Friday, March 27, 2015

Stoneman's midnight ride takes a wrong turn

It appears that the cavalry followed the Elk River (red arrows) rather than the Watauga (blue arrows), meaning they had to make a midnight climb of 1,500 feet to cross the ridge at Flat Springs.  
POGA, Tennessee?
     Gen. George Stoneman had told his commanding general that he expected to be in Virginia by March 28. One hundred and fifty years ago today, he realized he was going to have to pick up the pace, so he ordered the first of several overnight marches.
     If Stoneman got lost in the mountains between Hampton, Tenn., and Boone, N.C., he wouldn't be the only one. Even today, U.S. 321 can be daunting as it darts along the shore of Watauga Lake and skirts cliffs through the Watauga River gorge. Today's route generally follows a turnpike that was built in the mid-1850s. Parts of the old road (along with the town of Butler, Tenn.) are now submerged in Watauga Lake. 
     At some point during the moonless night, it appears to me that Stoneman's cavalry strayed off the turnpike and wound up having to cross a mountain in the dark. I don't think this was one of Stoneman's feints to confuse the enemy. I haven't found a good map of the original turnpike, and it is possible that it was built over the mountain because the terrain in the gorge was just too rugged and steep. Or maybe the road was washed out. Maybe some of his Tennessee guides thought they knew a shortcut. More likely, they simply missed a switchback and got lost. Stoneman usually rode in the rear and would have been furious if he knew they were off course.
     Capt. Henry Weand from Norristown, Pa., mentioned in his journal that the cavalry's horses went hungry on March 26, which was worrisome considering the mountains ahead. On March 27, Weand wrote:
Moved early to find something for our horses to eat and found a short feed for them on the south bank of the Watauga River. Marched 18 miles and bivouacked on the mountain pass near the top of Stone Mountain at 4 a.m. on the 28th.
Our march this night was one that those who participated will never forget. The road at times ran close to dangerous precipices, over which occasionally a horse or mule would fall, and in like manner we lost one of the artillery caissons, but no man was hurt. Many loyal citizens built fires along the road and at dangerous places, and also at difficult fords over the mountain streams. Looking back as we toiled up the mountain, the scene was grand and imposing as the march of the column was shown by the trail of fire along the road. Occasionally an old pine tree would take fire and blaze up almost instantaneously, looking like a column of fire. It was an impromptu illumination, and the sight of it repaid us for the toilsome night march.
     In the same brigade with Capt. Weand was Sgt. Angelo Wiser, a talented illustrator who drew daily maps of the cavalry's progress. (These are available online at the Library of Congress by clicking here or the link on the sidebar. Stoneman's Raid starts on Page 8. Here are the direct links to March 27 and March 28.)
     Sgt. Wiser shows the march turning abruptly south away from the Watauga River until stopping near the Reese settlement 200 yards from the North Carolina line. Around dawn on March 28, they crossed Beech Creek near Hately's Mill and continued east, returning to the riverside near the Farthing cemetery on the Old Watauga River Road just downstream from Cove Creek. The raiders forded the Watauga River and followed Cove Creek and Brushy Fork through an open valley approaching Boone.
     Sgt. Wiser's map notes for March 27 say:
About 20-odd miles today. The road up mt is very good, but long, winding continually. Traveled up all night and camped about 1 hour before day.
     Sgt. Wiser was about four miles behind the head of the column, and when the skirmish in Boone erupted at 11 a.m. March 28, his regiment had stopped to feed at Benjamin Councill's house in a valley now known as Vilas.
     Capt. Weand said they crossed Stone Mountain, while the 13th Tennessee called it Iron Mountain. The ridge split by the Watauga River was labeled on the 1863 maps as Stone Mountain north of the gorge and Iron Mountain on the south side. Weand is probably referring to Little Stone Mountain, which is south of the Watauga River and north of Beech Mountain near the valley community of Poga, Tennessee.
     What seems likely is that in the pitch dark, the cavalry followed the Elk River, which is basically the south fork of the Watauga. Capt. Weand said the cavalry was traveling on the south bank, so that would have been an easy mistake.
      But the Elk River would have taken them away from Virginia. Once they realized their mistake (perhaps from some of the Tennessee cavalry who knew the countryside) they had to turn east and cross the ridge at Flat Springs, elevation 3,500, between Little Stone Mountain and Beech Mountain. That's a climb of over 1,500 feet from the Watauga River.
     The route through the Watauga gorge would have shortened their midnight ride by at least a couple of miles and spared the troops and horses 1,000 feet of climbing. If they had gone that way, they might have raided Boone at dawn, when Stoneman preferred to attack so he could catch the enemy sleeping. From Boone, it would be possible to reach Virginia on March 28, just as he had promised Gen. George Thomas.
      In his report from Boone March 28, Stoneman described the toll of the overnight march: "Last night, in crossing Stone Mountain, one caisson and one ambulance fell over the precipice and were lost, several horses and men disabled."
      After the exhausting climb to Flat Springs, the cavalrymen and their mounts were allowed to rest only one hour or so before continuing the march. As they approached Boone, they learned that the Home Guard was assembled, and they readied themselves for the first serious action of Stoneman's Raid.
      At the front of the column was an adventurous Irishman named Myles Keogh and the battle-tested 12th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry. By the time they entered Boone about 11 a.m. on March 28, they were tired, hungry, and sore, and it wouldn't take much to provoke them into a fight.

 NEXT: Myles to go: Stoneman's rock star
Sgt. Wiser's map for April 27 shows the march veering southwest away from the Watauga River

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