George Raynor: Stoneman's Raiders hit Salisbury
Editor’s 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 14, 1983.
Every armed conflict develops its own body of legend, myth and factual stories, particularly when civilians become involved.
This proved to be the case with Gen. George Stoneman’s overwhelming attack on Salisbury’s defenses, two-day occupation of the town and destruction of Confederate resources here. Seldom has a news event affecting Salisbury been “covered” as well as this one in the flood of reminiscences that followed the departure of Stoneman and for many years afterward.
Like life itself, the occupation of Salisbury on those long-ago days of April 12 and 13, 1865, was composed of mixed ingredients — humor, tragedy, drama, heroics and fear.
Stoneman had given orders that the townspeople were not to be molested, and in general the orders were followed, albeit reluctantly in many cases. Many of the troops were rough characters, eager to loot and steal valuables and to find strong drink. The excuse that they were seeking hidden Confederate soldiers was reason enough to go through unwelcoming doors.
The articulate Margaret Beall Ramsay, recalling a search of her house, showed a fine sense of the dramatic, probably embellished by the passage of time. When the Yankee troops arrived, Mrs. Ramsay, a widow with three small children, was on a second-story piazza.
She reported a “wild scene” in which the enemy “like wild demons” yelled to her, “You d— rebel! Come down here or we will fetch you down!” The missiles, she said, were “flying thick and fast around and upon the house.”
She describes the search of neighboring houses and finally hers. “Nine men,” she wrote, “rushed across the street and sprang over the yard fence, flourishing their swords to ward off the infuriated dog.”
The soldiers went from room to room, she wrote, finding nothing but evidence (clothing) that others lived there. They were two Confederate surgeons, then at the hospital, and three boarding school boys. The boys had fled, been arrested and imprisoned and then released. As the search neared an end, Mrs. Ramsay and one of the searchers engaged in some repartee.
“You look might d— scared,” the soldier said, looking at her fiercely.
“I am,” Mrs. Ramsay said. “How could I look otherwise?”
“Well, madam, you did not think of this six months ago when our men were starving and dying like rotten sheep in your prison.”
“Yes, they were starving, and we are too,” she replied.
“Well, madam, ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay.’ Before the dawn of day this town will be laid in ashes.”
Mrs. Archibald Henderson II was more daring. When the first group of soldiers moved toward her house she walked onto her piazza carrying a pistol and threatened them.
“If you put one foot forward,” she said, “I will shoot you.”
The men retreated and camped near the Henderson house; before they returned, Mrs. Henderson and her son Richard hid the family silver between inner and outer walls in the attic. It was not found and presumably is in possession of some members of the family today.
Another story is told of the search of John Holt’s house. “Pillaging and ramsacking had commenced anew,” Mrs. Henderson wrote. “Finding a barrel of brandy in one of the out-houses, the men proceeded to help themselves to the contents. The brave and thoughtful Miss Jessie McCallum, a native of Scotland and nurse at the hospital, who lived with the Holts, procured an axe and quickly knocked the head out of the barrel which outraged them so much that one of the party fired at her immediately, singeing her hair above the ear. ‘My God! They’ve killed me,’ she cried.”
General Stoneman, who was ill at this time, was responsive to the civilian needs for protection. Many of the men had fled to the woods lest they be imprisoned, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves.
This was practical if not noble, for even the Yankees would do no more than bully the women. Harriet Ellis Bradshaw, a great-niece of former Governor Ellis, wrote many years later that her mother, fearful of marauding troops, appealed to Stoneman for a guard for the house.
He assigned one who patrolled the front, at dinner with them and even managed a nap in the afternoon. A Confederate flag that once flew over the prison camp had waved from the front porch of the house during the day. The guard took the flag with him and ultimately it was carried away in the midwest. This is supposedly the same flag that was returned to Salisbury 100 years later and is now in the Rowan Museum.
The occupation did include some bloodshed apparently. Mrs. Ramsay reports that Capt. Frank McNeely, home on a furlough from the Confederate army, was shot and killed when he was found at the Confederate arsenal.
A Lt. Stokes of Maryland was surprised by a squad of Stoneman’s men. An officer shouted, “There’s a d— rebel. Charge him.”
The lieutenant, she reported, waited until the Yankees were within range and shot the officer. He spurred his horse away and when one of the pursuers got too close he shot and killed him too. The lieutenant escaped. Mrs. Ramsay also found a wounded and presumably dying man — one of the “galvanized” Irish — in front of her house. She induced Dr. Summerell to treat him and she nursed him through the afternoon, largely with brandy and wine; he reportedly recovered.
Stoneman, as usual, wasted little time. With the destruction in Salisbury completed by a grand explosion on the morning of April 13, Stoneman put his troops back on the road that afternoon at 3. This time it was Statesville’s turn, and after that Lenoir, Taylorsville, Hickory, Morganton and Asheville were to feel the presence of the raiders.
Only at Morganton was the pillaging and destruction excessive, and this appeared to be caused by two factors: Union loyalists within Stoneman’s troops and from the nearby mountains, and the decision of Stoneman to return to Tennessee, leaving his raiders under less certain hands.
As to Salisbury and on after-thought, Mrs. Ramsay wrote: “No one thought of sleeping that night (April 12). On the next day a terrific explosion of the magazine finished the destruction. Thus the storm subsided. Stoneman had gone. With all the pillaging and burning that the raiders had done Salisbury, comparing her lot with that of Columbia and Fayetteville, may well afford to hold Stoneman’s name in grateful remembrance.”