Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman descends upon the North Piedmont Railraod, April 11-13, 1865

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.)


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.)


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.)