration, Funds Accounts, Telegrams and Clothing Accounts of Noncommissioned Staff”, vol. I, “5th United States Colored Cavalry”, (Washington, D.C., Record Group 94, National Archives). Quoted in Thurman Sensing, “Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla”. (Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Press, 1942) 178-186.
  • Richmond Enquirer, October 8, 1864. Quoted in Thomas D. Mays, “The Battle of Saltville in Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era” ed. John David Smith (North Carolina: North Carolina Press 2002), 200-226
  • Thomas D. Mays, “The Battle of Saltville in Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era” ed. John David Smith (North Carolina: North Carolina Press 2002), 200-226.
  • Thurman Sensing, “Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla”. (Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Press, 1942) 178-186.
  • Transcript from the Trial of Champ Ferguson, (Washington, D.C., National Archives, 1865). Quoted in Thurman Sensing, “Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla”. (Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Press, 1942) 178-186.