Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Stoneman's worst mistake?

     Rebels straggling homeward through Statesville April 13, 1865, brought Gen. George Stoneman the first confirmation of the rumors he had heard the day before in Salisbury: Robert E. Lee had surrendered April 9.
     At this point, Stoneman's mission was essentially accomplished. His raids had dismantled the country to obstruct Lee's retreat, and he had destroyed dozens of military targets without fighting extensive battles. He had already gone beyond his orders in Salisbury, and his health was broken. It was time for him to report back to his headquarters in Tennessee.
     At the same time, Stoneman understood that the war was not yet over, not as long as the stubborn Confederate president Jefferson Davis remained at large with substantial armies still operating in eastern North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas.
     Only later would Stoneman realize how close his forces came to catching Davis in Greensboro. Then Davis sneaked past Salisbury two or three days after Stoneman left it smoldering. 
     On April 14, 1865, Stoneman began the transition of power and once again divided his forces. He dispatched his 1st Brigade under Col. William Palmer toward Lincolnton via Newton and Hickory, while he led the 2nd and 3rd Brigade to Lenoir via Taylorsville.
     After they reached Lenoir, Stoneman and some of his troops left the raid and escorted the prisoners from Salisbury across the mountains through Boone to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Gen. Alvan Gillem assumed command and led the 2nd and 3rd Brigades west toward Asheville. 
     No one was sure how much longer the Confederates would fight. The situation was becoming chaotic on both sides. 
     When the 1st Brigade marched through Hickory, rebels burned a warehouse full of cotton rather than letting it fall into Yankee hands. Capt. Henry Weand noted how foolish this was at this point in the war. "In a military sense it was wise to destroy stores that might be of use to us, but to burn their cotton was rank foolishness," he wrote. "We cannot use it and have no way to transport it north, where it is selling at 75 cents per pound. Everyone recognizes that the rebellion is on its last legs, and that in a short time they could realize from a waiting market an amount of money which would go far to make up for their losses, but a madness seems to make these people believe that in so despoiling themselves, they are in some way hurting us."
     In Stoneman's absence, the actions in the ensuing weeks would continue to be called Stoneman's Raid by most historians and veterans. On April 25 in Asheville, Gillem took a leave of absence to join the Tennessee legislature, and Gen. Simeon Brown from Michigan became commander. Historian Thomas Bland Keys described the pillaging of Anderson May 1-3 as "Brown's Raid." 
     Beyond Asheville, what was left of Stoneman's Raid turned into a manhunt for Jefferson Davis, and many of the troops lost their purpose and discipline.  
     The first four weeks of Stoneman's Raid were a textbook example of cavalry tactics and execution. After the general exited, however, there was not much to be proud of. In fact, Stoneman's decision to continue the raid in his absence may have been his worst mistake.

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