Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman completes the ride through Virginia, April 7-10, 1865

My last installment covering Major-General George Stoneman’s Raid brought the raiders up to the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad at points from Wytheville to Salem.  On April 6, as the big armies in Virginia fought around Farmville, Stoneman began withdrawing his forces for transit back into North Carolina.


The main column, with Stoneman and Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem, left Christansburg at 8 p.m. on April 6.  By 10 a.m. on the 7th, that column reached Jacksonville.  Stoneman continued the pattern of overnight marches with a 2 p.m. departure from that place.  By 10 p.m. that evening, Stoneman and the lead elements reached Taylorsville (now Stuart, and Patrick County seat).  Though trailing elements did not close on Taylorsville until the next morning.  There Stoneman would rest and wait and consolidate his wide-ranging detachments.

One of those columns was Colonel John Miller’s 8th and 13th Tennessee Cavalry, returning from Wytheville.  Miller’s force made a two day march from Porter’s Ford to rejoin the main group at Taylorsville on the 8th.

Stoneman’s intent was for Colonel William Palmer, of 1st Brigade, to have Colonel Luther Trowbridge’s 10th Michigan Cavalry to retire to Martinsville. But, “By some misunderstanding of the order he marched by way of Kennedy’s Gap with his entire brigade to Martinsville.”  Meanwhile, Trowbridge retired from Salem by way of Rocky Mount to close on Martinsville.

On the morning of April 8, the 10th Michigan camped Jones Creek outside Martinsville, tired from a 36-mile march.  But before the troopers could settle, Confederate scouts caused a bit of a stir.  These were from Colonel Colonel James T. Wheeler’s 6th Tennessee (CS) Cavalry, numbering over 400.  Assuming the force was just a few hundred, Trowbridge had two of his companies charge the Confederate camp. But this simply stirred a hornets nest. A Confederate counter-attack soon pinned the two lead Michigan companies.  Only by engaging with the remainder of the regiment was Trowbridge able to drive Wheeler’s Tennesseeans back.  The fighting concluded mid-morning.  Shortly after, Palmer’s column arrived at Martinsville.  Federal casualties were 1 killed and five wounded.

The furthest of Stoneman’s columns was Major William Wagner’s 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  On April 7, Wagner’s column destroyed bridges on the Otter River and moved toward Lynchburg.  The 15th Pennsylvania encountered the outside defenses of Lynchburg the following morning.  Well fortified, but defended by only a few hundred men, Lynchburg was still too tough an objective for a lone cavalry regiment.  Wagner’s troopers skirmished briefly with the garrison pickets, then turned away from the city.  But this demonstration apparently was enough to prompt a message warning General Robert E. Lee, who was by that time reaching Appomattox Court House to the east.  (This engagement rated a Civil War Trails marker.)

After briefly standing to invite a counterattack, Wagner turned south to rejoin the main group.  As the Pennsylvanians withdrew, they were harassed by mounted bushwackers:

The bushwackers were more annoying this day, and exhibited greater boldness in their operations. Heretofore they had been satisfied to take a long shot at the column which, while it may have pleased them, did us no harm, but now they boldly road up to within a few hundred yards of the rear guard, fired a volley and then raced off.  They kept this up for six or seven miles and were successful in shooting one horse.  To stop this annoyance, one company was placed in ambush and waited till the enemy came along, and then suddenly fired on them at close range, killing two and taking several of their horses.  This put a stop to their operations for that day.

Wagner’s column passed through Rocky Mount on the 9th and stopped within seven miles of Martinsville.  Hearing of a Confederate force in that area, Wagner took a cross-country route and effected a night march to avoid any traps.

… Wagner took to the left across the country, forded a river, and that night passed so close to the rebel troops that strict orders were given to light no matches, nor talk loud, and to hold the sabers to prevent them rattlling.  The march was kept up all night and was a continuous one of twenty-four hours.

While Wagner’s men skirted Confederate forces, the rest of Stoneman’s raiders moved out of Virginia.  On April 9, the main body reached Danbury and were joined by Palmer’s brigade.  On the 10th, the force proceeded south (off my map) to Germantown.  There, according to Gillem, the number of contrabands following the Federals began to present a problem.

The number of negroes who were following the column had increased to such an extent as to endanger the safety of the command in case it should become closely engaged with the enemy.  Several hundred were sent from this point to East Tennessee under a sufficient guard for their protection.  They all reached their destination in safety, and most of those fit for military service, I have since learned, are in Colonel Bartlett’s One hundred and nineteenth U.S. Colored Troops.

With his original objective addressed and his force leaving Virginia, Stoneman now looked to take the opportunity to do further damage to the Confederates.  The railroads and factories of central North Carolina offered an inviting target.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 332; Kirk, Charles H., History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, Philadelphia, 1906, pages 531-2.)


April 10, 1865: Joseph Johnston’s Confederacy


The Civil War did not end at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  A significant part of the Civil War – that of the military campaigns in Virginia – came  to a close that day. But the Confederacy, and thus the war, remained on April 10.  And keep in mind what was the Confederacy in reality at that time?  As had been the case since Major-General William T. Sherman cut through Georgia, the Confederacy was for all practical purposes the Confederate Army as it stood, where ever it stood, as an organized force.   Any discussion about how many rebellious state governments might still claim stars on the flag or how many places were not under Federal garrisons were moot points.  The Confederate government could only exist where its army stood.  And with the events at Appomattox on April 9, the Confederate government had contact with only one army – that under General Joseph E. Johnston.

I alluded to “Lee’s Confederacy” last month.  At this point 150 years ago, the weight of that burden fell to Johnston.  And his “Confederacy” was something like this:


Again, as with the assessment of Lee’s reach and grasp as of March 1865, we have to consider what Johnston could call upon.  If the resource, be that supplies or military units, were not close to a railroad, then Johnston could not call upon the resource to meet any immediate need.  Nor could President Jefferson Davis hope to leverage any forces outside Johnston’s reach, to exact any circumstantial change to the inevitable fall.

There were certainly military formations scattered across the south from South Carolina to Texas that remained in the field.  But neither Davis or Johnston had the ability to control those.  Even the “pocket” of Confederate forces from Bristol to Lynchburg, having just responded to Major-General George Stoneman’s raid to Christiansburg, were out of position to provide support to Johnston.

From his headquarters in Smithfield, on April 9, Johnston ordered the destruction of railroad bridges over the Roanoke River at Gaston and Weldon.  This move was just as much intended to block any move south by Federals operating in Virginia as it was to delay a move by Sherman’s forces to march north to join them.  With that act, save for the station at Danville, Johnston had no “influence” into Virginia.

On April 10, a series of reports trickled into Smithfield from Confederate cavalry.  At 7:10 p.m. that day, Major-General Joseph Wheeler reported, “Enemy advanced toward Smithfield to-day.  They say they are going to Raleigh.”

As I mentioned when discussing “Lee’s Confederacy” in March, the last acts of the Confederacy would play out within that shaded area.  But at this point 150 years ago, one of the main characters in the play – Robert E. Lee – was absent from the stage.  Johnston, the only Confederate commander then standing center stage, inherited a sphere of influence that extended only across the center of North Carolina.

There’s a lot I need to “catch up” on for my sesquicentennial time line – Stoneman, Sherman, and Potter…. but the story line is well known.  That sphere of influence would be cut, parted, and split by many hands.