by Robert Foley
Member of SCV Camp 1630
My great great grandfather Elias Widener was born July 22, 1817 in Widener’s Valley near Damascus, Virginia. Damascus is located in Washington County in the southwestern part of Virginia just above the Tennessee/North Carolina borders. His paternal, mostly German, and maternal, mostly French, ancestors settled as farmers in this region well before the American Revolution.
He married Mary Polly Rosenbaum Aug 26, 1841. Mary Polly was also descended from German ancestors as well as English ancestors who also migrated down and settled in the area before the American Revolution.
Unto the marriage eleven children were born, my great grandfather Felix being the second born.
I do not know much about their lives prior to the War of Northern Aggression other than they farmed a small plot of land in Wideners Valley which was part of the original land grant given to Johann Widener for settling the area during the middle/late 1700s. When hostilities broke out and Virginia seceded, Elias was almost 44 years old. He and his family were probably not impacted very much in the early parts of the war. Nonetheless, tragedy struck home shortly after with the deaths of 4 of his children from July 21st to July 31st, 1861. I have never found information on what was the cause, but suppose it was smallpox, typhus or some similar contagious disease.
He continued to farm during the first few years of the war and due to his age was not subject the First Conscription Act of 1862 drafting able bodied males age 18-35. In late 1862 the age was increased to 45 but those over 40 were not taken into military service. In February of 1864 the age was again increased to 50 thus Elias then became eligible to be drafted. I do not believe he was drafted but sometime during the late spring or early summer of that year, an effort was made to form up reserve elements and so Lt. Colonel Robert Smith made wide reaching recruitment into the southwest Virginia countryside including Washington County and great great Grandfather Elias joined with others to be part of Company F, 13th Virginia Battalion Reserves or Smith’s Battalion. The 13th Battalion formed in June, 1864 was comprised of about 400 mostly underaged boys and overaged men such as Elias.
About 30 miles north as the crow flies from where Elias lived is Saltville, Va. The area around Saltville contains salt marshes that have been used by wildlife and humans for centuries. It became an important salt works for the Confederacy, producing over 200 million pounds of salt in 1864 more than all the other salt works combined.
Lt. Colonel Smith recognized that the salts works were unprotected so he started work to build defensive fortifications. In September 1864, acting on information that the Union Army was planning to attack the area from Kentucky, Confederate Brigadier General John Echols ordered units including cavalry to join with the 13th Battalion in the defense of Saltville. On Oct 2nd, 1864 skirmishing broke out northeast of Saltville. With the arrival of a small band of Confederate Cavalry the total forces facing about 5200 Union soldiers, inc. cavalry and mountain howitzers, were approx. 2800 men. The 13th Battalion was placed forward of the main line on the northside of Cedar Creek which joins the Holston River nearby. About 11 AM fierce fighting broke out on that line and the 13th Battalion was forced back across Cedar Creek. The battle raged on for about 6 hours until both sides ran out of ammunition. When a few addition Confederate cavalry arrived, the union commander withdrew leaving behind a large number of wounded including black soldiers of the 5th US Cavalry. The first battle of Saltville ended in a defeat for the Union Army, suffering 350 casualties as opposed to 108 for the Confederacy and the salt works were safe for the time being. However, actions by a few Confederates led by the infamous Champ Ferguson left a long lasting stigma. Enraged by seeing black soldiers fighting them, they murdered a number of wounded men including white officers. How many is not known but reliable eyewitness accounts indicate it was about a dozen. On October 10, 1865, Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He was hanged on October 20, 1865, one of only two men to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War (the other being Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia).
My great great grandfather did not take part in that affair having been wounded severely during the battle and counted among those 108 casualties. He managed to remove himself from the battlefield, bandage up his wounds and walked back to his home at a distance of 30 miles or so, crossing over a very large mountain range. For him the war was over. For other members of the 13th Battalion not so. Reorganized as the 6th Virginia Reserve, it went on and participated in the defense of Petersburg. The actions of the 13th Virginia Battalion were memorialized in reports provided to R.E. Lee and found in documents were described
Unfortunately for the Confederacy, a second battle occurred at Saltville on December 20th and 21st , 1864 where the Confederates were defeated and the salt works destroyed, a major blow.
Great great Grandpa Elias healed from his wounds, continued working his farm until his death on November 29th, 1891 in Damascus, Virginia.