Saturday, March 21, 2015

The longest raid begins with a single debt

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
     One hundred and fifty years ago on a chilly and rainy Tuesday, March 21, 1865, Gen. George Stoneman sent a message from Knoxville to Gen. Ulysses Grant near Richmond: "I have the honor to report that my whole command is on the road."
     Grant probably growled. Stoneman took longer to get his cavalry on the road than Sherman took to march across Georgia from Atlanta to the sea.
Gen. George Stoneman, 1863
      Grant knew Stoneman's weaknesses and did not have high expectations. During the Battle of Atlanta in July 1864, Stoneman had been captured by the Confederates when he tried to liberate the Yankee prisoners at Andersonvillea raid that was well-intentioned but ill-conceived if not insubordinate. He had also been blamed (unfairly, it seems) for the Union's 1863 defeat at Chancellorsville. Grant wanted him relieved of duty. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called him "one of the most worthless officers in the service."
     But Stoneman had influential friends, and after he was freed in a prisoner swap arranged by Gen. Sherman, he was soon back in the saddle in Tennessee. He wrote:
I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate,
and this offers a propitious occasion.
     Whatever his flaws, the 42-year-old Stoneman was an experienced and skilled soldier. His embarrassing capture in Georgia overshadowed the fact that he stood and fought to the end, giving most of his troops time to escape. He was trained at West Point, where he was a roommate of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate hero who had been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville.
     The week before Sherman took Savannah, Stoneman successfully raided the Virginia towns of Saltville and Wytheville, where he destroyed the Confederacy's vital sources of salt, iron, and lead.
     On January 31, 1865, Grant assigned Stoneman to invade South Carolina and force the Confederates to defend a third front. By the time Stoneman could organize and outfit three brigades of cavalry in Tennessee, Sherman had already sliced through the Carolinas, devastating Columbia and Fayetteville. Meanwhile, Grant was closing a trap on Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. The end of the Civil War was in sight. 
      So Grant and Gen. George Thomas remapped the mission and sent Stoneman into western North Carolina and Virginia. Grant was still worried about Lee escaping into the Blue Ridge mountains, and he wanted Stoneman to slam that door. 
     Grant wondered if it was too late for Stoneman's Raid to make a difference.
     When Sherman completed his march across Georgia on December 21, 1864, he sent a message to President Abraham Lincoln: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah."
     What could Stoneman possibly deliver? Robert E. Lee by Palm Sunday?  
     We shall see. 

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