Stoneman’s Raid

Article Published: Sep. 22, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 26, 2011
Stoneman’s Raid

Maj. Gen. George Stoneman is the topic of historian Chris Hartley’s upcoming lecture at the Blowing Rock Historical Society.

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Blowing Rock and the other remote mountain regions of Western North Carolina were spared most of the devastation that the rest of the South suffered during the Civil War.

That was true until the latter stages of the war, when Maj. Gen. George Stoneman led about 4,000 Union soldiers on a raid through northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. The raid, which marched through the High Country, occurred in March 1865, and Stoneman’s men tore up railroad tracks, destroyed salt works and iron mines, and nearly captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was at that time on the run after the fall of Richmond, Va.

North Carolina author and historian Chris J. Hartley is an authority on Stoneman’s Raid. He will give a lecture on the subject to the Blowing Rock Historical Society on Sunday, Sept. 25. The event will take place at the Blowing Rock American Legion Hall and will begin at 5 p.m. with a wine and cheese social. Hartley’s presentation will begin at 6 p.m.

Admission is $5 per person, and Hartley will be available after the lecture to sign copies of his book “Stoneman’s Raid, 1865.”

Before Stoneman commenced upon his famous raid of 1865, he was dealt two setbacks during the Civil War. He was blamed for an unsuccessful assault against the Confederate Army at Chancelorsville, Va., in 1863. And then on July 31, 1864, he suffered the distinction of being the highest-ranking officer that the Confederates captured during the war. After a brief stay in the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Stoneman was exchanged for Confederate Brig. Gen. Daniel C. Govan at Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s request.

“Stoneman’s 1865 Union cavalry raid did much for his tattered reputation, perhaps even helping the major general to the governorship of California in 1883,” Hartley said.

“But many take a darker view of Stoneman’s Raid. When the first North Carolina historical markers commemorating the raid were installed over 70 years later, citizens tore them down and threw them in a river.”

Hartley, who has worked in marketing and communications for several large companies, pursues history as a sideline, albeit one that has fascinated him since childhood. In addition to “Stoneman’s Raid, 1865,” his books include “Stuart’s Tarheels: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Calvary,” for which he was honored with the Jefferson Davis Award by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

“Some see Stoneman’s Raid as a model action in which a mostly well-behaved force rode over a thousand miles and achieved important military objectives,” Hartley said. “Others say it was a brutal, unnecessary pillaging of a broad swath of six Confederate states after the Civil War was already decided.”

The raid inspired The Band’s classic Americana tune, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” as well as a Disney TV movie.

“Beginning in Knoxville in March 1865, Stoneman led about 4,000 cavalrymen over the mountains and into North Carolina and Virginia,” Hartley said. “The raiders tore up tracks, burned bridges, destroyed Confederate stores, captured towns, such as Christianburg and Salisbury, fought some surprisingly sharp skirmishes, and terrified the population, achieving a sometimes exaggerated reputation.

“Their mission did not end until Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured. Reconstruction would be harder in their wake.”

Immediately following the war, Stoneman was appointed commander of the “Department of the Tennessee,” headquartered in Memphis. The city was filled with racial tension, and, after white Irish-born immigrants killed 46 newly freed blacks, Stoneman was rebuked by a Congressional committee for not acting quickly enough.

More controversy followed him in 1870 after he took command of the Arizona Military Department with headquarters at Drum Barracks. Criticized for his dealings with Native American uprisings, Stoneman was relieved of his command in May 1871 and retired from the Army.

Stoneman and his wife, Mary, settled down on a 400-acre estate in the San Gabriel Valley of California, where he cultivated a vineyard. In 1882, he was elected governor of California and served a four-year term, but was not even considered for a second term by his own party. He died in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 5, 1894, in the home of his sister, Charlotte Williams.

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