Thursday, March 26, 2015

'A Yankee gentleman can steal butter'

     If you have ever had a lesson in economics, you are probably familiar with the phrase "guns vs. butter," used to illustrate how a nation balances its military vs. civilian spending. 
     Two days from now when Stoneman's Raid arrives in Boone, guns will be blazing, so let's skip ahead to a butter episode that same day that should not be overlooked.
     Bear with me as we set the scene.
     Gen. George Stoneman often commandeered private residences to use as his nightly headquarters, and in Boone he chose the home of Sarah and Jordan Councill Jr. Before the town was named for Daniel Boone, the settlement was originally known as Councill's Store, and Jordan Councill Jr. is regarded as "the Father of Boone."
      Jordan Jr., 65, and his son James Councill, 38, were evidently not at home on March 28, 1865, when Stoneman raided Boone. James had been Watauga County's representative at North Carolina's secession convention in 1861, and he had also served in the Confederate army. The Councill family owned 17 of the 31 slaves in Boone in 1860. Prominent rebel families like the Councills often suffered the worst at the hands of Stoneman's troops.
     On the other hand, the general's personal host was usually safe. Though Sarah Councill was a staunch southerner, she was also known for acts of compassion toward Union prisoners in the Watauga County jail.
     In peaceful times, Sarah Councill and George Stoneman might have had a pleasant visit. But March 28, 1865, in Boone was anything but peaceful. A Saturday morning shootout between Stoneman's troops and the local home guard had left eight local men dead or wounded, including Mrs. Councill's nephew. (We'll have details Saturday.) Later that day, the raiders set the county jail afire. People who had heard what Sherman did in Georgia were terrified of what Stoneman might do to Boone. Gunfire was still ringing in their ears, and the crisp mountain air was choked by the dust and dung of four thousand horses. 
     All that is to set the stage for a story told by Sarah Councill's niece, Mrs. Betty Councill Folk. She was in Salisbury, N.C., when Stoneman raided there on April 12. One of his men assured her, "We are Yankee soldiers, but we are gentlemen. Don't be alarmed." When she heard they had been through her hometown, she asked him if they had done much destruction in Boone. "No, madam, General Stoneman's soldiers are above doing anything mean." 
     In that context, here's the story Mrs. Folk shared about her aunt and Gen. Stoneman, published 45 years later in the Farmer and Mechanic newspaper in Raleigh:
Mrs. Councill had been kind to some Yankee prisoners confined in the jail in Boone sometime during the war, and Stoneman hearing of it when he first came to the place seemed disposed to treat her humanely, although she was strongly Southern in her feelings. He made his headquarters at her house and she treated him as genteely as possible, preparing supper and breakfast for him, out of the scarcity his raiders had left her. He seemed particularly pleased with some fine mountain butter that was on the table and asked her if she had any more of it. She replied that a firkin of it was about the only thing his soldiers had left her and was congratulating herself that her butter was safe, for Gen. Stoneman would protect it. But what was her surprise and mortification to see, a short time after, her firkin of butter put in his provision wagon. According to the testimony of the officer before mentioned, Gen. Stoneman and his men are "gentlemen," but it seems a Yankee gentleman can steal butter. 
     The fact that a Yankee general would take such advantage of his hostess' Southern hospitality show you why so many people in towns like Boone still curse Stoneman's name.
     At the same time, it also illustrates how the Yankee cavalrymen sustained themselves throughout the raid. They didn't have to choose between guns and butter. They simply took whatever they needed, destroyed whatever else the Confederacy might use, and left thousands of families hungry and bitter. To the towns and farms they passed through, they were like a plague of locusts. With 4,000 men, Stoneman's cavalry was larger than any North Carolina town west of Raleigh.
     Stoneman had strictly ordered his men not to take private property, but many yielded to temptation or vengeance. His quartermasters were supposed to give vouchers for seized property, but the families being raided didn't know to ask for them. Years after the war, many families filed for compensation through the Southern Claims Commission, but Confederate sympathizers were rejected.
     Stoneman's army was tiny compared to Grant's 120,000, but Grant's soldiers were amply supported by trainloads of food, ammunition, and other provisions. Sherman's 60,000 men lived off the land during their march across Georgia and South Carolina, but by this time they were being resupplied and reinforced from the North Carolina coast.
     Meanwhile, Stoneman's cavalry spent six weeks without any supply lines. The first three days out of Knoxville, they got daily provision from railroads. On March 23 at Morristown, Tenn., each man received five days' rations and four horseshoes. Horse-drawn supply wagons kept up with them them for two more days, but as Gen. Alvan Gillem reported, "On the 26th the command moved, cutting loose from all incumberances in the way of trains. One wagon, ten ambulances, and four guns with their caissons, were the only carriages that accompanied the expedition."
     Beyond that point, starting 150 years ago today, Stoneman's troops were expected to feed themselves and their horses by foraging the countryside. They cleaned out "tithe depots," a part of the Confederate tax system where families were required to deposit one-tenth of their agricultural products. Raiders freely confiscated horses, potatoes, and grain, ultimately preventing many families from having much of a harvest in 1865.
     The economic repercussions of Stoneman's Raid would last for years. 
     If Sarah Councill's firkin of butter was not safe, nothing was. 



NOTE: Cornelia Phillips Spencer's 1866 account dates the butter episode during Stoneman's return trip through Boone April 17, rather than on March 28. If that's the case, it is even more heartless, because by that time:
  • Stoneman had left the raid and was well on his way back to the comforts of his headquarters in Knoxville.
  • Mrs. Councill's home had been all but destroyed by the rogue troops of Union Col. George Kirk, who occupied Boone after Stoneman left.



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