Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman breaks the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, April 3-6, 1865

Having reached the Virginia state line on April 2, 1865, Major-General George Stoneman directed his raid back across the Blue Ridge to his assigned objective – the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad around Christiansburg.  The raiders rode through Fancy Gap to reach Hillsville on the morning of April 3.


There, Stoneman exercised two of his raiding habits.  First, after conducting an overnight march, he rested his command for part of the day.  Second, began detaching columns to strike secondary objectives.  One detachment chased down the Confederate supply train reported, but missed, the day before.  This brought in ample supplies and fodder for the raiders.  Stoneman sent another detachment, numbering 500 men, from the 8th and 13th Tennessee Cavalry, under Colonel John Miller, towards Wytheville.  Miller departed mid-afternoon in that direction.

After resting the main body the rest of the day, around dusk Stoneman pressed on towards Jacksonville.  After a brief skirmish with Home Guards, the command rested briefly in the night.  By 10 a.m. on April 4, the main body reached Jacksonville.  There the raiders captured a stock of fodder gathered for the Confederate army and put it to other uses.  Stoneman again rested the command during the day while dispatching another detachment.  This time it was Major William Wagner, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, with 250 men ordered to break the railroad from Salem to Lynchburg.

While Stoneman moved on Jacksonville, Miller’s detachment crossed the New River at Porter’s Ford and then reached Wytheville at mid-morning of April 4.  There, Miller’s men drove off a Home Guard company and proceeded to wreck nearby railroad bridges, destroy box cars, and burn several buildings.  But that afternoon a Confederate cavalry force under Colonel Henry Giltner responded to reports of Miller’s activities.  Giltner pressed in Miller’s work parties and drove the Federals back on the town.  Miller, facing a superior force, withdrew at dusk and backtracked to Porter’s Ford.  But before leaving, Miller could report his men had “destroyed the bridges at Reedy Creek and Max Meadows, and a large depot of commissary, quartermaster’s, and ordnance supplies, among which were a large amount of ammunition and 10,000 pounds of powder….”

April 5 found Miller’s detachment along the New River, where they rested and destroyed Confederate lead mines in the area.  Meanwhile the main body of Stoneman’s command had conducted a night march to arrive at Christiansburg overnight on April 5.  There the raiders went about their assigned objective – destroying the railroad and other infrastructure.  While there, captured newspapers brought the news of Richmond’s fall.

Wagner’s detachment reached Salem on the afternoon of April 5th.  Finding no rolling stock on the railroad, Wagner moved on towards Lynchburg.  Along the way the raiders damaged bridges, but failed to find the trains they wanted to capture.  These were seen as the most important targets, given the supplies that might be destined to the retreating Confederate forces to the east.

Stoneman sent off another detachment on April 5th, in the form of the 10th Michigan under Colonel Luther Trowbridge to move from Christiansburg to Salem, with orders to wreck the bridges along the way.  This Trowbridge accomplished to good effect.  By that evening, lead elements of the 10th Michigan reached Salem, but the main body continued to work along the railroad.

With all these detachments in motion on April 5, Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem would brag, “At this time at least ninety miles of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was in our possession, viz, from Wytheville to Salem.”  Though Gillem overstated the timing of the Federal strikes along the railroad, there was a kernel of truth to the statement.  As result of the actions on April 4-5, the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad could not move supplies up the line to Lynchburg.  And thus the fodder and supplies which might have been pushed out from there to support Lee’s forces retreating from Richmond, were instead being used to support Stoneman’s troops, where not destroyed on the spot.

Stoneman remained in Christiansburg on the morning of April 6.  At 8 p.m. that day, he moved out of town and retraced the route to Jacksonville.  At that time, detachments of his command were at Hillsville, Salem, and to the east at the bridges over Otter River.  With the damage done to the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad to the east and west of Christiansburg, Stoneman had accomplished his primary mission.  However, we might debate if this had an impact on the events occurring some 100 miles to the east.

Virginia does not follow Stoneman’s Raid with the attention of the North Carolina highway markers.  But there are a handful which describe, very briefly, activities related to this portion of the raid: Wytheville, New River Bridge, and Christiansburg.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 331-2.)