Allow me to briefly outline the movements of Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders as they moved from Wilkesborough up to the North Carolina-Virginia state line from March 30 to April 2, 1865. In the last post on this thread, I closed with the capture of Wilkesborough on March 29. Stoneman’s command moved up to that point in two columns, with Colonel William Palmer moving north of the Yadkin River while Stoneman and the rest of Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem’s division moved south of the river. One of Palmer’s three regiments, the 12th Ohio Cavalry, entered Wlkesborough on the evening of March 29. The other two regiments remained on the north side opposite the town. This setup a dangerous position for Stoneman, with a portion of his command isolated from the rest.
March 30 brought rains. According to observes in Charleston South Carolina, the season’s last Nor’easter ran up the coast. I don’t know if that storm directly caused the rains which fell on Stoneman, as satellite imagery was a bit slim during those days. But we might at least say that the precipitation, be that from what ever weather event one might conceive, once again worked to limit Federal operations that spring.
The 12th Ohio rejoined the rest of Palmer’s brigade north of Wilkesborough that morning (depicted on my map by a dashed line). But the rising waters of the Yadkin prevented the rest of Stoneman’s forces from crossing. At that moment, Stoneman’s dispositions were terrible. One brigade isolated from the rest of the command and an unfordable river at his back. But after spending most of the morning in a foul mood, Stoneman settled comfortably with the knowledge that no organized Confederate force was anywhere close. So March 30th was spent doing what soldiers often have to do – attempting to stay dry.
“On the 31st the river continued impassable,” recorded Gillem. Stoneman had the command move east, but still waited on the Yadkin to fall. While waiting, the Federals fanned out on both sides of the river searching for forage, horses, and anything worth plundering. The trailing brigade, Colonel John Miller, caught up with the main force east of Wilkesborough that day. Meanwhile on the north side of the river, Palmer reached Roaring Creek to find it also in flood stage.
The waters subsided somewhat on April 1. Palmer’s brigade moved to the milling community of Elkin and continued their heavy foraging. Stoneman ordered the main column forward toward Jonesville on the south side of the river. But the Yadkin remained too swift and deep for a crossing. Not until the next day did the waters fall to a point that a crossing could be effected.
Finally across the Yadkin, Stoneman united his command and made a dash for the Virginia state line on April 2. His plan was to recross the Blue Ridge near the border and then re-enter the New River Valley to reach his assigned objectives. The main line of march was from Jonesville, through Dobson, up to Mount Airy. In addition to that movement, a portion of Palmer’s brigade advanced to Rockford. This was a feint aimed at causing pause for any Confederates pursuing the column. Otherwise, all of Stoneman’s horses rode north that day.
As the lead elements of Palmer’s brigade entered Mount Airy that evening, word came of a Confederate wagon train having left the town earlier in the afternoon. Gillem directed Palmer send a force to catch the Confederates. “An officer of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry had charge of the pursuing party, and after reaching the top of the Blue Ridge halted until the remainder of the command came up the next morning.” Thus the vanguard of Stoneman’s force camped that evening in Virginia that evening and on the Blue Ridge.
From a larger context, Stoneman’s movements were having an effect on Confederate dispositions. In Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, Confederate forces held as Brigadier-General Davis Tillson’s infantry appeared to threaten that position.
To General P.G.T. Beauregard went the task of forming an opposition to Stoneman. The first order of business, given reports of Federal activity at Lenoir, was to protect the North Piedmond Railroad which formed the backbone of the Confederate position at that time. Urgency increased as reports came in regarding Stoneman’s movements from Wilkesborough and the raid into Rockford. Beauregard pulled together what forces were available to form a series of defenses from Chester, South Carolina up to Danville, Virginia.
Another broad context to consider, thinking of the situation that existed on April 2, 1865, was what happened at Danville and to the east of that point. Though he didn’t know it, Stoneman was threatening the Confederate retreat from Richmond. But with his eyes on the Blue Ridge, some 4,000 cavalry troopers, and his orders in hand, Stoneman was not prepared to make any moves against Danville.
But that does not stop historians from pestering us with “what could have been” scenarios. For what it is worth, Stoneman lost three days’ march distance on the Yadkin. It is reasonable to say had that river not flooded at that time, Stoneman would have been well into Virginia. But he would have been near Christiansburg, perhaps threatening Lynchburg, at that time, and not anywhere across the line of retreat from Richmond-Petersburg. Stoneman was following orders, not seeking opportunities unknown to him at that moment.
Following Stoneman’s Raid by markers, for this leg there are stops at Roaring River, Elkin, Jonesville, Dobson, and Mt. Airy. In addition, let me direct you to The Stoneman Gazette. On that blog Tom Layton is touching upon the many stories associated with the raid, particularly those of the civilians caught up in the middle.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, page 331.)