Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

September 29, 2006

‘Battle of Saltville’ provides a honored opportunity to remember a tragic wrong

By BILL ARCHER

If I have learned anything in life, I’ve learned to keep an open mind because there is always the possibility that something unexpected can take place at any time.

I was storming through the Bluefield, Va., Wal-Mart a few days ago with the singular goal of buying some tea candles for the Scott Street Baptist Church youth to transform into luminaries for our annual service later this evening at the Saltville, Va., Battlefield Overlook. This will be the eighth year that Scott Street has participated in the service at the battlefield in memory of the men of the 5th and 6th US Colored Cavalry who died there during and after the Oct. 2, 1864 “Battle of Saltville.”

The annual Saltville service has remained about the same through the years with prayers, songs, a keynote address by Bluefield Mayor Garry D. Moore, and Deacon Sam Johnson’s reading of the names of the soldiers missing in action, but my understanding of the circumstances related to the event has evolved through the years. In times of war, the stories that historians work with can be challenging to decipher as a result of both intentional and unintentional factors. In the process, the story of history itself can become increasingly more complex through the passage of the years.

I have been carrying the Saltville story around in my soul since I first heard about it in the summer of 1998. I have thought about it from many different perspectives, but in the end, I keep returning to the realization that slavery as an institution was a horrible thing.

It created a heavy burden for American democracy to withstand. I don’t blame my ancestral heritage for the reality of slavery in the U.S, and it’s likely that few if any of the Confederate defenders at Saltville were slave owners themselves.

There were several issues that divided the North and South during the decades before the start of the Civil War, but most of the black soldiers who died in the battle are alleged to have come straight out of bondage. Their personal freedom was short lived. With little training, they were thrown into the battle frey.

While the tactics of wars and battles can be dissected by scholars, there is no way of examining the events of that moment in U.S. history that justifies the institution of slavery. None of the soldiers who fought in the war were alive in the early 1600s when the first African slaves were brought into North America, but in the 200-plus years that passed prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the U.S., people of African descent had made a powerful impact on the shape of the nation where they lived. Unfortunately, very little of that history is known.

My heart surgery in April gave me a different perspective on the idea of freedom. When Dr. Frank England explained the possible risks I faced in surgery before he went in to repair the two arteries in my heart that were 100 percent and 95 percent blocked respectively, I felt a warmth come over me that I had never felt before. I knew I wanted to continue serving my family and my community with all the love I could give, but I was also comfortable in this world or the next. I was surrounded by an unexpected peace at that moment that caused me to smile.

My wife and I usually go to the grocery store early Sunday mornings when the only person we know for sure that we’ll see is Bluefield, Va., Fire Chief Jim Hardy. Chief Hardy often teases me about the high-falutin’ words I use. Jim is such a good guy and my wife and I always enjoy talking with him. He’s an insightful and perceptive person who has a good understanding of the community and the world. My wife and I are both proud to call Jim our friend.

We’ve been blessed with many good friends and I appreciate the kind words I often receive from people whom I’ve never met, but who know me through my writing. It is always humbling when a stranger approaches me with a smile on his or her face and expresses appreciation for the articles and columns I write.

As I was focused on buying the tea candles for the service, a woman I didn’t recognize spoke to me saying: “Excuse me.” I stopped in my rush to the check-out register and answered: “Yes.” The woman then said: “Aren’t you Bill Archer?” and I smiled and said I was.

The woman then pointed up to a high shelf and asked me if I could get a case of pint canning jars off of the shelf for her. “They put them up so high, it’s hard for me to reach them,” she said. After I got the jars down for her, I asked if I could be of any additional assistance. She smiled politely and said: “No, but thank you very much.”

I was really not expecting that interaction, but it made me feel so good to be useful for something that was more than just the words I write. I shared the story with my mother and my wife and they both thought it was nice.

When I attempted to analyze the exchange, both of them just reminded me that it was nice to be of help to someone. Some things are best enjoyed in their most pure state.

Bill Archer is senior writer for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.