Petersburg as “Lee’s Keep”- in the grand strategic sense

Another great weekend at Longwood University for the Civil War Seminar (hosted by the university and the Appomattox NHP).  For those who could not attend, CSPAN was on site recording for the morning talks. I’m not sure when those will be rebroadcast, so “consult your local listings.”

Unfortunately, the CSPAN crew did not record the two afternoon sessions.  I say unfortunately because those two blocks were the most thought provoking… at least from my chair.  The “lost” sessions were Dr. Richard J. Sommers with “Enduring Lessons in Leadership from the Siege of Petersburg” and William C. Davis on “Lincoln and Davis as Commanders in Chief.”  I tried to work in as many of the soundbytes and highlights as possible by way of Twitter.  But that cannot replace the full impact of the delivery.  Which… is why I always encourage folks to attend these events in person!

One point from Sommers’ talk that I grabbed and considered on the ride home came from this talking point:

This is not, for those who have studied the 1864 campaigns with any depth, a new interpretation.  However, there were some fine points that Sommers’ introduced that caused me to associate some other details.  And that gave me a new perspective from which to “square” the grand strategic view in my head.  Consider a few of the ancillary points Sommers’ raised:

  • Petersburg was not a traditional siege.  No advancing parallels or batteries of reduction.  Rather Grant attempted to poke, prod, and flank Lee out of the fortifications.  So the actions more closely resembled open field battle than siege warfare. Again, nothing that most readers would say is “new” in the mix.  We know this already.
  • Lee didn’t opt to stay in Petersburg-Richmond due to sound military strategy, but rather because he was “told” to do so.  And, again, nothing new here.  Just throw it in the pot for now to mix with the other parts.
  • The siege of Petersburg prolonged the life of the Army of Northern Virginia by nine months.  Thus an “army in being” was preserved even if at the lower echelons the experience wasted the units.
  • And toward that point, it is said that Lee knew the war was lost as soon as his army took to the trenches… but in justification it is said that Lee didn’t have any alternatives.
  • Alternatives?  Well, Lee was to some degree just following orders.  But we cannot simply commit Lee to that fate saying he was just a good soldier following orders. Lee did have some influence on Confederate national policy and objectives, to be sure.  And we must assess that Lee was in agreement with many of those national polices and agree with the objectives, even if that meant hardship for … and eventual destruction of… his army.
  • However… it was not until near the very end of the war that Lee was granted full control of the Confederate armies (plural) so as to fully enact those national policies and objectives.

So… circle back to a map I ran during the sesquicentennial:


As stated in the original post, the rose colored area was a rough depiction of Lee’s reach – that area in which Lee could expect to influence directly.  As we know, there were many more Confederate troops under arms elsewhere across the South. But Lee had no way of directing them within a timely, responsive manner.  So he could not wield whatever power lay outside that reach.

We might back the time-line up to November 1864 and contemplate what reach the  Confederate “national command authority” (in other words, Davis and his counsel) had in the days prior to Sherman’s march out of Atlanta…. better still, what the Confederates held as of the day after Lincoln’s reelection, which I would submit would be a more important strategic turning point for several reasons.  At that time the rose colored swath of the map would extend to include South Carolina, most of Georgia,  Alabama, and parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, not to mention a larger portion of North Carolina.  A larger area, with larger commitments.

And let’s back that time-line even further back to the summer of 1864.  Such would open the swath of reach to include Atlanta, before its fall, and some important portions of Virginia… namely the Shenandoah Valley and approaches to Richmond.

So… at that time, nine months or so before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, what was the “plan” as established by the Confederate national command authority?  Well… in a nutshell… the objective was to survive, with the most likely alternative to be taking advantage of war-weariness of the North.  And with that as the strategic plan, the most important resources left to the Confederacy was not territory or cities, but rather having armies in the field.  Yes, armies in the field to fight more campaigns and keep the Federals at bay a little longer.  But more importantly, armies that were a bargaining chip or leverage, with which some considerations might be exacted from those in Washington.

In order for the “bargaining chip” strategy to work for the Confederacy, several things had to work in their favor.  Obviously, the armies had to remain “in being.”  Armies on campaign have a tendency, given combat and attrition, to lose some of that “being.”  Though there were some forays, notably Jubal Early’s run on Washington or Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri, mostly these served the point – the armies in being had to be reckoned with, while disrupting and delaying ongoing Federal operations.


That leads to another factor that had to work in the Confederate’s favor.  They needed some pause or delay in Federal operations. The longer the armies in being remained, the more value those assets had within any peace talks.  And as mentioned above, Early’s and Price’s operations certainly caused delays as Federal forces were reallocated to deal with threats.

But there were other ways to bring the Federals to a pause.  Consider what we have discussed recently about fortifications, specifically the notion of a “keep” within the works.  Yes, the keep was the last line of defense within the fort, but it was not a place where the defender went to die when making that last stand.  Rather it was a place from which the defender could force the attacker to pause.  And within that pause, the defender might use the leverage of a “garrison in being” to exact some compensation, hopefully an armistice with honor.

Now translate that to the strategic level.  Maybe we might say General Joseph E. Johnston was transforming Atlanta into a “keep” of sorts.  Some might argue that Johnston fought a series of actions moving from “keep” to “keep” on the way to Atlanta.  But, of course, we know that Johnston’s replacement opted for a more aggressive option which might be called, from a strategic level, a sortie against the attacker.  Heck, we might even carry that notion forward to consider General John B. Hood’s Tennessee Campaign one grand sortie in that light.

Circling back to Virginia, the analogy to the “keep” fits better when applied to Petersburg. With crossing of the James River and initial thrust at Petersburg, Grant had place Federal boots on Richmond’s parapets, strategically speaking.  And at that point, the trenches that ran from Petersburg to Richmond became, at the strategic level, a “keep” from which Lee hoped to exact a pause.  And that was a nine month long pause.

The flip side of that successful “keep” at Petersburg was the corresponding failure to enact a similar pause elsewhere on the map.  All efforts to delay Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas came to naught.  Savannah, nor Charleston, nor Columbia were effectively transformed into keeps.  Indeed, we might say heavy rains did more to slow Sherman than anything the Confederates attempted by arms.

All this said… I submit one way to view the last nine months of the Confederacy is one of keeping, or not keeping, keeps.  Conversely, we might view the Federal operations in that same span of time as one of occupying outer works and turning keeps.  All of which served to slice and reduce that rose colored area in which the “armies in being” of the Confederacy might be wielded.

Sherman’s March, April 27, 1865: Facilitating the surrender; Planning the march north

With dawn on April 27, 1865, the ink was hardly dry on the “final-final” surrender agreement between Major-General William T. Sherman and General Joseph E. Johnston.  But Sherman was already looking to the next leg of the Great March.  So a flurry of orders went out from Sherman’s headquarters down to the brigade level.  The group of armies was about to move once again – starting the last series of marches of their war.

Before any movement orders were issued, there were a few loose ends to attend in regard to the surrender terms.  Supplementary terms included eight points:

First. The Confederate troops to retain their transportation.

Second. Each brigade or separate body to retain a number of arms equal to one-fifth of its effective total, which, when the troops reach their homes, will be received by the local authorities for public purposes.

Third. Officers and men to be released from their obligation at the same time with those of the Army of Virginia.

Fourth. Artillery horses to be used for field transportation when necessary.

Fifth. The horses and other private property of officers and men to be retained by them.

Sixth. Troops from Arkansas and Texas to be transported by water from Mobile or New Orleans to their homes by the United States.

Seventh. The obligations of private soldiers to be signed by their company officers.

Eighth. Naval officers within the limits of General Johnston’s command to have the benefit of the stipulations of this convention.

Beyond those terms, Sherman would offer assistance to Johnston.  But Sherman charged Major-General John Schofield with the responsibility of implementation in North Carolina with respect to Johnston’s force.  And that charge was spelled out in a pair of orders – Special Field Orders No. 65 and 66.

Orders No. 65 outlined the administrative handling and mechanisms of the surrender.  The order gave Schofield, Major-General Quincy Gillmore, and Major-General James Wilson the responsibility to manage the surrender process within their respective areas of control.  The orders assigned an ordnance officer to manage surrendered weapons for Johnston’s command.  And Sherman directed that paper paroles, similar to those used at Appomattox earlier in the month, be printed for issue to all surrendered Confederates (securing the proper equipment and supplies to print these was somewhat a task in and of itself, but eventually worked out).  To this Sherman added,

… great care must be taken that all the terms and stipulations on our parts be fulfilled with the most scrupulous fidelity, whilst those imposed on our hitherto enemies be received in a spirit becoming a brave and generous army.

In addition Sherman directed some allowances beyond the surrender terms and directed toward reconciliation of the population:

Army commanders may at once loan to the inhabitants such of the captured mules, horses, wagons, and vehicles as can be spared from immediate use, and the commanding generals of armies may issue provisions, animals, or any public supplies that can be spared, to relieve present wants and to encourage the inhabitants to renew their peaceful pursuits and to restore the relations of friendship among our fellow-citizens and countrymen.

And, with respect to foraging:

Foraging will forthwith cease, and when necessity or long marches compel the taking of forage, provisions, or any kind of private property, compensation will be made on the spot, or, when the disbursing officers are not provided with funds, vouchers will be given in proper form, payable at the nearest military depot.

Adding to this, Sherman directed rations be issued to Johnston’s troops – “ten day’s rations for 25,000 men.”  That is, depending on the repair of railroad lines to allow movement to Greensborough.

Orders No. 66 were more specific to movements of the Federal armies:

Hostilities having ceased, the following changes and dispositions of troops in the field will be made with as little delay as practicable:

I. The Tenth and Twenty-third Corps will remain in the Department of North Carolina, and Maj. Gen. J. M. Schofield will transfer back to Major-General Gillmore, commanding Department of the South, the two brigades formerly belonging to the division of Brevet Major General Grover at Savannah. The Third Division, Cavalry Corps, Bvt. Maj. Gen. J. Kilpatrick commanding, is hereby transferred to the Department of North Carolina, and General Kilpatrick will report in person to Major-General Schofield for orders.

II. The cavalry command of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman will return to East Tennessee, and that of Bvt. Maj. Gen. J. H. Wilson will be conducted back to the Tennessee River in the neighborhood of Decatur, Ala.

This order effectively split Sherman’s “army group” as hit had existed for over a month.  The core elements from the day of the march out of Atlanta – the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia – marched on.  But the Army of the Ohio and Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry would remain in North Carolina.  Of note, the withdrawal of Stoneman’s and Wilson’s commands to points in Tennessee would leave many sections of the south “unoccupied.”  Sherman’s aim, derived from the instructions from the War Department, were not to “occupy” per say, but to facilitate a surrender of military forces… at least as things stood on April 27, 1865.

The last two paragraphs of the order gave the line of march for those corps moving north:

III. Major-General Howard will conduct the Army of the Tennessee to Richmond, Va., following roads substantially by Louisburg, Warrenton, Lawrenceville, and Petersburg, or to the right of that line. Major-General Slocum will conduct the Army of Georgia to Richmond by roads to the left of the one indicated for General Howard, viz, by Oxford, Boydton, and Nottoway Court-House. These armies will turn in at this point the contents of their ordnance trains, and use the wagons for extra forage and provisions. These columns will be conducted slowly and in the best of order, and will aim to be at Richmond ready to resume the march by the middle of May.

IV. The chief quartermaster and commissary of this military division, Generals Easton and Beckwith, after making the proper dispositions of their departments here, will proceed to Richmond and make suitable preparations to receive these columns and to provide for their further journey.

Maybe it would have saved a lot of shoe leather and spared the soldiers some blisters to have moved the force by rail and ship to Washington.  But with shipping capacity on the Atlantic seaboard already taxed just to keep the military in supply, any “boat ride” for the hard marching troops was difficult to arrange.  And why Washington?  Well, they were needed for a victory parade.  And beyond that, there was a growing desire, particularly from Congress, to start demobilizing the forces.  After all, those were “voting constituents” in uniform… and until they were mustered out, the government was paying and feeding them.

The route of the march home was designated on April 27.  Movement would start two days later.  The war was over for these men… all except for the memories and legacy they would carry north and into their post-war lives.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 321-325.)

April 26, 1865: “All acts of war… to cease from this date.”

Terms of a military convention entered into this 26th day of April, 1865, at Bennett’s house, near Durham’s Station, N. C, between General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army, and Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman, commanding the United States Army in North Carolina.

1. All acts of war on the part of the troops under General Johnston’s command to cease from this date.

2. All arms and public property to be deposited at Greensborough, and delivered to an ordnance officer of the United States Army.

3. Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be retained by the commander of the troops, and the other to be given to an officer to be designated by General Sherman, each officer and man to give his individual obligation in writing not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly released from this obligation.

4. The side arms of officers and their private horses and baggage to be retained by them.

5. This being done, all the officers and men will be permitted to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their obligation and the laws in force where they may reside.

W. T. Sherman,  Major-General, Commanding U.S. Forces in North Carolina.

J. E. Johnston,  General, Commanding C. S. Forces in North Carolina.
Raleigh, N. C., April 26, 1865.

U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 313.)

Secretary Mallory, April 24, 1865: “But the Confederacy is conquered; its days are numbered”

On April 23, 1865, the Confederate Cabinet, then meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, discussed the proposition from General Joseph E. Johnston to surrender his armies.  The cabinet saw no other option but allowing Johnston to accept the terms (the terms as arranged through April 18, which were, at this moment 150 years ago, being invalidated by Federal authorities. You have to keep in mind the time lines in regard to the moving parts here.).

This was a heady decision.  For the Confederate leadership, as I’ve presented before, Johnston’s command was the last card to play – trumped or not.  The surrender of Johnston’s army would effectively signal an end to any thoughts of continuing a Confederate rebellion.  Period.  Leaders don’t make such decisions without weighing information available to them at the time.  And it is important to separate what “we” know after the fact with full appreciation of the event from what “they” knew at the moment in time.  On April 24, 1865, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory offered a lengthy letter to President Jefferson Davis to explain the position and suggest what should follow Johnston’s surrender.  Mallory’s letter gives us a view of what the situation looked like from Charlotte.  So allow me to present it here, at that length, for our discussion:

Mr. President: In compliance with your suggestion, I have the honor briefly to present the following views upon the propositions discussed in cabinet council yesterday: These propositions, agreed upon and signed by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and W. T. Sherman, may fairly be regarded as providing for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the disbandment of our armies, and the return of our soldiers to the peaceful walks of life, the restoration of the several States of our Confederacy to the old Union, with the integrity of their State governments preserved, the security of their “people and inhabitants” in their rights of person and property under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, equally with the people of any other State, guaranteed, and a general amnesty for and on account of any participation in the present war. The very grave responsibility devolved upon you by these propositions is at once apparent. To enter at all upon their discussion is to admit that independence, the great object of our struggle, is hopeless. I believe and admit this to be the case, and therefore do I advise you to accept these propositions, so far as you have the power to do so; and my conviction is that nine-tenths of the people of every State of the Confederacy would so advise if opportunity were presented them. They are weary of the war and desire peace. If they could be rallied and brought to the field, a united and determined people might even yet achieve independence; but many circumstances admonish us that we cannot count upon their cordial and united action.

The vast army of deserters and absentees from our military service during the past twelve months, the unwillingness of the people to enter the armies, the impracticability of recruiting them, the present utter demoralization of our troops consequent upon the destruction of the Army of Virginia, the rapid decrease by desertion of General Johnston’s army, which, as it retreats south, if retreat it can, will retain in its ranks but few soldiers beyond the by-paths and cross-roads which lead to their homes, together with the recent successes of the enemy, the fall of Selma, Montgomery, Columbus, and Macon, his forces in the field, and his vast resources, all dictate the admission I have made. I do not believe that by any possibility we could organize, arm, and equip, and bring into the field, this side of the Mississippi, 15,000 men within the next sixty days; and I am convinced that both General Beauregard and General Johnston are utterly hopeless of continuing the contest. A guerrilla warfare might be carried on in certain portions of our country for a time, perhaps for years; but while such a warfare would be more disastrous to our own people than it could possibly be to the enemy, it would exercise little or no influence upon his military operations or upon his hold upon the country. Conducted upon our own soil, our own people would chiefly feel its evils, and would afford it neither countenance nor support. Guerrilla warfare never has been, and never can be, carried on by and between peoples of a common origin, language, and institutions.

Our sea-board and our ports being in the enemy’s hands, we cannot rely upon supplies of arms and other munitions of war from abroad, and our means of producing them at home, already limited, are daily decreasing. The loss of Selma and of Columbus, where much valuable machinery for the construction of ordnance and ordnance stores was collected, must materially circumscribe our ability in this respect.

Our currency is nearly worthless, and will become utterly so with further military disasters, and there is no hope that we can improve it. The arms of the United States have rendered the great object of our struggle hopeless; have conquered a reconstruction of the Union; and it becomes your duty to secure to the people, as far as practicable, life, liberty, and property. The propositions signed by the opposing generals are more favorable to these great objects than could justly have been anticipated. Upon you, with a more thorough knowledge of the condition of our country, the character and sentiments of our people, and of our means and resources than is possessed by others, is devolved the responsibility of promptly accepting or of promptly rejecting them. I advise their acceptance, and that, having notified General Johnston of your having done so, you promptly issue, so soon as you shall learn the acceptance thereof by the authorities of the United States, a proclamation to the people of the Confederate States, setting forth clearly the condition of the country, your inability to resist the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, or to protect the country from his devastating and desolating march; the propositions submitted to you, and the reasons which, in your judgment, render their acceptance by the States and the people wise and expedient. You cannot, under the Constitution, dissolve the Confederacy and remit the States composing it to the Government of the United States. But the Confederacy is conquered; its days are numbered; Virginia is lost to it, and North Carolina must soon follow; and State after State, under the hostile tread of the enemy, must re-enter the old Union. The occasion, the emergency, the dire necessities and misfortunes of the country, the vast interests at stake, were never contemplated by those who framed the Constitution. They are all outside of it; and in the dissolution of the Confederacy and the wreck of all their hopes the States and the people will turn to you, whose antecedents and whose present position and powers constitute you more than any other living man the guardian of their honor and their interests, and will expect you not to stand upon constitutional limitations, but to assume and exercise all powers which to you may seem necessary and proper to shield them from useless war and to save from the wreck of the country all that may [be] practicable of honor, life, and property.

If time were allowed for the observance of constitutional forms I would advise the submission of these propositions to the executives of the several States, to the end that, through the usual legislative and conventional action, the wills of the people of the States, respectively, might be known. But in the present condition of the country such delay as this course would involve would be the deathblow to all hopes founded upon them. The pacification of the country should be as speedy as practicable, to the end that the authorities of the States may enter upon the establishment and maintenance of law and order. Negotiations for this purpose can more appropriately follow upon the overwhelming disaster of General Lee than at a future time. The wreck of our hopes results immediately from it. I omit all reference to the details, which must be provided for by the contending parties to this agreement, for future consideration.

Again, this is the assessment at that moment in time.  Mallory did not see a “to the bitter end” fight as an option.  Instead, the ultimate objective was “pacification of the country” in short order.

But, keep in mind that on the same day Mallory presented this letter to Davis, Sherman served notice that the terms were rejected in Washington.  Hostilities would resume within 48 hours.  Complications… complications….

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 832-4.)

April 15, 1865: Sherman to Louisburg, NC – “I can promise you that events are in progress that will soon give peace”

Sometime, probably mid-day, on April 15, 1865, this message arrived at Major-General William T. Sherman’s headquarters in Raleigh:

Louisburg, N. C., April 15, 1865.
To the Officer in Command of the U.S. Forces at Raleigh, N. C.:

Sir: In accordance with a resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners of the town of Louisburg, N. C., I hereby formally surrender this place to the authorities of the United States, and in behalf of our citizens desire and request that you will be pleased to send us a guard under a proper officer, to be stationed here, so as to preserve order and afford us that protection which under existing circumstances we feel authorized to claim under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Should you be good enough to comply with our wishes in this respect you may be well assured of our united co-operation. Messrs. J. Fuller and Dr. E. Malone are deputed as the bearers of this communication.

Most obediently, yours,
W. H. Pleasants,
Mayor of Louisburg.

Rumors persist that, upon receiving this note, Sherman charged off in search of a map, inquiring “where the heck is Louisburg, and do I want to march on it now?”

Given Sherman’s faculties with map reading and ability to maintain such important operational information at the top of his head, I doubt Sherman would be caught off guard as to Louisburg’s location.  He might have needed a quick “map check” to see if the city fit within his changing operational stance.  Sherman had suspended major movements planned starting on April 14.  Aside from pushing the cavalry division out to Chapel Hill, the Fourteenth Corps marched to Jones Crossroads, southwest of Raleigh.   Louisburg lay to the northeast of Raleigh, on the Tar River. Had Sherman marched towards Petersburg as originally intended, Louisburg would have been an important waypoint (which is why I feel Sherman would have known where the place was when the message arrived on April 15).

At any rate, Sherman composed a response to Mayor Pleasants that afternoon:

Dear Sir: Your communication of this date is received. It is not my present intention to move any part of this army through Louisburg, and I do not think you will be molested in any manner; nor can I send a small detachment, because it would be exposed to danger from Hampton’s cavalry. But I think I can promise you that events are in progress that will soon give peace to all the good people of North Carolina. Mr. William A. Graham, of Hillsborough, has gone to Governor Vance to assure him that he has my full promise of assistance and protection if he will return and maintain good order in the State. I am also now in correspondence with General Johnston, which I hope will result in an universal peace. The gentlemen who bear this letter can explain many things that will, I hope, tend to allay any fears occasioned by the falsehoods circulated by the rebel cavalry.

I am, with respect, your obedient servant,
W. T. Sherman, Major-General, Commanding

Was Pleasants the outside the chain of command – Confederate or Federal – to receive indication of the Johnston-Sherman talks?  Perhaps.  Though certainly there were reporters with Sherman who were working the “scoop” at that time.  But Pleasants would receive his personal briefing from the bearer of Sherman’s response.  And that response held as much uncertainty as promise.  With no Federal troops to secure Louisburg, did the mayor have to fear, as other places in the south had, the lapse of good order?  What is telling, both from Pleasant and Sherman, is the realization that the war was driving to a close.  Parties on both sides were looking to smooth the transition… quickly.

On the same day, President Jefferson F. Davis departed Greensboro on horseback.  He and members of the Confederate government, with a cavalry escort, rode south.  They had to leave the railroad behind, as Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders had cut it in too many places to be of use.  Turning back to the premise of “Johnston’s Confederacy,” it is with that flight that the weight of continuing the war in any capacity fell upon Johnston’s shoulders.  As Davis rode out of Greensboro, he broke contact with Johnston.  The last card held by the Confederacy was thrown on the table.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 225.)

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.)


Sherman’s March, April 13, 1865: Federals enter Raleigh; Johnston urges negotiations

We entered Raleigh this morning.  Johnston has retreated westward. I shall move to [Ashborough] and Aslisbury or Charlotte. I hope Sheridan is coming this way with his cavalry. If I can bring Johnston to a stand I will soon fix him. The people here had not heard of the surrender of Lee, and hardly credit it. All well.

I might leave my daily summary of Major-General William T. Sherman’s movements to just that message, sent to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on April 13, 1865.  Raleigh was the third state capital visited by Sherman on the Great March.  Though he alluded to further movements to the west that would head off and box-in General Joseph E. Johnston’s force, the march in to Raleigh was for all practical purposes the end of the shortest leg of the Great March, lasting but four days.  After April 13, Sherman would make no grand movements as “talking” became the weapon of choice.


The lead of the Federal advance that day was Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  Through agreement with Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton and Major-General Joseph Wheeler, Kilpatrick’s forces moved unopposed into the city.  However, at several points stragglers and others operating on their own took shots at the Federals.  Kilpatrick noted, “my staff was fired upon from the state-house yard and corners of the street.”

By 8:30 a.m., Kilpatrick reported, “My advance is two miles beyond the town on the Hillsborough road, heavily engaged with Wheeler and Hampton’s combined forces.”  The fighting with the Confederate rear guard continued through the afternoon.  At 3 p.m., Kilpatrick added, “We have taken barricade after barricade of the strongest character and with but little loss…. I have been scattering Wheeler’s cavalry all day, driving it off upon the side roads.”  The Federal cavalry captured three trains along the railroad and almost netted a fourth.  The closing action of the day was a severe skirmish at Morrisville.

Behind the Cavalry, the Left Wing marched into Raleigh and took up camp beyond. Any delays encountered were more so due to line of march traffic control.  Major-General Alpheus Williams recorded,

April 13, the division moved in advance at daylight. At the railroad crossing found our road in possession of Fourteenth Corps. After some delay a road was made to the left and the division moved to its camp near the insane asylum two miles south of Raleigh.  The day was very unpleasant; estimated march, fifteen miles.

Behind the Left Wing, the Center Wing marched to close on Raleigh.  Major-General Adelbert Ames, commanding Second Division, Tenth Corps, recorded camping near Swift Creek that evening.

On the east side of the Neuse River, the Right Wing marched towards a couple of bridges.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard noted a rare occurrence on the march – capture of an intact Hinton’s Bridge by the Fifteenth Corps.  “We found the bridge a new one, recently constructed.  Only a few planks  were taken up.”  The Seventeenth Corps closed on Battle’s Bridge where that crossing point required more substantial repairs and supplement of a pontoon bridge.

Other than Kilpatrick’s troopers at the fore of the advance, the Federal marches seemed more against terrain and nature than the Confederates.  The main part of what remained of the Confederate forces in North Carolina was well west of Raleigh.  Johnston could count about 25,000 troops counting all infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  The presumption was that Sherman’s force would soon be joined by those moving south from Virginia (though at that time only minor movements were made in that regard).   To the west of Johnston, Major-General George Stoneman had descended out of Virginia to turn against the railroads of North Carolina.  The military situation seemed to collapse all around Johnston.

On April 13, Johnston attended a conference with members of the Confederate government in Greensboro.  Johnston felt the Confederate President, Jefferson F. Davis, did not have a full appreciation of the situation.  To address that, Johnston laid estimates of the Federal strengths in front of the cabinet:

I represented that under such circumstances it would be the greatest of human crimes for us to attempt to continue the war; for, having neither money nor credit, nor arms but those in the hands of our soldiers, nor ammunition but that in their cartridge boxes, nor shops for repairing arms or fixing ammunition, the effect of keeping in the field would be, not to harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and ruin of its people.  I therefore urged that the President should exercise at once the only function of government still in his possession, and open negotiations for peace.

Though winning over most of the cabinet, Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin were unswayed.  And we must place ourselves in that moment – the only bargaining chip left in the hands of Davis was Johnston’s army.  If it stood, and where it stood, was the physical embodiment of what remained of the Confederacy.  So to hear that the senior military commander’s assessment was an admission even that last card was trumped.  Yet, even a trumped card was still a card in hand. Thus Davis continued to refuse any military surrender, hoping for a political settlement.

Johnston went further to suggest a military armistice while the political leaders offered terms to end hostilities.  This was accepted as the course of action, and Johnston had a letter dictated for dispatch to Sherman, requesting a suspension of active operations, to be delivered the following day.

The guns were not yet silenced, but the pen and paper would be the preferred weapons after April 13.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 604; Part III, Serial 100, pages 191-2, 197, 198; Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of military operations directed, during the late war between the states, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874, pages 398-9. )