Consider again my map of General Joseph E. Johnston’s area of control, generally speaking, as of April 10, 1865:
Two railroads were the arteries which served Johnston in the closing weeks of the war – the North Carolina Railroad, providing a link from Greensboro to Raleigh, and the North Piedmont Railroad, from Salisbury to Danville and providing the links to points southwest. With Johnston’s army the primary objective for Federal forces, those railroads were important “enabling” objectives. If the railroads were damaged, then Johnston’s lines of supply, reinforcement, and, if needed, retreat, were severed. And Major-General George Stoneman’s cavalry division was in the right place to inflict that sort of damage. Furthermore, Stoneman wanted the opportunity to free prisoners thought to be held at Salisbury, redeeming somewhat for failed raids aimed at Andersonville the previous summer.
Recall that on April 9, Stoneman’s raiders departed Virginia and moved to Danbury, North Carolina. Moving through Germantown on the 10th, Stoneman set his next objective as Salisbury and Federal prisoners reported held there. However, Stoneman detached Colonel William Palmer’s brigade to raid the factories at Salem and the North Piedmont Railroad. Stoneman’s two-pronged advance landed a telling blow upon the already staggered Confederacy. The map below depicts, generally, the routes taken
Yes… very complex with all sorts of blue arrows… and I’ve simplified this somewhat without showing the return routes used by the various columns. Let me break down each of the “prongs” in order.
Palmer’s column reached Salem on the afternoon of April 10. That evening, Palmer issued marching orders. Colonel Charles Betts, commanding the 15th Pennsylvania, would send detachments to strike the railroad at Reedy Fork Creek, north of Greensboro, and Jamestown, to the south, in addition to threatening Greensboro itself. The 10th Michigan Cavalry, led by Colonel Luther Trowbridge, sent detachments to High Point and the bridge over Abbott’s Creek, near Lexington. Before midnight, the troopers were starting out on their assignments.
Moving quickly to Kernersville, Betts sent off a detachment from that point towards Jamestown. Arriving early on April 11th, that force set fire to the Deep River bridge outside Jamestown, burned the railroad depot, ransacked several railroad cars, burned a woolen mill, and destroyed a small arms factory. Betts, with the main body of the 15th Pennsylvania overran a battalion of the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry near Friendship (Betts would later receive the Medal of Honor for leading the action). Past that point, Betts sent a squad to destroy the bridge over Buffalo Creek, just north of Greensboro, and cut the telegraph lines. Another detachment of the 15th Pennsylvania arrived at the railroad bridge over Reedy Creek around mid-morning. They almost captured a rail-train, but did capture a wagon train. All this accomplished, the 15th Pennsylvania had broken the line in three places. Later it was learned that President Jefferson Davis had passed over those bridges a few hours before the raiders arrived, offering a “near miss” of the sort to spice up veterans reunions.
Trowbridge dispatched one battalion of the 10th Michigan to High Point. Arriving there at breakfast on the 11th, that detail destroyed track, a telegraph station, supplies and cotton. The other two battalions approached the railroad bridge over Abbott’s Creek. Though the raiders managed to destroy the bridge, they stirred up a hornet’s nest in the form of a cavalry brigade under Brigadier-General Samuel Ferguson marching from Georgia. Trowbridge conducted a masterful retirement by alternate squadrons. But greatly outnumbered, Trowbridge was hard pressed and sent word back to Palmer at Salem. This prompted Palmer to hurry the recall of Betts in case Ferguson continued the pursuit. Able to disengaged, Trowbridge arrived at Salem that afternoon, having succeeded in dropping one bridge and drawing forces away from the main effort against Salisbury.
In Salem, Palmer destroyed Confederate property but left most of the mills and other facilities intact. After the return of his far ranging detachments, Palmer left the town early in the evening of April 11th. Behind them, the railroad from Danville to Lexington had four destroyed bridges. Stoneman would later laud Palmer’s work, “This duty was performed with considerable fighting, the capture of 400 prisoners, and to my entire satisfaction.” Palmer moved off to rejoin the main force at Salisbury.
While Palmer’s brigade struck along the rail lines, Stoneman marched the main body through Bethania, across Shallow Ford, to Mocksville on a rapid overnight march . The Federals captured a guard at Shallow Ford near dawn on the 11th and brushed aside home guard at Mocksville later that day. Pausing for a few hours, Stoneman searched for crossing points of the South Yadkin River. He found only Halle Ford suitable to his needs. Over that barrier, the raiders continued the advance in the early morning hours of April 12, as recorded by Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem:
One-quarter of a mile south of the [South Yadkin], the road forked, both branches leading to Salisbury. The west road was chosen for the main column as being in better condition. One battalion of the Twelfth Kentucky Cavalry was sent by the eastern or old road, with orders to make a determined demonstration of crossing Grant’s Creek two miles from Salisbury, and if successful to attack the forces defending the upper bridge in rear.
At sunrise, the Federals reached Grant’s Creek. After driving back Confederate pickets, Stoneman’s men attacked the main Confederate defenses of Salisbury.
Brigadier-General Bradley T. Johnson commanded about 5,000 Confederates defending Salisbury. The force consisted of a varied force of prison guards, home guards, and reserve units, and detachments from the Army of Tennessee. Among those in Johnson’s force was Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Pemberson, formerly Lieutenant-General and defender of Vicksburg. The most significant portion of Johnson’s force were twelve 12-pdr Napoleon guns in four batteries. Three were Army of Tennessee veterans – Captain Van Den Corput’s Cherokee Artillery, Captain Rene Beauregard’s South Carolina Battery, Captain Lucius G. Marshall’s Tennessee Battery – all part of Major John Johnston’s battalion. Complementing this was a battery maned, reportedly, by “Galvanized Yankees.” Six other artillery pieces, manned by reserves, were on the lines elsewhere around Salisbury. However, inexperienced infantry cancelled any advantage Johnson might have held with artillery firepower.
Federal scouts found “the flooring had been removed from two spans of the bridge and piled on the enemy side” of Grant’s Creek.” This, coupled with the steep banks and artillery placement, precluded a direct assault. Instead, Stonemen ordered a demonstration to the Confederate front while flanking the line to the west. At least four separate detachments would precede Colonel John Miller’s brigade. Gillem recounted the assault:
So soon as the parties sent across [Grant’s Creek] became engaged and the rattling fire of the Eleventh Kentucky Cavalry Spencer rifles announced that the enemy’s left had been turned I ordered Colonel Miller to advance on the main road. The flooring of the bridge was found to have been taken up, but was laid by a detachment of the Eighth and Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, and Miller’s brigade charged across. The enemy by this time was falling back along their entire line.
Gillem’s brief account does not mention the stand of Marshall’s battery, nearly two hours, covering the railroad bridge (Western North Carolina Railroad) over Grant’s Creek. Thus the attack at Salisbury was a bit more than a skirmish, and far more involved than Gillem recalled. However, once forcing their way through the Confederate left flank, the Federals drove and scattered the defenders. By noon, Stoneman and his troopers held Salisbury.
Stoneman then attempted a “clean sweep” and dispatched a force to destroy the railroad bridge over the Yadkin River, northeast of Salisbury. However a scratch force commanded by Brigadier-General Zebulon York occupied a well sited fort on the far bank of the river. From that position, York’s artillery was able to keep the Federals from gaining the bridge. The Home Guard, militia, and “Galvanized Yankees” were able to hold position throughout the afternoon. York thus denied Stoneman one last prize on April 12th.
In Salisbury, Stoneman inventoried the spoils. For the remainder of the afternoon and into the 13th, the raiders rounded up supplies, materials, and prisoners. They also destroyed facilities and railroad lines. The skies around Salisbury were filled with smoke. Shells in the burning magazines sounded throughout the day and into the night. Gillem later tallied:
10,000 stand of arms, 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition (small), 10,000 rounds of ammunition (artillery), 6,000 pounds of powder, 3 magazines, 6 depots, 10,000 bushels corn, 75,000 suits of uniform clothing, 250,000 blankets (English manufacture), 20,000 pounds of leather, 6,000 pounds of bacon, 100,000 pounds of salt, 20,000 pounds of sugar, 27,000 pounds of rice, 10,000 pounds of saltpeter, 50,000 bushels of wheat, 80 barrels turpentine, $15,000,000 Confederate money, a lot of medical stores, which the medical director said were worth over $100,000 in gold.
In addition, the raiders captured “18 pieces of artillery with caissons, forges, and battery wagons complete, 17 stand of colors, and between 1,200 and 1,300 prisoners and the possession of the town….” Stoneman would leave with eleven of the artillery pieces, destroying the rest for lack of teams to draw them. However, what was missing among the inventory of spoils were any freed Federal prisoners. Most of the POWs held at Salisbury were shipped to Wilmington in March, as part of the exchange program. Thus Stoneman was denied another laurel.
Stoneman remained in Salisbury until 3 p.m. on the 13th. By April 15, the column reached Lenoir. There Stoneman waited a day to form a column to send the prisoners to Tennessee. Stoneman himself would proceed with the column. But Gillem and his division would remain in North Carolina to continue working against the Confederates. Thus “Stoneman’s Raid” did not end at Salisbury and the raiders would have more operations worthy of note as April turned to May. Not the least of which was the pursuit of President Jefferson Davis.
However, the main objectives of the raid were accomplished between April 7 and 13. Some have relegated Stoneman’s raid as an effort just too late to have an impact. Personally, I look back at what was “Lee’s Confederacy” and then “Johnston’s Confederacy.” After Salisbury, Johnston’s reach was most significantly impaired. His corner looked something like this:
Again, not saying that the Confederates didn’t occupy Charlotte, North Carolina or Bristol, Tennessee or other points. Nor to say the Confederacy west of the Appalachians had collapsed. But what I am saying is that in the sense of the Confederacy’s government, the only force it might wield with any authority was that within Johnston’s range of command. And, given Stoneman’s work on the railroads and Sherman’s advance to Raleigh, on April 14, 1865, the forces that Johnston could positively command, via rail and telegraph, were diminished to but a small section of north-central North Carolina. We might debate where to place some of those “reach” boundaries. But all, I trust, would acknowledge that “Dixie” was driven down as Stoneman made his way out of Salisbury.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 324 and 335-6.)