in Saltville in 1864?
Most of the details concerning the prelude to the first Battle of Saltville and the bloody battle itself, which occurred on October 2, 1864, are not disputed by Civil War scholars. However, two recent historical works that chronicle this chapter of Civil War history provide two sharply different interpretations of what occurred after the battle. The two conflicting accounts of history are The Saltville Massacre by Thomas D. Mays, published in 1995 by Ryan Place Publishers, and "The Battle of Saltville: Massacre or Myth?" by William Marvel, which appeared in the August 1991 issue of Blue and Gray Magazine / (Volume VIII, Number 6).
In his book, Thomas Mays concludes that forty-six black men were murdered after the Battle of Saltville and asserts that "Saltville stand[s] as possibly the worst battlefield atrocity of the Civil War." Conversely, William Marvel contends that "Five black soldiers, wounded and helpless, were definitely murdered at Saltville on October 3, and as many as seven more may have suffered the same fate there that day... But amid the context of a bloody battle in so bitterly contested a theater of the war, can we still call it a "massacre?"
How could two researchers, who base their findings
on many of the same historical documents, arrive at such different conclusions?
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early 1864, Union General Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of the Military
District of Kentucky, authorized within his command the formation of "colored"
regiments comprised of freedmen, ex-slaves, and slaves (accepted for enlistment
at the "request" of their owners). On June 30, 1864, Adjutant General
Lorenzo Thomas, responsible for organizing
colored regiments in the Mississippi Valley for the Union Army, established
the 5th United States Colored Cavalry (5th USCC)
and authorized the officers of the newly formed regiment to begin selecting
recruits. Colonel James Brisbin, a well-known abolitionist, became commander
of the regiment. Some of the companies were recruited at Camp
Nelson, Kentucky, while others were enlisted in nearby towns, including
Lebanon and Louisville. Nearly all of the recruits were former slaves,
the majority of whom volunteered for three years of service. In accordance
with Thomas’ plans, all of the officers of the 5th USCC were white and
the noncommissioned officers were to be chosen from among the black men
in the ranks. However, since most of the regiment consisted of illiterate
ex-slaves, the officers were granted permission to appoint white soldiers
as noncommissioned officers. According to the National Park Service's Civil
War Soldiers and Sailors Project, 1,459 men were eventually enlisted in
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In the fall of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army were tightening their stranglehold on the Confederacy. Southern supplies were becoming increasingly scarce and the natural resources of Southwest Virginia, such as salt used for preserving food and tanning leather, gained greater strategic importance. To deprive the confederacy of this valuable resource, Gen. Burbridge was granted permission to lead an expedition from his base in Kentucky to southwest Virginia to capture and destroy the Confederate saltworks located in Saltville (located in Smyth County, Virginia).
When he learned of the formation of the 5th USCC, Burbridge ordered that the regiment be attached to the white brigades being assembled for the raid of Saltville. However, by late September 1864 the unit still had not been organized into a complete regiment. With the assistance of Col. Brisbin, the 5th USCC's officers attempted to quickly shape the companies that had been organized into a fighting unit. In the haste to prepare the incomplete 600-man regiment, the men of the 5th were mounted on untrained horses and issued Enfield infantry rifles (weapons useless to mounted men as they could not be loaded fromhorseback). Command of the detachment was assigned to Col. James F. Wade of the 6th U. S. Colored Cavalry.
After they joined General Burbridge’s forces, Col. Brisbin wrote in a correspondence to Adjutant General Thomas that the men of the 5th "were made the subject of much ridicule and many insulting remarks by the white troops, and in some instances petty outrages, such as pulling off the caps of the colored soldiers, stealing their horses etc." Brisbin also wrote "these insults, as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight, were borne by the colored solders patiently.... In no instance did I hear colored soldiers make any reply to insulting language used toward [them] by white troops."
Painting copyright © Jerry Bingham - not for reproduction or publication
If you are interested in buying a high quality print of the painting contact David E. Brown at 5thuscc.comcast.net.
As they made their trek to Saltville, Burbridge’s column was delayed by bad weather, rough terrain, and a small but pesky Confederate brigade led by Colonel Henry L. Giltner. Giltner's 300-man brigade engaged the Union forces at Clinch Mountain and Laurel Gap long enough to allow Confederate Brigadier General Alfred E. "Mudwall" Jackson to concentrate additional troops near Saltville. Despite the delay, Burbridge got closer to the town than any previous Union commander. However, as they arrived two miles outside of Saltville on the evening of October 1, Federal provisions were running low. At this point, the town was defended by just a single brigade and a ragtag local militia comprised largely of boys and old men, yet Burbridge elected not to exploit his advantage and instead allowed his weary men to camp for the night
As the Federal forces began preparing for battle
on the morning of October 2, expecting little resistance, the Confederates
were reinforcing Saltville and had assembled 2,800
troops, now under the command of Gen. John S. Williams, to defend the
saltworks. (Units Involved in the Battle
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The Battle of Saltville began on the morning of Sunday, October 2, 1864. Thomas Mays writes, "A cold and foggy morning greeted both sides as they prepared for the impending struggle." The Confederate forces were strategically placed along the high river bluff back of the town (to the north), and northeast on the high ground. These positions were the key to the defense of Saltville. As the morning progressed, the Federal troops were able to push the Confederate line back over Sander's Hill and towards Saltville. At about 10:00 a.m. the Union troops began a series of dismounted charges upon Chestnut Ridge. Just beyond the Cedar Ridge lay the town of Saltville and the saltworks. Two small cavalry brigades commanded by Brigadier General Felix H. Robertson and Colonel George G. Dibrell defended the ridge. The Union assaults were made on foot because of the unexpected strength of the Confederate position.
After two unsuccessful attempts, Lt. Col. Robert Ratliff’s Brigade, comprised of approximately 400 members of the 5th USCC, the 12th Ohio Cavalry, and the 11th Michigan Cavalry, made a final dismounted attack up the hill in an attempt to take Chestnut Ridge. This charge proved to be Burbridge’s last hope for victory.
When the Confederates observed that black soldiers were among the advancing brigade, the defenders became enraged. The sight of "their homeland being threatened by armed Negroes" was their greatest nightmare being realized. The fury they displayed upon seeing the black soldiers enabled the defenders to stall the advance of Ratliff’s brigade. Eventually however, by force of numbers and the unexpected fighting prowess of the 5th USCC, the advancing Union force breached the Confederate line and was able to press the rebels to the top of the ridge. However, after six hours of fierce fighting, Ratliff’s Brigade was running perilously low on ammunition and was cut off from the rest of Burbridge’s forces and their supply line.
Confederate reinforcements continued to arrive throughout
the day and the Southern lines around Saltville successfully repelled all
Federal assaults. Ratliff’s cavalry continued to hold the Confederate works
until nightfall, at which point, exhausted and out of ammunition, they
pulled back from their advanced position.
At about 5:00 p.m., despite having made little headway after day long fighting, Burbridge retreated without accomplishing his objective. His retreat was hastened by news that Gen. John C. Breckinridge had arrived with additional cavalry, though Burbridge still held a numerical troop advantage. Burbridge's retreating forces built bonfires to deceive the Confederates into thinking that they would remain, but in their haste to retreat they left most of their dead and wounded on the field.
Mays writes, "The Southerners had saved the saltworks. They had put up a stout defense with men emptying their cartridge boxes as many as three times. Some had fired over one hundred rounds each. With the timely arrival of reinforcements and the unexpected gallantry of reserves, the Confederates had won the battle of Saltville."
Despite the outcome of the battle, their fellow soldiers lauded the performance of the 5th USCC during the assault of Chestnut Ridge. An officer of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry admitted that he "never thought they would fight until he saw them there." He added that he "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." Col. Brisbin wrote, "I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and never saw any fight any better."
This is the point at which Mays’ and Marvel’s depictions
of events begin to depart. Mays writes, "While the battle had ended, the
killing had just begun."
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Mays contends that black soldiers hastily departed the battlefield as the Union force retreated. They apparently were aware that some of their comrades captured by the Confederates during the battle had subsequently been murdered. Mays writes, "As Burbridge began his retreat, many seriously wounded black soldiers attempted to follow. Colonel Brisbin looked on in horror as he ‘saw one man riding with his arm shot off, another shot through the lungs and another shot through the hips,’ all attempting to evade the Confederates. Later [Brisbin] reported shocking casualty figures that included at least 118 of the four hundred men of the 5th USCC who took part in the fight were killed, wounded, or missing." Mays also points out that since the regiment had not been officially organized when they departed for Saltville, "it is difficult to determine how many men were murdered." One black sergeant admitted not even knowing the names of his men at the time of the battle.
Mays cites the account of George Mosgrove of the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, who reported hearing firing along the Confederate line the morning after the battle. Mosgrove initially concluded that a new Federal attack was underway. Mays recounts that Mosgrove rode his horse forward to ascertain the source of the shooting where he came upon Dibrell’s and Robertson’s brigades on Chestnut Ridge. There he reported finding "Tennesseans killing Negroes.... Hearing more firing at the front, I cautiously rode forward and came upon a squad of Tennesseans, mad and excited to the highest degree. They were shooting every wounded Negro they could find. Hearing firing on other parts of the field, I knew the same awful work was going on all about me."
Mays states that Mosgrove was appalled, yet admitted it would have been futile for him to attempt to stop it. Mosgrove added, "Some were so slightly wounded that they could run, but when they ran from the muzzle of one pistol it was only to be confronted by another." Mosgrove also wrote that he found seven or eight slightly wounded blacks lined up against the wall of a cabin. Mosgrove recalls stepping into the room just as "a pistol-shot from the door caused me to turn and observe a boy, not more than sixteen years old, with a pistol in each hand." Mosgrove told the boy to hold his fire while he jumped out of the way. He then added "in less time than I can write it, the boy shot every Negro in the room." (Except from Mosgorve Book: "Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie, Reminiscences of a Confederate Cavalryman")
Capt. Orange Sells of the 12th Ohio Cavalry was also reportedly at the cabin. Mays writes that Sells "saw a good many Negroes killed there. All of them were soldiers and all were wounded but one. I heard firing there all over the place, it was like a skirmish."
Confederate Capt. Edwin O. Guerrant recorded in his diary that "the continual singing of the rifle, sung the death knell of many a poor Negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday. Our men took no prisoner. Great numbers of them [black soldiers] were killed yesterday and today."
Mays retells the testimony of Private Harry Shocker, a wounded prisoner attached to the 12th Ohio Cavalry, who claims to have witnessed the massacre. Shocker "watched in horror as a Confederate guerrilla, the notorious Champ Ferguson, calmly walked about the battlefield killing white prisoners as well as blacks." Shocker claims to have later seen Ferguson kill four black men at a cabin.
Another eyewitness cited by Mays was Lt. George W. Carter of the 11th Michigan Cavalry, who claimed to have observed the killing of eight or nine blacks. Mays quotes Carter’s statement that "I couldn’t tell whether or not citizens or soldiers did the killing of the prisoners, as all seemed to be dressed alike." Mays explains that many Confederates were local civilians called up as reserves and even veteran Confederate regiments were known for their nonmilitary appearance.
Mays writes, "Later that morning Mosgrove watched as Gen. Breckinridge, Gen. Basil Duke, and other officers rode to the front. The scene infuriated Breckinridge. 'With blazing eyes and thunderous tones, [he] ordered that the massacre should be stopped. He rode away and the shooting went on. The men could not be restrained.' Mosgrove asserted that he did not see any Kentuckians of his unit involved in the murders, although he admitted that they could have been. He blamed the slaughter on the Tennessee brigades of Robertson and Dibrell."
Mays concludes that "A conservative estimate of the
number of black murdered at Saltville is forty-six. These are the men
listed and kept on the rolls as MIAs (missing in action) until well after
the war. Not only does Saltville stand as possibly the worst battlefield
atrocity of the Civil War, it also demonstrates one of the factors that
cause "rules of war" to break down. In warfare, as religion, race and culture
conflict on the battlefield, the chance for a massacre of prisoners increases."
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Marvel asserts that the comment attributed to Felix Robertson, that his troops "killed nearly all of the Negroes," was made to Captain Guerrant on the night of October 2 before the "alleged" massacre occurred. Marvel asserts that "he may have been taking credit for his troops’ conduct in open combat; in that case his statement seems inaccurate, though, because Dibrell’s brigade inflicted the heaviest casualties among the blacks. The Tennesseans were remarkable for their ferocity toward Negroes, and Dibrell seemed proud of it."
Marvel accepts the testimony of Union Surgeon William Gardner, who remained behind with the wounded. Gardner lodged a formal protest against the murder of five black soldiers taken from his field hospital. However, Marvel asserts that "Beyond those five, however, there is not only no proof of any further atrocities on October 3, but considerable evidence that this was about the extent of the massacre."
Official Union casualty reports and other records are cited by Marvel to buttress his argument that a massacre did not occur. Through a complex process of elimination, Marvel claims to be able to account for all but seven of the 118 men of the 5th USCC reported killed, wounded, or missing in action after the Battle of Saltville. He concludes that "these seven may have indeed died at the hands of ruthless Southerners the morning of October 3." Marvel goes onto to assert that "The butchering of scores of black prisoners is therefore pure exaggeration. No more than an even dozen could have been murdered October 3, and quite possibly only the five witnessed by Surgeon Gardner." He suggests that street-clad Virginia Reserves, "who had just witnessed their home territory invaded by the most feared of all antebellum enemies, armed Negroes," may be to blame for the murders. "No doubt inspired to their earlier gallantry by the ancient dread of servile insurrection, they might have crossed the line from heroics to homicide out of that same combination of anger and fear."
Marvel then attempts to discredit, dismiss, or explain away the remaining eyewitness accounts and all the other evidence. According to Marvel, "the newspapers which alluded to 150-155 dead blacks merely indulged in the wishful thinking that followed any battle. Those papers also credited Saltville’s defenders with killing 105 white Yankees, while Union authorities acknowledged 52 dead--plus 51 missing, all of whom "Mudwall" Jackson transferred to Lynchburg alive."
Marvel also dismisses nearly all of the evidence introduced at the trial of Champ Ferguson after the war. He writes, "However guilty Ferguson may have been, his trial was a sham designed to convict him, guilty or not. Any testimony against him was admitted, no matter how questionable; he was given no time to subpoena witnesses in his defense."
He asserts that George Mosgrove, the best known eyewitness, never went to the Yankee (Gardner’s) field hospital and that his entire story is fabricated. He claims that Mosgrove lifted his "recollections" of Saltville "incident by incident" from Capt. Guerrant’s diary.[Mays' response, 1] He writes that Mosgrove could not have had the conversation he claims with Felix Robertson because he was not present at the time.[Mays' response, 2] Although Marvel admits that he can’t establish Mosgrove’s motive for allegedly lying, he suggests that Mosgrove, "as a proud Kentuckian in Confederate service" may have sought to clear Kentuckians of any involvement in the massacre by insisting it was conducted entirely by Tennessee troops.[Mays' response, 3]
Marvel also writes "The witness who identified himself as George W. Carter appears to have been an impostor, for no man by that name served in the 11th Michigan Cavalry."[Mays' response, 4] (A review of an online roster of the 11th Michigan Cavalry and records of the National Archives did not reveal the name of a Lt. George W. Carter, however a Lt. George W. Cutler served in Company "L" of the regiment. Lt. Cutler's service record reviewed at the National Archives reveals that he was shot through the leg and taken prisoner at the Battle of Saltville and therefore was in a position to witness the murders The original trial transcript of the trial of Champ Ferguson at the National Archives confirms that it was Lt. George W. Cutler, not Carter, of the 11th Michigan Cavalry who testified to the murder of black troops after the Battle of Saltville.)
Marvel subsequently attacks the character and veracity of Private Shocker, asserting "Shocker’s pension files proves he had the habit of lying and especially about having been wounded at Saltville. It is not too far to suppose he may have been one of those skulkers, manufacturing a story to cover his capture and at the same time ingratiating himself with his superiors by providing damaging testimony against a man [Champ Ferguson] they desperately wanted to hang."[Mays' response, 5]
Captain Sells’ testimony that he "saw a good many Negroes killed" is dismissed by Marvel who suggests that "a ‘good many’ is a rather nebulous description.... in shock from a severe wound, Captain Sells could well have regarded the same five men Surgeon Gardner saw killed as a ‘good many'." He goes on to assert that Sells "like Captain Guerrant, seems also to have interpreted every one of these frequent shots as a fresh killing. Had that been the case, there would have been no more than 12 reports. By all accounts there was shooting enough, but the avenging angels of Chestnut Ridge must have emptied numerous rounds into each of their victims, if in fact that is what they were shooting at."
Finally, Marvel concludes that "Five black soldiers,
wounded and helpless, were definitely murdered at Saltville on October
3, and as many as seven more may have suffered the same fate there that
day.... amid the context of a bloody battle in so bitterly contested a
theater of the war, can we still call it a "massacre"?
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Confederate forces pursued Burbridge's retreating columns for two days after the Battle of Saltville. The Union army successfully eluded their pursuers and returned to Kentucky without absorbing heavy casualties. In December 1864, General George Stoneman led a successful raid on Saltville. The 5th USCC, which was officially organized on October 24, 1864, also participated in this raid. Colonel Ratliff was brevetted to brigadier general in recognition of his actions in both Saltville campaigns.
In late October, Confederate General Robert E. Lee learned of the massarce and condemned "the treatment the Negro prisoners are reported to have received." Lee directed Breckinridge to arrest the officer responsible and bring him to trial. Although Robertson avoided capture by Confederate authorities and Ferguson was arrested and released by the Confederacy in the closing months of the war, Ferguson did not elude justice. After Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the Federals captured Ferguson and on put him on trial in Nashville in the summer of 1865. Ferguson was charged with the murder of Union Lt. Elza Smith at a hospital near Saltville on October 8 as well as "twelve soldiers whose names are unknown at Saltville, Virginia" and " two Negro soldiers names unknown, while lying wounded in a prison at Saltville." In total, the court found Ferguson guilty of murdering fifty-three men and convicted him as a "border rebel, guerrilla, robber and murderer." On October 20, 1965, Ferguson was hanged, one of only two men executed for war crimes after the Civil War. Champ Ferguson was the only person ever brought to justice for the murders at Saltville.
On January 25, 1865, Company "E"
of the 5th USCC was driving a herd of cattle from Camp Nelson to Louisville
on a narrow road near Simpsonville, Kentucky
when they were surprised by a band of Confederate guerillas. Up to
twenty of the soldiers were reportedly murdered after
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Although Mays and Marvel agree that black troops from the 5th and 6th USCC were murdered by Confederate soldiers following the Battle of Saltville, they differ as to the number of murders that occurred. Mays does not suggest the number approaches the 100-155 reported in the Southern press, but contends that there were forty-six men murdered in Saltville. However, Marvel asserts there were probably five, but not more than twelve murders. Both authors used official records of the number of MIAs to estimate the actual number of men murdered. The crux of their differing conclusions is captured by the following excerpts:
Thomas Mays: "A conservative estimate is the number of black murdered at Saltville is forty-six. These are the men listed and kept on the rolls as MIAs (missing in action) until well after the war."
William Marvel: "The remaining loss breaks down as follows: 20 killed outright, 63 wounded, and 31 missing...By April of 1865, one white officer and 15 enlisted men had returned to duty."
Evidently, the authors have relied on conflicting military records. Marvel’s process of elimination nets just 15 members of the 5th USCC missing in action as of April of 1865, the month Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. On the other hand, Mays contends that forty-six men were still listed as MIA until well after the war. The truth may never be known.
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How many men of African descent must be murdered for a cowardly killing spree to be defined as a "massacre?" Even it were five or twelve, the fact remains that defenseless men were savagely killed because they dared to fight to bring down an insidious system that enslaved, emasculated, and brutalized them and their families.
The Saltville massacre was not an isolated incident. The Confederate practice of murdering wounded or captured black soldiers was reportedly widespread, most infamously at Fort Pillow (drawing of the Fort Pillow Massacre from Harper's Weekly) and Poison Spring. Persistent revisionist attempts to diminish or rationalize the Confederacy’s brutality toward black troops, like efforts to glorify the Southern cause and deny that the secession was first and foremost motivated by the desire to preserve slavery, is at best disingenuous.
Just after sunset on October 2, 1998, the 134th anniversary of the Battle of Saltville, the men of the 5th USCC who were massacred in Saltville were honored on the very battlefield on which they were killed. The ceremony, organized by Bill Archer of nearby Bluefield, West Virginia, was attended by about 130 residents of the Bluefield and Saltville communities. After several prayers, poems, and gospel hymns, a group of Bluefield youth lit luminaries and placed American flags on Chestnut Ridge in honor of the men of the 5th and 6th USCC. Samuel Johnson of Bluefield read the names of the over fifty men presumed to have been murdered after the battle. At the end of the moving ceremony, a Bluefield youth, Daniel Wells, blew taps and a local pastor, Rev. F. Winston Polley, consecrated the ground and offered a final prayer.
A debate concerning the actual number of troops of the 5th USCC who were murdered after the Battle of Saltville has raged since the end of the war. In recent years, many (including Noah Andre Trudeau, the author of Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865) have accepted the conclusions of Civil War scholar, William Marvel. Marvel's widely accepted conclusions are based on his supposedly thorough research and thougtful analysis. Marvel concluded, dismissing eyewitness testimony, contemporary news accounts and local lore, that there was no massacre at Saltville because no more than twelve men could have been murdered. However, recent research raises questions about his research and therefore his conclusions.
In the Summer and Fall of 1998, Byrce Suderow, Phyllis Brown, and I (David Brown) spent several days collectively combing the National Archives to review all of the records examined by Thomas Mays and William Marvel and other records they apparently did not review. We examined both original documents and microfilmed records. The records we reviewed included all of Muster Rolls for the 5th USCC, the Adjutant General's Descriptive Record for the 5th USCC, Surgeon William Egle's Report of the killed, wounded and missing of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry Cavalry at the Battle of Saltville, the Carded Medical Records for the 5th USCC, and the individual service records and pension files of about fifty of the Saltville MIAs. I got around to contrasting this data a year later. An analysis of these records reconciles the stark difference between Mays' and Marvel's conclusions.
Our research reveals that the Carded Medical Records and the Surgeon's Report, on which the Carded Medical Records appear to have been based, do not include the names of twenty-eight additional Saltville MIAs who continued to be listed as MIA in the Adjutant General's Descriptive Record and/or the unit's Muster Rolls until after the War ended in 1865.
Additionally, while the Surgeon's Report listed fifty-three men as wounded and missing and forty-five men as wounded and present, the apparently incomplete Carded Medical Records identified twenty of the wounded and missing men from the Surgeon's report as simply wounded. Based on this oversight, Marvel assumed that there were only thirty-one men of the 5th USCC missing after the battle. The other regimental records we reviewed affirm that nineteen of the men on Marvel's incomplete list of thirty-one MIAs did in fact return by the war's end. In sum, it appears that Marvel relied solely on the Carded Medical Records for his list of thirty-one MIAs. He apparently came to his conclusion that no more than twelve men were murdered by perusing the service records of his thirty-one MIAs and correctly determining that most of the thirty-one returned. However, his research overlooked the twenty-men (fifteen of whom it appears also returned) listed as missing in the Surgeon's Report and up to twenty-eight other MIAs, who were not accounted for by the Surgeon after the battle and were never accounted for by the army or Federal Government after the war.
Our comparison of the records reveals that there may have been as many as ninety-three Saltville MIAs and while up to forty of these men apparently returned, were captured or deserted, at least 45 to 50 of these men were never accounted for after the battle and are presumed to have been murdered by Confederate renegades. This research affirms Mays' conclusion.
Table Contrasting all of the MIA Records Reviewed
William Marvel Responds to Thomas Mays and Author's Research (9/6/2000)
By David E. Brown
Photo Credit: The photo of Captain Orange Sells was graciously provided by the Quatroquecentennial of A Pride Community-1978 Hilliard, Ohio, by Mrs. Mary Miller(pg8).