Friday, April 3, 2015

Bloody welcome to Virginia

    Aside from the skirmish in Boone, the first two weeks of Stoneman's Raid were little more than a monotonous march—280 miles of non-stop clippety-clop.
    That all began to change when the cavalry moved from North Carolina into Virginia and caught a whiff of the Confederate railroads. 
    On Monday, April 3, 1865, Gen. Stoneman began to deploy what he called his "bursting shell"sending out cavalry regiments like shrapnel to hit multiple targets at once. 
     From Hillsville, he dispatched a regiment of 500 Tennesseeans commanded by Col. John K. Miller to attack Wytheville, 30 miles to the northwest. The next day at Jacksonville (now called Floyd), he sent 220 crack Pennsylvanians toward Lynchburg, 100 miles northeast. The main column of about 3,300 mounted troops continued 20 miles north to Christiansburg, the railroad hub of southwestern Virginia.
Col. John K. Miller led the raid
on Wytheville, less than 100 miles
 from his home in Elizabethton, Tenn.
     All three "exploded" on April 5, and within hours there were no more trains running west of Roanoke. On the very same day that Stoneman learned that Robert E. Lee was retreating west from Richmond, he effectively slammed the door on Lee's only escape route into the mountains.
     In that regard, the Pennsylvanians would strike the biggest blow, which we will detail on April 5. But the Tennesseeans paid the biggest price, so let's start with their mission, which began 150 years ago today.
     Wytheville was a vital source of iron and lead for the Confederacy. The Shot Tower State Park off I-77 north of Hillsville is where much of Lee's ammunition was made. Wytheville was well-defended to the west, but the Virginians never expected to be attacked from the south.
     The Federal troops made a difficult midnight crossing of the New River, where one man drowned. The reached Wytheville at dawn on April 5, destroyed five railroad bridges, and torched four boxcars, including one carrying five tons of gunpowder.
Virginia's Shot Tower produced lead
ammunition for the Confederacy.
 Half of the tower is underground,
 cut into a bluff on the New River. 
     As that explosion echoed from the mountainsides, it alerted Confederate cavalry nearby. Confederate Gen. John Echols and 7,000 troops were headed east toward Appomattox to unite with Robert E. Lee intending to make a stand against Grant. Over 500 Kentucky rebels under Col. Henry L. Giltner quickly drove Miller's Tennessee Yankees out of Wytheville and back across the New River.
     Both sides claimed victory. The Yankees cut the only railroad between Virginia and Tennessee and knocked out the lead mines that supplied one-third of the South's ammunition. However, the rebels made them pay dearly, with 35 men killed, wounded, or captured. There was also at least one rebel killed. From Stoneman's perspective, April 5 would one of the bloodiest days of the whole raid.
     The battle of Wytheville did vindicate Stoneman's roundabout route to Virginia. Had he followed the Tennessee valley directly from Knoxville to Christiansburg, he would have to fight his way through Wytheville, and his hands were tied by his orders "to destroy but not to fight battles." By coming up through North Carolina instead, he was able to avoid battles and strike his targets where they were weakest.

NEXT: Good Friday and Abraham Lincoln
Stoneman stayed the night of May 3-4 at the home of James Wilkinson in Hillsville, VA.
The house is now a five-story mansion open for tours.

Sgt. Angelo Wiser's map shows the march April 3 from Mount Airy NC to Hillsville VA via Fancy Gap.

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