Volume XXVI Issue #6 • An Excerpt From:

Stoneman's 1865 Raid
in Central North Carolin
"Driving Dixie Down"

by Chris J. Hartley

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Still, the weather was not cooperating. General Stoneman (right) had finally ordered his 4,000-man Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee into the saddle despite a heavy storm rolling over Knoxville. As the cavalrymen trotted eastward, the road turned muddy and sucked at hooves, wheels, and boots. By evening hail fell thickly from the dark sky, pelting the men in blue. Cavalryman H. K. Weand, a native of Norristown, Pennsylvania, never forgot it. “We started from Knoxville in an ordinary rainstorm, which increased in intensity during the day, and at night had developed into a furious hailstorm,” he wrote.

A similar storm had famously delayed the start of Stoneman’s failed Chancellorsville raid back in 1863. A long and rough road also lay ahead. All of this might have caused Stoneman to worry; to his credit, it did not. When he saw new Spencer carbines slung over the shoulders of his men, the general bragged, “We ought to be able to go anywhere with our seven-shooters.”

So began one of the longest cavalry raids in history: one that would cover as much as 2,000 miles across six Confederate states. Ohio trooper Frank Mason, one of the men huddling against the hailstorm that March day, guessed at the raid’s importance. “We were cutting the last avenues of escape that lay open to Lee, and we were a part of the machine by which the last great army of the Confederacy was to be hopelessly ensnared,” he wrote. “The collapse was approaching, and we, every man of us, would be in at the death.”

Raiders and Defenders

The troopers trotting out of Knoxville could not miss their commander, even beneath heavy skies. A hard-swearing, sour, and brusque man who looked older than his 42 years, Stoneman struck quite a figure. A cavalryman described the thin, tall district commander as “a powerfully-built man, standing six feet four, with a face that showed the marks of long and hard service in the field.” His gaunt and sad appearance reminded some of the long-dead abolitionist John Brown and others of Abraham Lincoln.

Born August 22, 1822, in Busti, New York, George Stoneman was an 1846 graduate of West Point. A roommate there of Thomas J. Jackson, the New Yorker had subsequently enjoyed little of “Stonewall’s” military success, starting with Stoneman’s much-criticized Chancel-lorsville raid. The following year, while commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Ohio, Stoneman had been ingloriously captured in Georgia while trying to destroy the Macon railroad and free prisoners from Andersonville.

Because of these mishaps, Stoneman had his share of detractors. One was Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, who had led the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. Hooker held Stoneman largely responsible for his defeat. “I might as well have had a wet shirt in command of my cavalry,” Hooker crowed.8 Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had no use for Stoneman either. “I think him one of the most worthless officers in the service and who has failed in everything entrusted to him,” he complained.

After Stoneman was exchanged and released from a Confederate prison, Stanton and Grant ordered him relieved from duty. Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield intervened. Schofield persuaded Stanton and Grant to revoke their order, and appointed Stoneman to lead cavalry forces in the Department of the Ohio. Reenergized, Stoneman suggested a raid against the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and the Saltville, Virginia, salt works. “I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate, and this appears a propitious occasion,” he wrote. Schofield approved the raid, which Stoneman executed successfully in December 1864.10

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