Thomas Mays got his first dose of Civil War history at the feet of his grandfather in his family home in southwest Virginia.
"I grew up listening to his stories about the old Confederate veterans he knew as a boy growing up," said Mays.
Mays, who has written three books about the Civil War and is chair of the Department of History at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., will bring his lifelong interest in the Civil War to Camp Nelson on Sunday.
Camp Nelson, which operated from 1863-66, was an important Union Army supply depot, recruitment center and hospital facility on 4,000 square acres in Jessamine County.
In addition to its everyday supply functions, the camp was critical in the support of a number of offensive campaigns into Tennessee and Virginia, including the Battle of Saltville.
In Mays' book The Saltville Massacre, he follows the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, a regiment formed at Camp Nelson, into its first large-scale battle, which took place in October 1864 in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Burbridge launched a raid to capture Saltville. Repeated Union attacks were repulsed by Confederate forces under the command of Gen. John S. Williams. As the sun began to set, Burbridge pulled his troops from the field, leaving many wounded. In the morning, Confederate troops, including a company of ruffians under the command of Capt. Champ Ferguson, advanced over the battleground seeking out and killing the wounded black soldiers.
A Confederate victory, Saltville is remembered for this massacre of captured and wounded black troops.
Story of the families
"Camp Nelson is of national significance for raising African-American infantry and cavalry," Mays said. "But beyond that is another story of the families of the soldiers that left the plantations and the farms where they were enslaved to join their husbands, fathers and brothers who were at Camp Nelson.
"The civil history of these displaced families is quite different than almost any other type of military camp there is in the Civil War period."
Their story will be told in the exhibit opening Sunday.
Mays' own past
In addition to hearing stories from his grandfather, Mays felt many connections to the past while growing up in southeastern Virginia.
His mother's maiden name is Bragg, as in the Confederate general; his father's name was Robert Lee Mays. Petersburg, Saltville and other iconic locales were nearby.
"All of that enthralled me," Mays said. "In high school, all I read was Civil War history."
While attending Roanoke College, Mays met a scholar who was teaching history. Mays had an epiphany.
"I realized it was possible to make a living doing this."
The Saltville Massacre had its origins in Mays' 1992 master's thesis at Virginia Tech, where noted Civil War historian James I. Robertson took him under his wing.
"I was very fortunate," Mays said. "Robertson might be one of the one or two foremost Civil War historians in the whole nation."
The mountainous regions of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have been neglected by historians in the last 50 years, said Mays
"Just now a few books are coming out that are looking at this area," Mays said. "Not necessarily in the frontier sense, but in the sense that neither the Union nor the Confederates ever really controlled this area completely. That's why you had guerrilla irregulars like Champ Ferguson rising up."
In his new book Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War, Mays continues his exploration of Civil War atrocities.
"Champ was born in Kentucky and ends up in the Battle of Saltville," Mays said. "That's where I came across him. He doesn't appear in any Civil War textbooks at all."
"I realized that this is virgin territory for a historian. I was very fortunate to be the first academic historian to do a serious study of him."