Sunday, January 25, 2015

The month they drove old Dixie down

This historical marker in Blowing Rock
was among 19 across western North
Carolina erected in 1940 to mark the
75th anniversary of Stoneman's Raid.

Stoneman’s Raid was in the news recently when the 75-year-old historical marker in Blowing Rock was reported stolen and then turned out to have been, ahem, "recycled" by the state highway department. 
 Whether it was plundered or scrapped—a damn shame either way—that's an ironic way to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the bitter end of the Civil War.
 At least there is no danger that we will run out of Stoneman’s Raid monuments anytime soon. If you’ve driven through my corner of North Carolina, you may have seen them in Boone, Deep Gap, Patterson, Wilkesboro, Roaring River, Elkin, Jonesville, Windsor's Crossroads, Rockford, SiloamDobson, Mount Airy, Danbury, Salem, Mocksville, Huntsville, Shallow Ford, Salisbury, Statesville, Newton, Lenoir, Morganton, Marion, Ridgecrest, Rutherfordton, Green River PlantationLynn, Chimney Rock, Hickory Nut Gap, Flat Rock, and Asheville; not to mention more in Virginia and South Carolina.
Even if you’ve never stopped to read those markers, you may know Stoneman from this song:
Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
till Stoneman’s cavalry came, and tore up the tracks again
 That’s the opening verse from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an anti-war ballad written at Woodstock in 1969 by The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. When Joan Baez made it a top-five hit in 1971, she minced the lyrics, so you may remember it as “so much cavalry came.”
Gen. George Stoneman (missing
a button!) was a West Point
classmate of the Confederate
icon, Gen. Stonewall Jackson
 In some ways, Gen. George Stoneman was to western North Carolina what Sherman was to Georgia. He had a war to win, orders to execute, and a grudge to settle. He accomplished his mission with galloping speed and cold-blooded vengeance. In the process, he left wounds that still haven't healed.
 On the other hand, Stoneman's Raid could have been worse. His troops helped themselves to food and fresh horses, but they rarely burned private homes. Don't get the idea that Stoneman was Sherman on steroidsthough it's painfully true that he was a horseman on hemorrhoids.
 The 1940 historical markers give few details and obscure the toll. I knew little about Stoneman's Raid until I looked it up at the library. I was surprised to discover that the trail of terror that began in Boone extended into South Carolina through Greenville and Anderson—encompassing all three places I have lived. 
 It's a fascinating storyso much so that I have decided to share it in a series of daily blogs detailing the events of 150 years ago. Come walk with me starting March 21, the anniversary of the day Stoneman and thousands of mounted soldiers rode out of Knoxville toward the mountains of North Carolina to begin one of the longest cavalry raids in history.
 If you can't wait, here's a spoiler from Chris J. Hartley's book, "Stoneman's Raid, 1865." 
George 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. But many take a darker view of Stoneman's Raid. When the first North Carolina historical markers commemorating the raid were installed over seventy years afterward, citizens tore them down and threw them in a river.
Stoneman's Raid has always been like that. Some see it as a model action in which a mostly well-behaved force rode over a thousand miles and achieved important military objectives. Others say it was a brutal, unnecessary pillaging of a broad swath of six Confederate states after the Civil War was already decided.
After leading a failed raid in the Chancellorsville campaign and later earning the dubious honor of being the highest-ranking Union prisoner of war, Stoneman was described as "one of the most worthless officers in the service" by Edwin Stanton. The 1865 raid was his last chance at redemption.
Beginning in Knoxville in March 1865, Stoneman led about four thousand cavalrymen over the mountains and into North Carolina and Virginia. The raiders tore up tracks, burned bridges, destroyed Confederate stores, captured towns like Christiansburg 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.
This new marker (cast in 2012) now stands at the 1888 Blowing Rock Museum.
It has a history of its own, and Blowing Rock is actually its second home.

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