Stoneman's raid scarred Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Editor’s note: Today also marks an anniversary for Rowan County’s Civil War history — the 146th anniversary of the Union Gen. George Stoneman’s devastating raid on Salisbury. The Post is reprinting a column written by the late Franklin Scarborough about Stoneman’s Raid.
Union Gen. George Stoneman, with his 4,000 troops, dashed into Salisbury on April 12, 1865, with his main objective to free the Union prisoners being held in the Salisbury prison. But he did much more than that. His actions were more like that of a bunch of guerrilla fighters with their minds set on plundering and destroying the town shortly before the end of the Civil War.
Could be that his anger was up when he found that most of the prisoners, some 500 of them, had just been moved from Salisbury to Charlotte, leaving only those too weak or lame to walk.
But Stoneman was also under orders to make sure the local citizens didn’t want to continue the war — by destroying everything that was useful in the town.
The raid came three days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Because of the widespread devastation of Salisbury, history makes little mention that Stoneman later was turned back by Confederate soldiers as he tried to cross the Yadkin River. The Confederate success there did nothing to change the course of events.
On his way to Salisbury, coming in from the west, Stoneman passed through Cleveland, leaving houses and fields in flames. Just as the torch was about to be put to one building, the general noticed the Masonic emblem on the window. He quickly posted a guard around the building with orders to protect it from harm.
The other building was the county courthouse on North Main Street in Salisbury, which later became the Community Building and now houses Rowan Museum. History remembers two reasons why Stoneman spared this building.
One is that Stoneman had eaten breakfast that morning at the home of T. J. Meroney and had been so impressed by his courteous treatment that he saved the courthouse at Meroney’s request, after flames had already been set to the building.
The second version is that the father of the late Col. A.H. Boyden had been acquainted with Stoneman prior to the war, and the elder Boyden prevailed upon the general to spare the courthouse with its valuable records dating back to the town and county’s earliest beginnings.
But memories of people 70 years ago were still fresh with the events that occurred as the troopers went from house to house, taking what valuables they wanted from the civilians.
J.T. Shaver, who was born and lived at 419 E. Innes St., told a Post reporter in 1934 about the raid. Shaver was 9 years old at the time.
“There were some skirmishes between some of our men who were here and the Yankees, “ he recalled. “This fighting took place where Livingstone College is now and also out near the Old M.L. Jackson home. “
A Confederate officer and a Yankee officer dueled with sabers in the road. Both were mounted. They cut and slashed at each other, cutting up one another right sharp, Shaver told the reporter. The account says the Confederate got the better of the combat but, when he saw other Blue Coats coming, had to flee down the road toward Town Creek.
Another mounted Confederate officer dashed down the road with a pistol in each hand. He, too, escaped.
All government buildings, other than the courthouse, were set on fire and destroyed, as was the Salisbury Cotton Mill, the railroad property and the passenger train station.
Margaret Beall Ramsay, who was 92 in 1932, wrote of her experiences during the siege. She recalled seeing Yankee soldiers dragging the “feeble and coatless Judge Caldwell out into his yard wielding their swords above his head as they demanded his money and valuables. “
Another woman, Mrs. J.S. Summerell, who lived at South Fulton and Bank streets, outsmarted the Yankees before they arrived. Upon hearing of their approach, she summoned her slave Dorsey and asked him to dig a trench for some grapevine cuttings she wanted to set out. She then went into the house and returned with an apron full of old shoes and boots so badly worn that not even the Confederacy had use for them.
She placed the worn shoes and boots at regular intervals along the trench, saying that she had heard that old leather made grapevines grow. Then she instructed Dorsey to put in the cuttings and fill the trenches.
After Stoneman left Salisbury, she took out the old shoes and retrieved the monogrammed family silver, polished it and returned it to the kitchen drawers.
Salisbury contained the last sizable cache of Confederate stores. Stoneman captured 18 guns, 10,000 stands of arms, 160,000 pounds of bacon, 7,000 bales of cotton, 250,000 blankets and thousands of Confederate uniforms.
Goods were hauled out of downtown stores and piled in the street from the square to the courthouse. Soldiers took what they wanted and gave much of it to poor blacks and whites who came begging. The whole pile was then set on fire.
Following the conquest of Salisbury, the raiders moved on to the Yadkin to capture the railroad bridge, the longest span of the North Carolina Railroad, which then ran between Charlotte and Goldsboro. Here they met stiff resistance and were turned back into the countryside by Confederate gun emplacements on the bluff.
Franklin Scarborough was a longtime Rowan County journalist and historian. He died in 2006.