Wednesday, March 25, 2015

To destroy and not to fight battles?

     What was George Stoneman fighting for?
     That ought to be as simple as reading his marching orders. Most historians give these two directives:
  • To destroy and not to fight battles.
  • Dismantle the countryside to obstruct Lee's retreat.
     But with Stoneman, nothing is simple. The first order was given by Gen. Ulysses Grant on January 31, 1865, seven weeks before Stoneman's Raid started. Back then, the plan was for him to invade South Carolina. After February 17, when Sherman left Columbia in ashes, Stoneman's mission changed completely, and presumably so did the orders. 
     The second is documented in several histories, but I could not find it expressed as an order or directive in the 112-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (which you can search online at Ohio State or Cornell.) I did find that phrase in two post-raid reports, the first signed by Gen. Alvan Gillem, Stoneman's second-in-command; and the second by Stoneman's commander, Gen. George Thomas, who was probably quoting Gillem. 
     More specific orders were expressed March 18 in a message from Gen. Thomas to Gen. Ulysses Grant. 
I have directed Stoneman to pass out of Tennessee by the head of the New River Valley, then move down that valley to Christiansburg and destroy the railroad beyond Christiansburg, about 10 or 15 miles, where there are numerous trestles and small bridges, but not to destroy the bridge over New River west of Christiansburg. Should he ascertain that there is not a large force of the enemy in Southwest Virginia, and should he ascertain on reaching Christiansburg that Gen. Sheridan has captured Lynchburg, as is now reported in the papers, he will not destroy any of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, but to move in the direction of Danville and threaten that place, should it be garrisoned by a large force; but if it be weakly garrisoned, to attack it and destroy as much of the railroad as he can; then withdraw toward Tennessee and observe the movements of the enemy, reporting to me at once all his operations.
Gen. George Thomas,
 "the Rock of Chickamauga,"
was Stoneman's commander
     Gen. Thomas' description of how Stoneman should approach Danville seems to affirm Grant's original plan  "to destroy but not to fight battles." Indeed, Stoneman went out of his way to avoid confrontations, including 150 years ago today when he skirted past Jonesborough, Tenn. 
     This looked cowardly to some Confederates who were unfamiliar with Stoneman's orders. At least three times (at Wytheville, the Yadkin River bridge north of Salisbury, and Swannanoa Gap) his forces backed off from well-defended targets and allowed the Confederates to claim pyrrhic victories.
     Gen. Thomas did not pre-approve (at least not in writing) the raid on Salisbury, which turned out to be Stoneman's greatest victory. He had also nixed Salisbury as a secondary target for Stoneman's 1864 raid into Virginia. Stoneman wanted to free the Union prisoners at Salisbury, but Thomas knew that was a potential blind spot, since Stoneman had been captured the previous year while trying to liberate the Andersonville prison. Nor did Thomas authorize Stoneman to march via Wilkesboro, which delayed his arrival in Virginia by several days. 
     Grant was upset with Stoneman for taking so long to organize and equip his cavalry. However, in a Feb. 27 message, he gave Stoneman more latitude to destroy the railroads than Thomas did:
General Stoneman being so late in making his start in East Tennessee, and Sherman having passed out of the State of South Carolina, I think now his course had better be changed. It is not impossible that in the event of the enemy being driven from Richmond they may fall back to Lynchburg with a part of their force and attempt a raid into East Tennessee. It will be better, therefore, to keep Stoneman between our garrisons in East Tennessee and the enemy. Direct him to repeat his raid of last fall, destroying the railroad as far toward Lynchburg as he can. Sheridan starts to-day from Winchester for Lynchburg. This will vastly favor Stoneman. Every effort should be made to collect all the surplus forage and provisions of East Tennessee at Knoxville, and to get there a large amount of stores besides. It is not impossible that we may have to use a very considerable force in that section the coming spring. Preparations should at once be made to meet such contingency. If it had been possible to have got Stoneman off in time he would have made a diversion in favor of Sherman, and would have destroyed a large amount of railroad stock, cut off and left in Northwest South Carolina. It is too late now to do any good except to destroy the stock.
     To put Grant's original orders in context, here is how he envisioned the raid back on Jan. 31:
As this expedition goes to destroy and not to fight battles, but to avoid them when practicable, particularly against anything like equal forces, or where a great object is to be gained, it should go as lightly as possible. Stoneman's experience in raiding will teach him in this manner better than he can be directed.
     As Stoneman rode past Jonesborough 150 years ago today, he knew that if he continued northeast up the Holston Valley into Virginia, he would probably have to fight his way through fierce Confederate resistance in the gap between Marion and Wytheville. Studying his maps, he decided it would be better to march east across the mountains to Boone, N.C. From there, it appeared it would be simple to follow the New River northeast to his target in Christiansburg, Va.
     But as we said previously: With Stoneman, nothing is simple.

This 1863 map used by Stoneman shows Knoxville TN in the lower left, Boone NC between the ridges toward the lower center; and the primary target of Christiansburg VA at the top right. Stoneman veered off the direct route (yellow arrow) following the Holston River toward Marion VA and Wytheville VA, as well as the route recommended by Gen. Thomas (blue arrows) following the New River from Boone past Jefferson NC and Independence. Instead, he continued east across the Blue Ridge (green arrows) to Wilkesboro and Jonesville NC and then turned north across the Blue Ridge via Cranberry Plain (now Hillsville VA) and Jacksonville (now Floyd VA). Click on the map above to see a larger version, or click here to see the original map in the Library of Congress.

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