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Wednesday, 19 January 2011 19:58

Revisiting one of the last raids of the Civil War

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Anyone who has driven state roads between Asheville and Winston-Salem has quite possibly seen those state historical markers commemorating the passage of Stoneman’s raiders in the spring of 1865. North Carolina has erected 19 of these markers — the largest for any historical event in the state. Most of us who have seen the markers doubtless pass them by without too much thought, though not so long ago, when the first markers were set in place just before World War II, some disgusted citizens tore them out of the ground and threw them into a river.

So Chris J. Hartley tells us in Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 (ISBN 978-0-89587-377-4, 2010, $27.95). He further adds in his “preface” that Stoneman’s Raid also inspired The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (“Stoneman’s cavalry came and they tore up the track again”) and the Disney movie “Menace on the Mountain,” starring Mitch Vogel and Jodie Foster.

If you haven’t heard of George Stoneman and his 1865 cavalry raid through Southwestern Virginia and Western and Piedmont North Carolina, don’t be too dismayed. This raid occurred late in the war, was conducted against an enemy that was already tottering on the brink of defeat, and was overshadowed by enormous events like the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Nevertheless, Stoneman’s destructive tear across the middle of the Old North State caused immense physical destruction to local manufacturing, railroads, and farms, and brought privation to a people already suffering from the depredations of a four-year war. Near the end of his history of the raid, Hartley writes that:

“Violence, poverty, and isolation: these were the terrible, yet very real, outcomes of the end of the Civil War and Stoneman’s Raid in particular. They thrived long afterward in the areas touched by the raid and even found their way into postwar literature, which helped create the hillbilly stereotype that endures in the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to this day.”

Until he began his famous — some might say infamous — raid in March 1865, George Stoneman was regarded by one high-ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet as “one of the most worthless officers in the service.“ This reputation, at least among Northerners, changed for the better when Stoneman led 4,000 cavalry from Tennessee into Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina, cutting wide paths of destruction across the war-weary countryside, tearing up railroads, burning bridges, sacking cities, and engaging and defeating the Confederates he found in dozens of skirmishes and battles. His ravaging of a defeated Confederacy did not end with Lee’s surrender, but continued into the late spring after the capture of Jefferson Davis and the cessation of hostilities east of the Mississippi.  

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 succeeds on several fronts. First, Hartley has thoroughly researched the people and events associated with the raid. He offers sketches of dozens of participants and displays the evidence of the depth of his research in the details he supplies and the notes at the back of the book. Here, for example, we meet both the civilian leaders and the ordinary citizens from towns like Asheville, Salisbury and Salem, which only years after the war became Winston-Salem. We learn about the lives of the Union soldiers, some of whom evidently behaved no better than Sherman’s bummers, and of the Confederate regulars and militia who opposed the invasion of their homeland.

Hartley also has a military man’s eye for tactics and strategy. He knows the terrain of which he writes, a key factor in understanding any military operation, and understands too the factors of supply and morale in any fighting force. He shows us the surprise of the Confederate officers at Stoneman’s grasp of regional geography — he was supplied with adequate maps, and took care to bribe or cajole locals into giving him information. In his accounts of various skirmishes, Hartley demonstrates too how the Confederate simply could not stand up to the superior firepower of Yankee repeating rifles and the often overwhelming numbers of their troopers.

Finally, Hartley is a fine writer. He is one of those “amateur” historians — he earns his living in marketing — like Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough who understands how to bring the past alive, how to make it breathe on a written page. One Union force, for instance, after passing through Asheville under a flag of truce, turned back, surprised the Confederate soldiers in the town, and then began looting and burning in what Hartley describes as “the worst episode of the entire raid.”

“Federal cavalrymen barged into homes, tearing plaster from walls and ceilings, ripping open mattresses, and rifling through clothing in a mad search for hidden valuables. A prominent Unionist managed to obtain a guard, but the detail got lost and ended up protecting the property of a diehard Confederate while the Unionist’s house was ransacked…’Through the night pandemonium held sway,’ an eyewitness wrote, ‘and Asheville will never again hear such sounds and witness such scenes — pillage of every character and destruction the most wanton.’”

For Civil War students, for those who wish to have a look at the cost of a war that took place literally in their own back yards, and for all who enjoy reading history that is both dramatically presented and solidly researched, Chris J. Hartley’s Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 will make fine reading on these cold winter nights.

 

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 by Chris J. Hartley. John F. Blair, 2010. 464 pages.

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