In mid-November, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman. a recently released prisoner of war, was sent to command Union cavalry in East Tennessee. Immedeately, he mapped an expedition against long-coveted nearby resources: Confederate iron mines and saltworks. Within 2 weeks, he had massed some 4,200 Kentucky cavalry and horse artillery, under Richard G. Burbridge, plus 1,500 Tennessee horsemen led by Brig. Gen. Alvan C. Gillem. On December 1st, despite bad weather, all moved east from Knoxville in the direction of Wytheville and Saltville, Virginia.
At Kingsport, Tennessee on the 4th, Stoneman's command struck and routed an understrength cavalry brigade under Brig. Gen. Basil W. Duke, part of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge's Confederate Department of West Virginia and Eastern Tennessee. Two days later, near Bristol, 20 miles farther east, Stoneman dispersed a mounted command under Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn, preventing it from linking up with Breckinridge outside Saltville. Pursuing Vaughn's escapees through Marion and into Virginia, the raiders stopped near Wytheville long enough to damage several mines and foundries.
Resuming his advance on the 8th, Stoneman attacked Breckinridge's main force, 6,000 men, and cut it off from Saltville. Overwhelmed, Breckinridge fled across the mountains into North Carolina, leaving 700 Virginia home guards to defend the saltworks. The Federals made short work of such opposition, then thoroughly destroyed the works, including 50,000-100,000 bushels of salt. Facing no major opposition, Burbridge returned to Kentucky and Gillem to Tennessee.
On this, the most successful of his cavalry raids, Stoneman suffered minimal losses while capturing 4 Confederate-held towns, almost 900 prisoners, 19 cannon, 3,000 horses and mules, 3,000 rifles, and 25,000 rounds of artillery ammunition. He had also laid waste to every factory, train, bridge, supply depot, mill, and warehouse along his route, and had confiscated what he called "four pestiferous secession printing-presses."