Piedmont Passages: Stoneman prepares for raid
Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 3, 2011
Editorís note: The late George Raynor was managing editor of the Salisbury Post for 30 years and editor for eight years before retiring in 1982. This essay appeared in the Post on April 12, 1983.
The happenings in Salisbury on April 12 and 13, 1865, probably didnít attract too much attention outside the Piedmont.
Yet the cavalry raids by Yankee General George Stoneman, climaxed by the occupation of Salisbury on those dates 118 years ago, constituted one of the most successful and spectacular Union operations of the war. The raid, which broke the back of Confederate operations in the Piedmont and the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, was overshadowed by a flood of more important and dramatic events shortly before and after Stoneman arrived here.
Only three days after Stonemanís troops left Salisbury to occupy Statesville, John Wilkes Booth, a maddened actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater in Washington.
The shock wave that swept the country obscured the remaining military operations, including Stonemanís. And only three days earlier, in a classic finale to a classic struggle, the tired, hungry and bleeding army of Army of Northern Virginia laid down its arms.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee proffered his sword to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who refused it, the war ended, at least symbolically. But the fighting didnít stop immediately.
One of those places where it continued was in Salisbury. Fifty or 60 miles southwest of Appomattox, General Stonemanís raiders were marching rapidly from southern Virginia into Surry and Forsyth counties to their goal: Salisbury.
The passage of years has not made it clearer why Salisbury was the objective. The sentimental reason is that the Union troops, fired by reports of terrible conditions in the Salisbury prison camp that were causing an ever-rising death toll, wanted to rescue the Yankee prisoners.
But a more hard-headed reason is probably the right one. At the time the raid was planned, Lee was still in Richmond and the railroads and resources of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina were allowing his continuing resistance. These areas were still free of Union troops.
Stoneman received orders to ědestroy but not to fight battles.î The destruction, perceived to be of military supplies and railroads, on more than a few occasions exceeded this bound.
Stonemanís cavalry did not have numbers to carry out pitched battles. Its nine cavalry regiments had about 4,000 men, perhaps more, and it was highly mobile and disciplined.
The Confederate forces in the area, under General Beauregard, were more numerous but they were scattered, often confused and well aware that the war was winding down. Militarily Stoneman was never to have an uneasy moment in his raid that started in Knoxville on March 23 and didnít end until Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured in Irwin, Ga., on May 15.
In the course of those raids, unexpectedly extended by the pursuit of Davis, Stonemanís raiders descended on Salisbury, giving this small, but strategically located, town the most exciting days of its history.
This would not have been the first time Salisbury was occupied by enemy forces. During the Revolutionary War, General Cornwallisí British and Hessian troops had paused here while in pursuit of General Greene.
Ironically, the British and the Yankee troop were said to have camped at the same site in Salisbury, and their commanders reportedly occupied houses on Bank and Jackson streets, only a block apart.
The raid, conceived by Stoneman, perhaps to make up for his unfortunate capture in Georgia earlier in the war, was amply justified.
Tennessee was well under control, and the destruction of the rail lines between Salisbury and Danville would help bottle up the Lee forces if he retreated westward. In addition there were well-known military objectives here.
Although Stoneman was unaware of it, the prison camp had been emptied two months earlier. But there was a foundry and ordnance works employing about 240 people, and Salisbury, as headquarters for the Commissary of Subsistence of the Fifth North Carolina District, was an important supply point.
Stoneman didnít realize it, but Salisbury had become an even more vital supply center as the Northern forces advanced from the south and east. More and more supplies were shipped here from Raleigh and elsewhere for shipment to Lee.
Salisbury was a plum waiting to be picked and Confederate confusion made the picking easier. Whether by accident or intent, a maneuver by Stonemanís raiders left Salisbury only lightly protected.
The maneuver was toward Greensboro where the raiders managed to sever the Piedmont Railroad, at one place only a half an hour after Jefferson Davis had passed en route from Danville to Greensboro.
These maneuvers at Greensboro and around Winston and Salem caused Beauregard to move two brigades out of Salisbury and into the Greensboro area. Although mistaken about the proximity of the raiders, a young Salisbury woman wrote on April 3: ěI suppose there is some truth in it (reports of Stoemanís advance to Davie County) for they have taken all the troops from here over the river ó I donít know what they mean leaving Salisbury so unprotected but I suppose Generals know best. General Beauregard was here yesterday so I guess it was his orders Ö ě
Editor J.J. Bruner of The Daily Carolina Watchman was biting his editorial nails eight days later, aware that the enemy was near but unsure when he would strike or from what direction. In an edition dated April 12 but probably printed on April 11, a story reflected this confusion.
ěRumors were very abundant and extravagant yesterday morning on our streets,î he wrote. ěThey produced a rather feverish state of public mind Öî
After noting that Stoneman didnít seem to be in the Blue Ridge, Bruner wrote: ěThere was a rumor that Stoneman and his men were at Salem or near there, on Monday and not on the Yadkin in the more western counties. Indeed we hear of Stoneman at several points, making him rather ubiquitous for an ordinary being. Doubtless he is hovering somewhere not very distant north of the railroad between this point and Danville Öî
Indeed he was and he was moving quickly. The Second and Third Brigades, moving out of Moravian country, forded the Yadkin at the same Shallow Ford where General Cornwallis had crossed in the Revolutionary War.
A detachment of Confederates guarding the ford was surprised and fled. A few men and boys, thinking they were encountering bushwhackers, exchanged shots with Stonemanís raiders before realizing their mistake and fleeing.
Although Stoneman prohibited it, a cotton mill was burned but otherwise the occupation of Mocksville was peaceful. Citizens were forced to prepare and serve meals to the officers (in dining rooms) and to the troops (on lawns).
Anxious to be as close to Salisbury as possible for the forthcoming assault, Stoneman pushed his troops on to the settlement of Ephesus on present the road to Salisbury.
Stoneman was ready for the morrow. It turned out that Salisbury wasnít.