The man who whipped Stoneman
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
At noon on April 12, 1865, two former North Carolina governors stood at the state Capitol and formally surrendered the building to Union Gen. William T. Sherman. Governor Vance had fled the city of Raleigh and the Confederate States of America were crumbling. The Civil War was virtually over.
Earlier that same day, at the break of dawn, Federal Gen. George Stoneman and his troops had captured the city of Salisbury. His hopes of liberating the infamous Salisbury prison were dashed when he found it was empty. Now Stoneman wanted to make his mark by burning the wooden trestle that supported the rails spanning 1,000 feet over the Yadkin River between Rowan and Davidson Counties. The bridge, set in the shadow of a rebel fortress named Fort Yadkin, was under the command of Confederate Brig. Gen. Zebulon York.
York, unaware of the event occurring in Raleigh had awakening that morning as a single bugle cut through the river fog. Rising from his bed roll, he could hear the booming of cannons in the distance as Stoneman’s Raiders met meager opposition at the city line. He knew then that Stoneman would attack the railroad bridge. He quickly prepared his troops and later that day he refused a request to surrender. The Yankee messenger was promptly shot from horse. The fight was on.
Minutes later Stoneman’s 3rd brigade under the direct command of Col. John K. Miller arrived at the river. At the first advance toward the railroad bridge, 16 Union blue coats were either killed or mortally wounded. Miller sent back to Salisbury for artillery, which arrived about 3:30 p.m.
Now, with darkness falling over the area and their artillery being of insignificant help, the Yankees had defensively dug in from the solid blasts from York’s cannons combined with withering rifle fire. Any efforts to burn the bridge were all but forgotten. The objective now was to save their hides. Being outnumbered in troops by 10-to-1, York had no intention of backing off or giving an inch.
About 7:30 p.m., the Federal soldiers managed to retreat.
The rebels had saved the bridge. Stoneman’s raid, which began in East Tennessee 24 days earlier, was now staring defeat in the face. The next day Stoneman rode out of Salisbury in a horse drawn carriage.
He had spent the night in a Salisbury hotel, nursing his lifelong health problem, hemorrhoids. But hemorrhoids were not his only pain.
York had flawed his reputation. His horse was hitched to the carriage and trotted along behind. York’s victory at the bridge allowed fleeing President Jefferson Davis time to evade capture, and he crossed the Yadkin several days later.
York was born on Oct. 10, 1819 in Avon, Maine. His grandfather was aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War and was present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis following the Battle of Yorktown.
York graduated from Transylvania University in Kentucky, and studied at the University of Louisiana. He later became a pre-war lawyer and cotton planter in the state of Louisiana.
York was incorrectly referred to as a galvanized Yankee since he was born in the North and was fighting for the South. But he had made his home in the South many years earlier. When Louisiana seceded from the Union in early 1861, York organized a company of the 14th Louisiana Infantry and served as its first captain.
He was promoted to major and lieutenant colonel, and fought in the Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862. He was wounded during the Battle of Williamsburg.
Later he joined Lee’s Northern Virginia Army and was severely wounded in the Shenandoah Valley at the Battle of Opequon when a shell shattered his left arm causing him to be known as “Old One Wing” from that point on.
After a lengthy recuperation, York was assigned to recruiting duty in various prisoner of war camps. After the fall of Richmond, Gen. Beauregard assigned him to Fort Yadkin in command of a group of rag tag rebels, in addition to several able subordinates such as Capt. Frank Smith of Alabama and Lt. Henry Clement, a local volunteer, to watch over the railroad bridge.
The bridge was considered a vital link for supplies to what was left of the war in Virginia. York had experience and was available. He was warned that Stoneman may be on his way to Salisbury because the city’s infamous prison presented an enticing target.
Many historians have overlooked or ignored the importance of York’s resistance at Fort Yadkin for obvious reasons. While Stoneman and his raiders were devastating the area between Tennessee and central North Carolina, the Petersburg Line broke, the capital of the Confederacy fell, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, President Lincoln was assassinated and generals Joseph Johnston and Beauregard had entered armistice talks with Gen. George T. Sherman. President Jefferson Davis was at large and plotting a route from Richmond to his home to Mississippi. You could almost say the war was over when Stoneman hit Salisbury.
After the war, York returned to Vidalia, La., to find that all six of his sprawling plantations were destroyed. Undaunted, he opened and ran a profitable hotel, the York House, across the river in Natchez, Miss. He also purchased five steam boats and began delivering people, cargo and livestock to rural areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. His boat helped deliver relief supplies to flood victims.
York died in Natchez in Aug. 5, 1900, and is buried in Natchez City Cemetery.
During the late 1950s, I worked at a service station on “Surretts Curve” in Spencer for a railroad engineer, the late Paul Harrison. Harrison made periodical runs on a mail train between Spencer and Monroe, Va., the outer limits of the Southern Danville Division.
He used to tell me that when his train entered the Yadkin River Bridge, he would blow two shorts, and a long and another short on the steam whistle. To most people, it only meant that a train was entering Spencer but to his wife, he was saying, “Honey, I am coming home.” Then, Harrison would say that when he hit the bridge, he let the whistle “scream across the river” then he would give a “ big rebel yell”. He would follow up on his comments by removing his stripped railroad hat and brushing his fingers through his thinning hair and with a smile by saying, “That one was for Jeb”. The place is now called York Hill.
Buddy Gettys lives the town of Spencer where he is a former mayor and writes for the Salisbury Post.