By Chris Hartley
Even as General Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox, a vengeful Union cavalry horde led by Maj. Gen. George Stoneman made Southern civilians pay dearly for the war. It was a last brutal lesson in the concept of total warfare.
Six-foot-four-inch Major General George Stoneman, powerfully built, “with a face that showed the marks of long and hard service in the field,” watched as 6,000 men and horses formed up just outside of Mossy Creek, Tennessee, in late March 1865. These blue-clad troopers of the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee were preparing for a raid into northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia, their orders to “destroy but not to fight battles.” The war was winding down, but the punishment of Southern civilians continued apace, its aim to demoralize an already beaten people.
A wagon, 10 ambulances, four guns with their caissons, and two pack mules–one for ammunition and one for the men’s mess–rode along with the advancing Union column. The division, under the immediate command of Brig. Gen. Alvan C. Gillem, was composed of three brigades: Colonel William J. Palmer’s First Brigade, brevet Brig. Gen. Simeon B. Brown’s 2nd Brigade, and Colonel John K. Miller’s 3rd Brigade, as well as a battery of artillery under Lieutenant James M. Regan.
On March 23, the division moved east to Morristown, Tenn., where each man was issued five days’ rations, one day’s forage of corn, and four horseshoes with nails, to go along with the 63 rounds of ammunition each already carried. The land and the people, hard pressed though they were, would have to provide most of the Federals’ supply needs. On March 24, the division moved toward Taylorsville, Tenn., where they took the turnpike leading to Watauga County, N.C. In the land ahead, a tremor of fear passed through the population. Rumors of the approaching raid caused citizens to hide their food and valuables.
As commander of the East Tennessee district, Stoneman was personally accompanying Gillem’s cavalry division to oversee its mission. Originally, Stoneman had been ordered to raid into South Carolina, but Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s rapidly moving forces had precluded that need. His revised orders from Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, were to “dismantle the country to obstruct Lee’s retreat” by destroying parts of the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, the North Carolina Railroad, and the Danville-Greensboro line.
Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander, believed that Stoneman’s raid, in conjunction with a simultaneous raid by Northern cavalry in Alabama, would “leave nothing for the rebellion to stand upon.” While Stoneman ravaged, Brig. Gen. Davis Tillson’s 4th Division of the Department of the Cumberland would follow the cavalry column and occupy key mountain passes in northwest North Carolina to protect Stoneman’s and Gillem’s rear.
Very little in the way of Confederate defenses awaited Stoneman’s men. Confederate home guardsmen were scattered about in various places such as Watauga County, where Major Harvey Bingham had two companies, or Ashe County where a Captain Price commanded a small company. The area had been placed under the direction of General P.G.T. Beauregard, but the regular troops in his command were described as “insufficient to stop [Stoneman].”
Yet Stoneman would not march unopposed, as the people of Watauga County quickly demonstrated. At 10 a.m. on March 28, as the Federal forces moved on the Taylorsville turnpike toward the village of Boone, N.C., the troopers learned that a meeting of the local home guard would occur in Boone that same day. Stoneman quickly sent his aide-de-camp, with the 2nd Brigade’s 12th Kentucky Cavalry, to assault Boone and take on the home guard. The Union troopers responded, riding into Boone and down Main Street, firing at anything that moved.
Mrs. James Councill heard the firing and stepped out onto her porch, her child in her arms, to investigate when “a volley of balls splintered into the wood all around her.” Home guardsmen and citizens grabbed their weapons and tried to fight back. Steel Frazier, a 15-year-old boy, was chased by six Federals to a fence, where Frazier took cover, turned, and took on his pursuers, killing two of them. He then retreated into the woods. Calvin Green tried to surrender, but when the Federals continued to shoot at him, he resumed the fight and shattered the arm of one of the invaders with his musket.
Other citizens, however, weren’t so lucky. Warren Green was shot to death as he tried to surrender; Jacob Councill, an elderly man over the conscript age, was shot down beside his plow despite his appeals for mercy. When the smoke cleared, the Federals had killed nine, captured 68, plundered several homes and burned the local jail.
With Boone neutralized, Stoneman decided to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and move to Wilkesboro, about 50 miles away on the Yadkin River, to obtain supplies and fresh horses. He opted to separate his command to accomplish this, sending Gillem with Brown’s brigade and the artillery, followed by Miller’s brigade, on a roundabout route to Wilkesboro in order to destroy a factory near Lenoir. Stoneman would take the direct route, through Deep Gap to Wilkesboro.
At 9 p.m. on March 28, Gillem reached Patterson’s Factory, a cotton mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge, and took the workers by surprise. Finding a useful supply of corn and bacon, the men spent the night there. The next day the column moved on to Wilkesboro, leaving a rear guard to destroy the factory and any food that remained.
By late afternoon of March 29, Gillem’s men had caught up with Stoneman just outside Wilkesboro. That evening, Stoneman sent the 12th Ohio Cavalry into Wilkesboro where “they came in with a yell and ran completely through the place, frightening a small body of Confederates out of their wits and out of the place.” The weather presented a problem that night, however, as “the very heavens opened their floodgates,” swelling the Yadkin River so much that it became impassable. Stoneman’s men had been in the process of crossing the river in order to head north when it rose, thus becoming separated by the river. At least one man drowned during the aborted crossing.
The blue cavalry could do no more than inch a few miles east until the Yadkin became passable. Their time was spent “carrying off all the horses and mules, and burning the factories,” as well as doing a little drinking, for “the stuff was warm in the stills.” The Federals even seized the horse of the local citizen James Gordon, one of Jeb Stuart’s men who had been killed at Spotsylvania, and paraded it in front of the man’s house for a couple of hours.
It was not until April 2 that Stoneman was able to ford the Yadkin River and get his men moving once again. The Federals pointed their horses north, toward Virginia and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.
The march to the Virginia border took Stoneman’s men through Dobson to Mount Airy, N.C. While in Mount Airy, the Federals learned that an enemy supply train had passed through the town earlier that afternoon on its way across the Virginia border to Hillsville. Stoneman immediately ordered Palmer to pursue and capture the train. On the morning of April 3, the rest of the division followed Palmer’s detachment north. By 1 p.m., the Federals had reached Hillsville, where they caught up with Palmer’s empty-handed detachment. The pursuit was renewed, however, and within a few hours 17 Confederate wagons filled with forage were in the hands of Brown’s brigade.
Stoneman divided his forces once more in Hillsville in order to cover more of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. He ordered Miller to take 500 men from his brigade, move to Wytheville, and destroy the railroad bridges and supplies there. Stoneman took the main body in the direction of Jacksonville, Va.
Shortly after dark, Stoneman’s advance met some weak resistance. The battle-hardened Federals quickly responded, however, driving the Rebel force several miles. By midnight, the situation had calmed enough for Stoneman to bivouac his men.
The next morning, April 4, Stoneman’s force moved out early and reached Jacksonville by 10 a.m. The general sent out yet another raiding party from this point, consisting of 250 picked men under the command of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s Major Wagner. Wagner’s objectives were the railroad bridges in and around Salem, Va. The division’s main body resumed its march that afternoon and occupied Christianburg, Va., by midnight.
The destruction now began in earnest. On April 5, Stoneman ordered Palmer and his 1st Brigade to tear up the railroad tracks east of Christianburg while Brown’s brigade dealt with the tracks to the west of the town. With the Federal forces divided into four separate detachments, over 150 miles of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad were ruined.
Miller’s detachment, however, met with trouble in its raid toward Wytheville. A Confederate force of infantry and cavalry contested his advance, charging them with a yell. Miller’s men, although they successfully repulsed the Rebels, suffered 35 casualties in the skirmish. Stoneman ordered Miller to retire to Hillsville and then to Taylorsville, Va.
Meanwhile, Wagner and his detachment were playing a significant, if unknowing, part in Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Reaching Salem by 2 p.m. on April 5, Wagner’s men set about their work. Although they were delayed by word that Lee had evacuated his Petersburg trenches, the Federals managed to destroy the nearby railroad bridges by April 7. Wagner next moved to within six miles of Lynchburg, but reports of the presence of a strong Confederate force nearby turned them away. His mission completed, Wagner moved to rejoin the main body.
The effects of this small detachment went far beyond its actions. Lee, as he retreated west from Petersburg, had hoped to pivot south and move his army through Danville to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. Rapid Union moves had closed that option to Lee, leaving the west as his only avenue of escape. Reports of Wagner’s activities soon reached Lee at Amelia Court House. Lee, in the light of rumors that this was part of a Union army invading Virginia from the west, concluded that he was hemmed in and surrendered his once unconquerable force on April 9.
Stoneman set his forces in motion to return to North Carolina on April 7. The 2nd and 3rd brigades moved uneventfully south through Patrick County, Va., toward the state line. Palmer’s brigade, however, had somehow misinterpreted the route it had been directed to take and went through Martinsville, Va., by mistake. About 250 Confederate cavalrymen met Palmer in the streets of the town and killed one Union trooper while wounding five others. After a brisk skirmish, the Confederates were chased from the town.
Stoneman’s command was reunited by April 9 in Danbury, N.C. The war may have been over for Lee, but Stoneman wasn’t finished. In fact, Stoneman’s detour into Virginia had completely confused the people of North Carolina. Thinking that the dreaded raid was over, the state relaxed what little defense it had mustered. If Stoneman had proceeded to Salisbury from Wilkesboro in March, he would have found a large body of Confederates awaiting him. Instead, he feinted into Virginia before returning to North Carolina to reap a large harvest of destruction.
On April 10, Stoneman and his troopers continued their southward trek. By noon, at the village of Germantown, they stopped briefly to provide an escort for a party of ex-slaves who had fallen in behind the column. The escort took the blacks to east Tennessee, where a large number of them volunteered for active duty in the 119th U.S. Colored Troops.
Stoneman, confident that the Rebels would offer little resistance to his forces, once more divided his column. He detached Palmer’s brigade to destroy the large cloth factories around Salem and the rail lines around Greensboro. The remainder of the division moved at 4 p.m. The next day, April 11, they reached Shallow Ford, on the Yadkin River, and captured 100 muskets after chasing off a small enemy detachment.
Palmer’s brigade, meanwhile, had been greeted by the white flag. As they approached Winston and the neighboring town of Salem, their respective mayors, accompanied by two other prominent citizens, officially surrendered the two towns. The towns were, as a result, spared excessive harm. One citizen, a member of the local Moravian congregation, wrote that “had it not been for the noise of their horses and swords…it would have been hardly noticed that so large a number of troops were passing through our streets.”
Palmer immediately sent his men out into the countryside to work. One detachment captured and burned the Dan River Bridge, cutting a vital link in the Piedmont Railroad. A few hours earlier, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had traveled over that same bridge as he fled from Virginia to Greensboro with what remained of his government and treasury. Moving to meet Johnston to discuss future plans, Davis was told of the proximity of Federal cavalry. His narrow escape prompted him to grin, “A miss is as good as a mile.” It would not be the last time Davis would dodge Palmer’s men.
Palmer’s men completed their objectives with speed and efficiency, unaware that the Confederate president was within their grasp. Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Betts of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry routed the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry at Buffalo Creek, just two miles from Greensboro, and then burned the bridge there. Other detachments fired bridges and factories at Jamestown, Florence, and throughout the countryside. Seventeen hundred bales of cotton were burned by Federal raiders at High Point, a North Carolina railroad de pot. By April 11, Palmer concluded that his detachment had done enough damage. The brigade turned back, rejoining Stoneman at Shallow Ford, west of Winston.
The reunited division next moved south with their eyes on the grand prize of Salisbury. The town was a major military depot for the Confederacy, containing several military hospitals, an ordnance plant, and the state district headquarters for the Commissary of Subsistence. Supplies recently evacuated from Raleigh and Richmond due to Sherman’s and Grant’s advances were also in Salisbury. Most important to the men in the saddles, though, was the six-acre, 10,000-man prison in the town. The prison, in operation since 1861, had a “frowning stockade, the dirty enclosure honeycombed with dens and holes in which the shivering captives. . . burrowed like animals.” Nearby, about 12,000 graves stood as reminders of the tragedies that had occurred at the prison. The Federals didn’t know, however, that the prisoners had recently been evacuated because of the terrible conditions at the prison.
A small body of Rebels challenged the Federal advance near Mocksville, only to be dispersed by a savage Federal charge. By 8 p.m. on April 11, Stoneman bivouacked his troops in the road 12 miles north of Salisbury, within striking distance.
The division would not wait. At 12:30 a.m., with Miller’s brigade in advance, the Federals moved. The rattle and creak of caissons and the neighing of horses sounded in the night. After covering three miles, they reached the South Yadkin, a deep and rapid stream with few fords. Crossing the river unopposed, the Yankee troopers continued their trek until they reached a fork in the road. Since both roads led to Salisbury, Stoneman sent one battalion of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry by the old road and the main body by the western road. The Kentuckians were to demonstrate at Grant’s Creek, two miles outside of the town, and cross the upper bridge there if possible. The Federals were to then converge on Salisbury.
At daylight on April 12, the main column reached Grant’s Creek, chased away some pickets, and approached the bridge. Confederates emplaced across the creek announced that Salisbury would be defended, opening up with small arms and artillery fire and checking the horse soldiers. In the distance, behind the crack of the skirmishing, the chug of moving trains could be heard. The Confederates were trying to evacuate everything they could from Salisbury.
Across the creek was a hodgepodge of about 500 men and two batteries of artillery. Two hundred “galvanized” Irish who had been recruited from among Federal prisoners, several junior reserves, some local citizens, and even a few artisans in the employ of the Confederate government prepared to defend the town. The regular commander of Salisbury, Brig. Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, was in Greensboro that morning, leaving Brig. Gen. W.M. Gardner in command.
At Gardner’s side that spring morning was the silver-haired Colonel John C. Pemberton, former commander of all Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Miss. Although he had resigned his generalcy in 1863 in disgrace, Pemberton, in January 1865, had taken a commission as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in defense of Richmond. Upon the evacuation of Richmond, Pemberton had fled to join his old friend Davis, but Stoneman’s troopers had cut the railroad nearby and compelled him to stop in Salisbury. Now, Gardner had an experienced man to help him hold the Federals long enough to allow Salisbury’s supplies to be evacuated. The officers had placed their men wisely and removed the flooring of the bridge to hinder a Federal crossing, but their men were quite inexperienced.
The Federal cavalry division, however, was anything but inexperienced. Rather than risk heavy casualties in a forced crossing of the creek, Stoneman ordered Gillem to send out flanking elements to turn the Rebel positions. Gillem assigned the 13th Tennessee Cavalry to cross Grant’s Creek below the enemy position while another detachment moved across the creek lower than the 13th Tennessee. Meanwhile, a detachment of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry was directed to cross the creek two and a half miles above the bridge and “get in the rear of Salisbury and annoy the enemy as much as possible.” They were to also keep an eye out for the trains escaping from Salisbury.
Gillem, as soon as the parties sent across the river became engaged and the rattling fire of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry’s Spencer rifles announced that the enemy’s left had been turned, ordered the main body to cross the bridge. The Federals first laid a deadly fire across the creek so that a detachment could repair the bridge. Then Palmer’s brigade charged in handsome style, followed closely by Miller’s brigade, and hit the Rebel positions. The ensuing 20-minute fight soon had the Southerners on the run as they dropped arms, knapsacks, and all else that impeded their flight. Brown’s brigade followed in close support.
The Rebels were falling back all across the line. A Federal flanking element came across some tracks about two miles outside of town, blocked them, and was soon rewarded with the whistle of an approaching train. The Federals fired into the train and captured it, finding among the cargo the sword, uniform, papers and family of slain Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. All along the battlefield, the Federals had captured 17 stands of colors, 18 artillery pieces and hundreds of prisoners. Pemberton later said he witnessed “the capture of our last piece of artillery and narrowly escaped the same fate myself.”
The horse soldiers reassembled on the other side of Grant’s Creek and continued the pursuit. As they charged into Salisbury, the battle continued in the streets. One “galvanized” Confederate, although shot through the lungs, continued to fight back until he fell on the porch of Mrs. M.E. Ramsay. “Though the balls fell thick about him,” Mrs. Ramsay dashed onto her porch and dragged the soldier inside. As she cared for his wounds, the man gasped, “I die a brave man; I fought them as long as I could stand.” The man would actually survive and return to thank Mrs. Ramsay three weeks later.
Soon, Salisbury was secured. The Federals gladly set about the task of destroying the Rebel supplies, facilities and prison. Until midafternoon of the next day, four entire squares in Salisbury were filled with burning supplies. The conflagration was visible 15 miles away. All told, the Federals destroyed more than 10,000 stands of small arms, 10,000 rounds of artillery shot, 70,000 pounds of powder, 100,000 uniforms, 160,000 pounds of bacon, 20,000 pounds of harness leather, 10,000 pounds of saltpeter, 35,000 bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of wheat, $100,000 worth of medical supplies, four large cotton factories, and the hated prison itself.
While in Salisbury, Stoneman sent out a detachment to capture the vital railroad bridge over the Yadkin, six miles above town. The 10-year-old bridge, the longest span of the North Carolina Railroad, was considered vital to the collapsing Confederacy. Beauregard had sent one-armed Brig. Gen. Zebulon York, a Louisianian, with about 1,000 men to defend it at all costs. These men provided the Confederacy with one of its last successes of the war.
As the Federal detachment approached the bridge, resistance erupted. The Confederates were entrenched on the high bluffs across the river, laying down heavy fire to prevent a crossing. One boy who was there watched as the Confederate guns mowed down trees and held the Federals at bay. The Union troops brought up captured artillery from Salisbury to shell the Rebels, but to no avail. By nightfall of April 12, the Federals returned to Salisbury with “no wild cheers [and] no war whoops of victory.”
Regardless of their failure at the Yadkin bridge, Stoneman’s troops did manage to destroy a considerable amount of railroad track around Salisbury. The damage ensured that the flight of the Rebel government would have to depend not upon trains, but rather upon horses. On the night of April 15, Jefferson Davis rode past Salisbury on his way to Charlotte–in a carriage.
Moving as quickly as ever, the cavalry division, minus Palmer’s brigade, left Salisbury at 3 p.m. on April 13, en route to Statesville. (Palmer had been sent to destroy railroad track in the direction of Charlotte.) By nightfall, the advance guard entered the town, firing as they went. Statesville was only occupied for a few hours by the Federals, long enough to destroy some government stores and the railroad depot. The office of the Iredell Express, “a paper which was obnoxious from the warmth with which it had advocated the cause of the Confederacy,” was also burned.
The Federals soon left, headed west. Statesville, however, had not seen the last of the Union foe. After midnight on April 14, Palmer’s men arrived, fresh from their successful raid toward Charlotte and the South Carolina border. The brigade remained in Statesville until April 17, skirmishing with local bands of defenders.
Palmer was then ordered to watch the line of the Catawba to help prevent the Confederates from using the ridges and valleys in the area for guerrilla warfare. Moving to the town of Lincolnton, the Federals captured a large trunk of valuables, including $2,000 in gold. Upon discovering that the trunk belonged to Mrs. Zebulon Vance, wife of the governor of North Carolina, Palmer collected “every article and every cent” and returned the trunk to her with his compliments.
Rumors were flying about the end of the war. On April 19, Palmer was notified by three Confederate soldiers of the armistice between Sherman and Johnston. Stoneman and the main body reached the village of Taylorsville, N.C., on April 14 and were greeted with news of Lee’s surrender. Regardless, the Federals continued moving west.
On Easter Sunday, Stoneman’s men reached the town of Lenoir. Gillem had called Lenoir a “rebellious little hole,” sentencing it to receive its full share of punishment. Stoneman’s presence, however, prevented the troops from excessive mischief. The flying reports of the war’s end prompted Stoneman to judge that his mission was complete. As a result, Stoneman left the division for east Tennessee on April 16, along with a guard detachment and about 900 Confederate prisoners. The prisoners themselves–mostly hungry and exhausted old men and young boys–had a tough trip ahead of them. Stoneman directed Gillem to take the 2nd and 3rd brigades and move toward Asheville, aiming at the mountain passes in the area. Gillem, already known to North Carolinians as “supercilious, insulting, and unfeeling” because of the destruction he had brought, eagerly complied.
The war dragged on in the North Carolina mountains for the cavalry division, regardless of the cessation of hostilities by the major armies. Gillem had begun his trek to Asheville, only to find a bridge over the Catawba River, a couple of miles east of Morganton, blocked by Rebels. About 50 men under Maj. Gen. John McCown, not the 300 men that the Federals had estimated, were waiting at the crossing with one artillery piece. As the two Union brigades approached the river, they met with a continuous and effective fire which prevented their efforts to cross. To avoid useless casualties, Gillem sent a small detachment to outflank the Confederates and cross about two miles upriver. A battery of artillery was then dismounted and placed in a strategic position to bombard the Confederate gun.
Just as the flanking movement began to unnerve the Rebels, the Union battery opened fire. The first shot missed, but the veteran gunners readjusted. The second shot slammed home, breaking the axle on the Confederate gun’s caisson. With their enemy now bereft of artillery cover, the dismounted cavalry troops charged their enemy. It was only a few minutes until the Rebels had been ousted from their rifle pits and the road lay open. Morganton and its supplies of corn and bacon were soon in Federal hands.
As Gillem continued to pound away at them, the Confederates kept trying to scrape together what they could to defend their homes. Brigadier General James G. Martin, a Petersburg veteran, was the commander of the District of Western North Carolina. When he learned that Federal cavalry was headed for Asheville, he moved his command–one brigade and one regiment–to the land around Swannanoa Gap, placing his regiment in the gap itself to defend Asheville.
Gillem reached Swannanoa Gap on April 20 and found it to be effectually blockaded by about 500 men with four pieces of artillery. Once again, Gillem used the tactic that had successfully carried the command through the Confederate homeland. He ordered Miller to remain at the gap and “deceive the enemy by feints” while he took a detachment to outflank the Rebel right. The flanking movement, due to the mountainous terrain, had to be an extremely wide one. The Federals rode hard. On April 21, Gillem reached Rutherford, 40 miles south of Swannanoa Gap. By dusk of April 22, the Federals had fought through only “slight resistance” to cross the Blue Ridge at Howard’s Gap. Gillem now lay squarely in the Confederate rear.
The veteran General Martin had not been deceived. He ordered his lone brigade to meet the Federals at Howard’s Gap and repulse them. On April 22, however, news of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman finally filtered to the Confederates. On the basis of this news, Martin’s men refused to obey his order to stand and fight. Gillem, therefore, met only slight resistance at Howard’s Gap, when he could have faced a force equal to his own. Fortune was smiling on the Federal cause.
With Swannanoa Gap in Federal hands, Gillem continued his march on Asheville. At daylight on April 23, Gillem’s advance entered Hendersonville. There he received information that some Confederate troops and artillery had been waiting for him in the town the day before, but had retired toward Asheville. Gillem detached the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, with the 11th Michigan in support, to “pursue, attack, and capture” the enemy force “at all hazards.” By noon the Union detachment had found the Confederates, seizing four artillery pieces and 70 men. The Federals had become the masters of the countryside.
Early in the afternoon, the cavalry division left Hendersonville to cover the remaining distance to Asheville. After three hours of riding, the Union troops halted their horses as a few Confederates presented Gillem a flag of truce. Martin had sent word from his headquarters in Asheville that he had received official notification of the truce. As a result, a meeting between Gillem and Martin was arranged for the morning of April 24 to discuss surrender terms.
The meeting went off quietly and in order. The Confederates agreed to cease resistance, following the terms Sherman had granted to Johnston at Durham Station. Gillem accepted and informed Martin that he would return his division to Tennessee. To prevent the Federals from foraging on their return trip, Martin agreed to give them what supplies he had. On April 25, Brown’s and Miller’s brigades began the long ride back. Gillem himself turned to other duties, leaving the column to join the Tennessee legislature, which was then assembling. The war, it seemed, had finally come to an end for the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee.
Mysteriously, though, the Federals returned to Asheville on April 26 and sacked it. Martin said that he “had heard of no worse plundering anywhere.” General George Thomas, it turned out, had notified Stoneman that Abraham Lincoln had rejected the terms of surrender between Sherman and Johnston. Stoneman’s cavalry was to “do all in its power to bring Johnston to better terms.”
The raid, after this last act of destruction, came to a close. Yet fate had something else in store for these veteran Union horse soldiers. The shooting war had ended, but Jefferson Davis and the remains of the Confederate government were still in flight–and they were close to Stoneman’s troopers. On April 23, Palmer was notified of Lincoln’s assassination and
ordered to pursue Jefferson Davis to “the ends of the earth.” Palmer, breveted to general and placed in command of the division, began moving his brigades south. He sent one by way of Spartanburg and the others from their position near Asheville, planning to join them at the Savannah River in South Carolina.
The grand chase was on. Moving through Anderson, S.C., where the Federals captured and “disposed of” 300 bottles of wine, the division crossed the Savannah River and entered Georgia. As Palmer’s men moved through the state, they barely missed capturing the fugitive president on several occasions. In consolation, the division did capture four brigades of Confederate cavalry and General Braxton Bragg and his wife (who were on their way to be paroled at the time). Finally, on May 15, Davis was captured in Irwin, Ga., by another Federal unit, the 4th Michigan Cavalry.
Stoneman and his cavalry division thus passed out of the war and into local legend. The raid had been a powerful one. A force of only 6,000 men had destroyed uncountable tons of supplies and miles of railroad tracks, shocked the local citizens with the reality of war, traveled more than 600 miles through enemy territory, and assisted in the capture of Jefferson Davis. Stoneman, one historian appraised, had utilized the methods of Sherman in a “splendidly conceived, ably executed attack upon the war potential and the civilian population of the South.” Sherman himself, the author of the concept of total war, admiringly referred to Stoneman’s raid as “fatal to the hostile armies of Lee and Johnston.” Stoneman and his men, beyond any doubt, had amply fulfilled their orders “to destroy.”
North Carolina native Chris Hartley’s account of Stoneman’s Raid included actions in his hometown of Wilkesboro. Hartley wrote about the Battle of Bentonville in the September 1988 ACW. For more information, see Ina W. Van Noppen’s Stoneman’s Last Raid and John G. Barrett’s The Civil War in North Carolina.
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