Piedmont Passages: Details of Stoneman's Raid remain clouded

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 5, 2011

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.
The rapidity of Gen. George Stoneman’s attack on Salisbury April 12, 1865, and the direction from which it came were almost a complete surprise to the Confederate authorities who were supposed to be defending this important transportation and supply center.
How many troops were available to defend Salisbury? No one seems to know with any degree of certainty.
Because Gen. Bradley Johnson was with the troops sent to Greensboro, Gen. William M. Gardner was in command of the defense. Louis A. Brown reports he had 2,500 regular troops, 400 government “mechanics (arsenal employees), some townspeople and Home Guards, and 300 “galvanized Irish” — Irish Union soldiers who preferred service as Confederate soliders to continued life in the prison.
The “galvanized Irish” made poor recruits, generally fleeing or surrendering at the first opportunity. Many of the regulars mentioned were inexperienced prison guards.
The advance to capture Salisbury began at an usual hour — midnight.
The Union troops had a way to march before they would reach the banks of Grants Creek, perhaps a dozen miles away.
While Stoneman had by various estimates 4,000 to 6,000 men, substantial elements were on missions elsewhere. But the bulk of his raiders were moving along in the darkness on the various roads that led to Salisbury from the north and west.
Difficult crossing
The troops had some difficulty crossing the South River by fording. The South River was described in official records as “a deep and rapid stream with but few fords.” This description may be attributable to the fact of heavy recent rains, but there were fords in the area. A few Confederate guards had been posted at the likely crossings but they quickly fled when the Union troops approached.
Exactly where the crossing occurred is not known but the present road basically occupies the site of the old one, and there was a ferry site and ford there or nearby. A quarter mile past the river, the road divided with two sections going to Salisbury.
Although there have been some changes in both roadbeds, these roads were basically the present Mocksville Highway (601) and the Old Mocksville Road, the original road that closely follows the river. The section between Franklin community and the Grants Creek crossing at Catawba College had been improved in the mid-1850s. (The character of the creek itself was radically changed — deepened and straightened — in the 1930s. It probably was easier to cross at the earlier period.)
Col. John K. Miller chose to send the main part of his brigade down the more direct new road but also ordered a battalion of Kentucky cavalrymen to approach Salisbury on the old road.
This old road crossed Grants Creek a mile or so north of the new Country Club. General Stoneman also sent 100 Tennessee cavalrymen southward to cross the stream and a party of dismounted cavalrymen even farther south for a crossing.
Thus, in the subsequent fighting it seemed to the bewildered populace (to say nothing of the armed defenders) that Yankees were coming into town from all directions.
Defense outnumbered
The Confederate defenders were not surprised, just badly outnumbered, out-maneuvered and out-fought. Gen. Gardner had troops and artillery in place when dawn broke. They had removed the planks from the wooden bridge and put two or three light artillery batteries in place, presumable on the Catawba College knoll that overlooks the Mocksville Highway and the Grants Creek floodplain. The cannons, enroute to Gen. Johnston in east Carolina, had been “drafted” as they passed through.
Dr. R. L. Beall of Lenior, who made a study of that day’s events, said the cannonading started at first daylight. The dismounted cavalry quickly seized effective control of the bridge and the men, crossing on the stringers, replaced the boards. This permitted the main body to enter the forest between the creek and Salisbury both dry and quickly.
Beall said the fighting and the cannon fire at the creak lasted until 8 a.m., about two hours. Units crossing the creek elsewhere flanked the batteries and they were abandoned.
This was the principal action involved in the Battle of Grants Creek, and it resulted in some casualties. The number of federals killed and wounded is not known nor is it known how many defenders were casualties. Beall said the federal dead were buried on the battlefield.
While shot and other evidence of the battle have been found along the creek, no gravesites have turned up. It was during this action that the poor quality of the “galvanized Irish” as converted Johnny Rebs were observed.
It was noted by one Union witness: “As they were charged by our men their cannon was fired over the heads of the charging party, who, as they came nearer, were greeted with cheers for the old flag.”
Guards joined defense
Many of the defenders, described by Brown as “regular” troops, were further described by another as actually guards from the abandoned prison. These were generally too old or too young for Confederate service and in most cases either untrained for combat or unwilling to risk their skins at a time when everyone knew the war was about to end.
One young boy later recalled that, attracted by the action, he had watched the defenders flee into the woods. But apparently there were only a few points of minor resistance involving individual or small groups.
An exchange of gunfire in the yard of the Shober home near the railroad bridge on Ellis Street was recalled. Another noted a brief exchange of fire at the site of future Livingstone College.
These skirmishes would have involved Union troops crossing Grants Creek on the old Mocksville Road and on the old Wilkesboro Road near Macay’s millpond.
John I. Shaver, who was a boy living on East Innes Street at the time, later told J. Allan Dunn, Salisbury historian and lawyer, about the fighting at the Wilkesboro road site and at the old M.L. Jackson homeplace.
Shaver also told Dunn that a Confederate officer, Frank McNeely of Salisbury, engaged two Yankee officers in a running duel at East Innes.
He killed them both, Shaver said, the last one at Arlington Street.
The official records note that 1,346 defenders were captured and imprisoned.
These included the gentle Dr. Jethro Rumple, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, who was soon freed. It did not included the firebrand editor of The Carolina Watchman, J.J. Bruner.
He had, in his own words, “lit out” after the town was captured and hid out at Herrington Heights, the hills that overlooks I-85 off East Innes. The rush of events was too swift by permit formal surrender of the town.
A young boy, William Nicol Wood, later reminisced that the mayor of Salisbury tried to approach the raiders with a flag of truce. A trooper promptly cut it down.
The battle of Grants Creek was over by 9 a.m., and the occupation of Salisbury was complete only a few hours later.