Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman’s Raid breaks out of the mountains – March 21-29, 1865

I think anyone who has spun the AM radio dial during a long night drive will find Virgil Caine a familiar name:

For many of us growing up in the 1970s, that was largest dosage of Civil War history outside the class room.   (Yes… I know the song was released in 1969.  Do I lose cool points for admitting a fondness for the Joan Baez cover? )

Those of us with a fine appreciation for historical details might quibble over the accuracy of the lyrics.  But such is the way of poets and songwriters, as they ply their craft.  Any rate, in those opening lines, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm laid out the name we need to follow – Major-General George Stoneman.

Stoneman was the quintessential “old cavalryman.”  But he had a lackluster wartime record by the winter of 1865.  Two spectacular failed raids were at the top of his resume.  The assignment to lead a raid out of East Tennessee into North Carolina was for all practical purposes Stoneman’s last opportunity for redemption.  The objective of this raid evolved with time.  Early in the winter, Major-General William T. Sherman simply suggested a diversionary raid into western North Carolina to detract both from Sherman’s planned advance into South Carolina and, at Sherman’s urgings, an infantry advance by Major-General George Thomas into Alabama.  Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant opted to refine that scope somewhat, with an objective of the railroad behind Columbia, South Carolina, to directly contribute to Sherman’s advance.  (And there’s a “what if” to ponder.)

But those plans were overtaken by events.  Stoneman could not get his force organized for movement prior to the middle of March.  Just the logistics of getting troops, horses, and supplies in the right place delayed the start.  Further disrupting the launch, the same rains which pinned Sherman’s march from the Catawba to the Cape Fear Rivers served to likewise hinder Stoneman’s preparations.   By the time Stoneman was ready to start, his objectives were refined to the railroad between Christansburg and Lynchburg, in Virginia, with a threat to Danville.  Such would cut off Richmond from raw materials – particularly salt and other minerals – in Southwest Virginina.  I would submit no other major operation in the Civil War had such swings in objectives before the first movement.  Coming this late in the war, this was as much a raid of “because we can.”

Stoneman’s command for this raid was officially the District of East Tennessee.  The main striking arm was a cavalry division under Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem.

Short version of his biography – Gillem was a East Tennessee unionist with personal connections right up to the Vice-President.  Gillem’s division consisted of three brigades with a supporting battery of artillery:

  • 1st Brigade, Colonel William Palmer, with the 10th Michigan, 12th Ohio, and 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
  • 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Simeon Brown, with the 11th Michigan and 11th and 12th Kentucky.
  • 3rd Brigade, Colonel John Miller, with the 8th, 9th, and 13th Tennessee Cavalry.
  • Battery E, 1st Tennessee Light Artillery, Lieutenant James Regan.

All told, Gillem had around 4,000 men.

Backing up Gillem’s cavalry, a column of infantry and artillery under Brigadier-General Davis Tillson would move to secure the passes over the mountains and repair railroads through which the column would be resupplied.  Tillson’s command consisted of two brigades and seven artillery batteries, numbering around 4,500 men.  Of note, Tillson’s command contained the 1st US Colored Heavy Artillery, serving as infantry, and several formations of Tennessee and North Carolina unionists.

Logistics and weather finally permitted the raid to get underway on March 21, aptly as the battle of Bentonville was winding down.  While I don’t have space, nor the grounding, to cover this raid in the detail provided for Sherman’s Marches, I would offer a view of Stoneman’s Raid from a high level so that readers might appreciate the movements within the context of other events 150 years ago.  To wrap up this, the first in a series on the raid, let me cover the first nine days of movement, to bring us up to March 29, 1865.

StonemanFirst

Oh… big map again… I’ll have that on sale at the gift shop if you’d like…. OK, let me break that into three phases so it is easier to sort out.  And please not these are not precise as to all the roads and camps used by the raiders.

StonemanMar21_24

The initial movement out of Knoxville stepped out, as mentioned, on March 21.  The cavalry lead the column, followed by Tillson’s infantry which repaired the railroad as they moved.  The column moved along the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad to Strawberry Plains, Morristown to reach Bull’s Gap in Bays Mountain on March 24.

StonemanMar24_26

At Bull’s Gap, Stoneman received word of Confederate forces occupying Jonesborough along his intended line of march.  To counter that force and maneuver them out of place, Stoneman dispatched Miller’s Brigade on a northern course towards the Holston River, with orders to get behind the Confederate position somewhere south of Carter’s Depot. The remainder of Gillem’s force went directly towards Jonesborough.  Tillson’s infantry followed up the railroad line.  The move had the intended effect.  After some light skirmishing, the Confederates fell back in the direction of Bristol, Tennessee.  On March 26, the cavalry columns were beyond Jonesborough near Elizabethton, while Tilson’s infantry camped a day’s march from Greenville on the rail lines.  Tilson would remain in that area for three days before disbursing his forces further east.

StonemanMar26_29

Stoneman made a treacherous crossing, with some of his men moving at night, over Stone Mountain to cross into North Carolina on March 27. Hearing of a gathering of North Carolina guards, Stoneman dispatched Major Myles Keogh in command of a detachment from the 12th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry to Boone. Keogh “surprised and routed the rebels, killing 9 and capturing 68” after entering town around 10 a.m. on March 28.

Reporting from Boone that day, Stoneman told Thomas of his success thus far into the raid, but determined to alter his plans.   “I shall be compelled to alter slightly from the proposed route on account of the great scarcity of forage and subsistence for the men.”  Instead of moving up the New River Valley from Boone, Stoneman preferred to move across the Blue Ridge and strike Wilkesborough.  The Yadkin River Valley offered much better grazing for his horses.

Stoneman, who loved to divide his forces for these movements, did so again when leaving Boone in two columns starting mid-day on the 28th.  Brown’s Brigade, with Miller’s following, moved through Watuga Gap, passing Blowing Rock, and down to the headwaters of the Yadkin River.  That force came across Patterson’s Factory at the foot of the mountains.  Before leaving, the Federals destroyed the yarn factory.  This column continued towards Wilkesborough on the south side of the Yadkin on March 29th.

Palmer’s Brigade reached Deep Gap on the evening of the 28th, then crossed over the Blue Ridge. The next morning, Palmer’s three regiments descended upon Wilkesborough on the 29th.  There the 12th Ohio Cavalry overwhelmed a small home guard force to take possession of the town.

Again, I’m working at a “quick” pace through Stoneman’s Raid. There are certainly fine points I’m skipping with an accelerated discussion of events.  Stoneman’s Raid, 1865, by Chris Hartley is among the recent book-length treatments of the subject, and which I’d recommend.  Much of my appreciation for the campaign was gained by running around photographing historical markers.  Speaking of which, North Carolina has several which relate to the events mentioned in this post – Boone, Blowing Rock, Patterson’s Mill, Deep Gap, and Wilkesboro.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 330-1; Part II, Serial 104, page 112.)

3 thoughts on “Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman’s Raid breaks out of the mountains – March 21-29, 1865

  1. As a kid in a small town with only AM radio stations, I only heard the Joan Baez version and was always confused as to why she would be singing ” … like my brother before me I took a Rebel stand.” It would only be later, when I learned of The Band, that the lyric made a little more sense.

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