Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pyres in Salisbury, but a pyrrhic victory for rebs

     If you just counted cannons, Gen. George Stoneman was facing an uphill battle at Salisbury. The rebels had him outgunned, 18-4. They also were well-entrenched, and they had enough ammunition to fight for months.
     If Stoneman had known that the Salisbury prison had already been evacuated, he might have bypassed the town entirely.
     Stoneman's cavalry was not at full strength. When he arrived on the outskirts of Salisbury 150 years ago, the best of his three brigades was still en route from Greensboro, where they had skirmished the day before in a ploy to keep the rebels there on the defensive.
      But if Stoneman was a bit short-handed, his enemy turned out to be handcuffed. Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard, confused about where Stoneman might strike, had transferred most of the regular soldiers from Salisbury to Greensboro in the previous days.  The remaining rebel troops were concentrated at Yadkin River bridge, six miles north of town. Salisbury was guarded largely by old men, wounded veterans, boys too young for the army, and "galvanized Yankees" that we will meet in a moment. 
     Though most of the prisoners were gone, Salisbury held a prime target that Stoneman probably knew nothing about. Trainloads of war supplies from Richmond had been stockpiled in and around the stockade.

     Two newspapers were published April 12 in Salisbury, the regular morning edition of The Carolina Watchman written by Confederate editor J.J. Bruner and a special evening edition called The Salisbury Watchman edited by the Yankees. The rebel version (below left) speculated about Stoneman's whereabouts, starting with a reference to Kirk's Raiders in faraway Boone. The Yankee edition mocked Bruner for not staying to defend his town. I haven't found the Yankee original, but a similar account (below right) appeared three weeks later in another newspaper published by Stoneman's raiders in Athens, Ga.
     Bruner wrote: 
EXTRA! Click to read the Yankees' edition.
     Rumors were very abundant and extravagant yesterday morning on our streets. They produced a rather feverish state of the public mind throughout the day. We were gratified to learn from what seemed to be a reliable source, that there were no raiders in the mountains in sufficient force to justify much alarm from that direction. It is now said that the force seen at the Blue Ridge consists of deserters and tories about 400 in number, not negroes, two regiments strong. That they are fortifying the Ridge, and evidently mean to assume a permanent position, from whence they may send out marauding parties into the country below.
     There was also a rumor that Stoneman and his men were at Salem, or near there, on Monday, and not on the Yadkin in the more western counties. Indeed, we hear of Stoneman at several different points, making him rather ubiquitous for an ordinary being. Doubtless, he is hovering some where not very distant North of the railroad between this point and Danville, seeking an opportunity to cut it.
     But the most extravagant of all the many rumors was that Gen. Lee and his staff had been captured.
     P.S. Since the above was put into type, a train from the head of the Western railroad arrived and brought a news report of the approach of raiders. We wish those at the head of the road [Morganton] would send us authentic news.
     Also, we have a report that Stoneman has cut the N.C. Railroad at High Point. The telegraph is working no farther than Lexington, and the mail train due here at 2 o'clock has not yet arrived. Gen. Ferguson's Brigade of Cavalry passed through this place Monday morning, and must have camped near Lexington Monday night. It is very likely they will encounter Stoneman's party.
     Stoneman turned out to be almost as ubiquitous as the paper reported. Residents remembered the invasion coming from all directions on the morning of Wednesday, April 12,  1865. 
     Harriett Ellis Bradshaw, who was eight at the time, later recalled: "The roadway was jammed with a surging mass of mounted soldiers and rampant horses spurred to a breakneck speed to overtake General Beauregard's withdrawing troops.  It was frightening, curiously thrilling, to see the capless cavalrymen standing erect in their stirrups as they rode, brandishing bared sabres in hand as they let out earsplitting yells.
      With a description that vivid, who needs military details? Stoneman struck at the first glimmer of dawn. The Confederate artillery and infantry held their ground until the Union troops pushed across Grants Creek north of town. Two Kentucky regiments (one of them led by Major Myles Keogh) were able to flank the rebels, and their inexperienced lines soon collapsed.
      Confederate Capt. Lucious Marshall's Tennessee battery fought gallantly for two hours. But others were quick to surrender, as our war correspondent Capt. Harry Weand reported: "One of the rebel batteries was manned by 'galvanized Yanks'—those who had been prisoners in Andersonville, but had gone into the rebel service to get something to eat. As they were charged by our men, their cannon was fired over the heads of the charging party, who, as they came nearer, were greeted with cheers for the old flag."
     By noon, Stoneman controlled Salisbury. 
Capt. Robert Morrow, who suffered
a wounded knee at Salisbury, 

pictured with Maj. Myles Keogh, 
who later died at Little Bighorn.  
     The toll of the battle is unclear. Stoneman typically did not report his own casualties. The only one he mentioned was one of his own staff, Capt. Robert Morrow, who was shot in the knee. (Stoneman rarely included personal details in his reports, but he did mention that this was Morrow's 20th birthday.) 
     I've looked through the rosters of the six Union regiments who invaded Salisbury and found records of at least 10 deaths associated with the Battle of Salisbury. A Confederate lieutenant named Stokes claimed to have killed two of them, including Capt. John Edwards. 
     The Confederate accounts are not even sure of the number of soldiers, much less the casualties. One Salisbury resident said there were supposed to be 800 defenders, but she guessed less than 200. Stoneman claimed to have captured 1,364 rebels (not to mention others who escaped into the woods, and presumably excluding the 200 Galvanized Yankees) but townsfolk scoffed at that figure.
     I've identified at least four Confederates who died in the fighting, and there are probably more. However, rebel bloodshed was not extensive. One of the regiments defending Salisbury was the 7th North Carolina Infantry, which reported six prisoners but no men killed or wounded. 
     When the 1st Brigade arrived from Greensboro in the afternoon, they were sent to destroy the railroad south toward Charlotte. Meanwhile, the 3rd Brigade sent two regiments north for an all-out assault on the Yadkin River railroad trestle, which the Union had been targeting for more than a year.
     Gen. Beauregard had posted more Confederate soldiers at the bridge than he did in Salisbury. About 1,000 entrenched rebels under Col. Zebulon York repulsed 1,000 Home Yankees from Tennessee under Col. John Miller. Decades later, some of the rebels boasted that they killed 16 Yankees, but the Tennessee rosters show just four killed at Salisbury. 
     Stoneman even deployed the artillery he had hauled 500 miles for a moment like this, but his troops were unable to dislodge the Confederates or get close enough to the bridge to threaten it. If this 1864 illustration by Robert Knox Sneden is accurate, it was probably built of iron and stone rather than timber, so it wouldn't burn.

Yadkin River trestle, 1864 (illustration from
     As far as I know, the Yadkin Bridge was the next-to-last Confederate victory of the war. We'll get to the last one April 20 at Swannanoa Gap.
     It was a pyrrhic victory for the Confederates. Stoneman had cut the tracks north and south of the bridge, so no trains would be needing it anytime soon.

     Residents of Salisbury had taken extraordinary means to protect their family  treasures from looting soldiers. A doctor gave his pocketwatch to one of his patients at the Rowan County poorhouse and asked her to sew it to the inside of her skirt. His wife buried her silverware in old shoes and planted grapevine cuttings over them. One mom hid her diamond ring in the diaper of her newborn baby, "born on the fateful day of Stoneman's visit," according to the family Bible. 
     Yet in hindsight, some in Salisbury realized they had been relatively fortunate that they were attacked by Stoneman rather than Sherman. 
    "Salisbury was not unduly incensed against General Stoneman," H.S. Chamberlain wrote. "He obeyed his orders and destroyed the stores, but also gave guards to all who asked for them. He restrained looting, and little unnecessary havoc was made in the dwellings of town. Although he was a sick man while he stayed in Salisbury, he found means to prevent such burning and destruction as took place so wantonly in Columbia, South Carolina, and with impunity in many other less important places.” We'll have more tomorrow on Stoneman's illness.
     Decades later, a war widow named Margaret Beall Ramsey told the Salisbury Post, "With all the pillaging, plundering and burning that the raiders had done, Salisbury, comparing her lot with that of Columbia and Fayetteville, may well afford to hold Stoneman’s name in grateful remembrance.”

      When the raiders reached the infamous prison, they found only a couple of hundred comrades who had been too feeble to be evacuated. What they discovered, though, were enough supplies to sustain Gen. Joe Johnston's army, which was the last significant Confederate force east of the Mississippi after Lee's surrender April 9. 
     The loot included a million rounds of ammunition, 75,000 uniforms, a quarter of a million English-made blankets, 10,000 guns, and tons of corn, bacon, sugar, and wheat. The Union troops burned it as quickly as they could count it. Some accounts say that Stoneman set aside some of the food and blankets for poor women and children of Salisbury. 
     "A great fire in the town that night lighted up the heavens, while the bursting of shells sounded like a heavy battle. Salisbury had been a hated place, and was paying dearly for its iniquities," Capt. Weand wrote.
Stoneman spared the Rowan County courthouse.
     Years later, a man named A.M. Rice recalled how his mother awoke him that evening and pointed at the glowing horizon 10 miles away in Salisbury. "Look out the window," she said. "The Yankees are burning Salisbury."
     Actually, Stoneman spared most of the structures in town, including the courthouse built in 1854. The Yankees did burn the town's hand-pumped fire engine, according to a 200th anniversary history of the Salisbury Fire Department. 
     The Carolina Watchman was put out of business for nearly a year. On the 1866 anniversary, the paper described the battle:
     At daybreak on the morning of the 12th, our citizens were aroused from their quiet slumber by the loud detonations of artillery. The foemen were slowly but surely advancing. All was excitement, all was terror. Terror-stricken women and weeping children were running from house to house, or secreting themselves in cellars.
     The conflict was short, the small companies of invalid soldiers hastily gathered from the hospitals and thrown out with a battalion of artillery were unequal to the five thousand trained and armed troopers led by Stoneman. They were soon pressed back, our city given up to plunder and destruction. Stoneman had arrived. 
     In her book, Stoneman's Last Raid, Dr. Ina Van Noppen wrote:
     These two days (April 12 and 13) must have seemed an eternity to residents of Salisbury, although Stoneman’s moderation in treatment of civilians evoked surprise and respect from southerners who had expected worse treatment, basing their fears on depredations of bushwhackers who called themselves soldiers and newspaper accounts of Sherman’s march through Georgia. Mrs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer said that this was an example of gentlemanly conduct of a raid.
     There was fear in Salisbury and, despite orders, there was considerable disorder and plundering. But the Yankee troops were probably too busy with the torch to get into as much pillaging as they committed in the mountain towns on their return trip.
NEXT: Solemn graveyard was once N.C.'s first ballpark

At the spot where bullets flew in 1865, the bullet-shaped Norfolk & Western J611 locomotive crosses the Yadkin River. Confederate infantry on the far shore successfully defended the bridge against Union artillery on the near side in the next-to-last rebel victory of the Civil War. This current trestle was built in 1906. The classic "611," built in 1950, was refurbished at the N.C. Transportation Museum near Salisbury and can be seen there occasionally. (Photo by Tom Abbott).


  1. My name is Stephen Carter. After 9+ years of research and a tour of the prison site courtesy of Ed and Sue Curtis, in Book Three HARD ROAD TO FREEDOM I concluded a chapter with the following. I do hope is accurate before I send the MS in to my publisher. My email is SAFTPET@YAHOO.CA and my website is OBAAT.CA. Thank you.

    "April 12, 1865, Major General George Stoneman and 5,000 Union cavalry raided Salisbury with the aim of liberating the Union prisoners. Stoneman’s troopers quickly overwhelmed the few hundred invalid troops who stood in their way. After entering the odious hell hole, they found a handful of prisoners too ill to travel. The rest had already been evacuated to Wilmington.
    In the town, a Confederate storehouse was found overflowing with food, munitions, medical supplies and other sundries. Until midafternoon of the next day, four entire squares in Salisbury were filled with burning supplies. All told, more than 10,000 stands of small arms, 10,000 rounds of artillery shot, 70,000 pounds of powder, 100,000 uniforms, 160,000 pounds of bacon, 20,000 pounds of harness leather, 10,000 pounds of saltpeter, 35,000 bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of wheat, $100,000 worth of medical supplies were destroyed. Stoneman’s troopers burned the infamous prison, the original hospital, the outbuildings, the railroad depot, the distillery, and other buildings. Salisbury burned all night, the flames visible for 15 miles. As an example to those who had encouraged the suffering of thousands, General Stoneman took retribution. Dr. Rumple, Mr. Wiley and his schoolmate, James E. Kerr, ‘together with a long list of our best citizens’ were captured. Under guard, they and Colonel H. Forno, the camp’s last commander, languished for a time in Salisbury Prison amongst a vast wasteland of intolerable filth and degradation of their own doing. As to the fate of the prison, a spectator commented,
    "No one was sorry when the Yankees made a bonfire of the evil-smelling empty, dolorous prison, the scene of so much unalleviated suffering and so many deaths. This chapter could only be appropriately closed in purification by fire."
    Although he left Salisbury four months before the end of hostilities, Maj. John H. Gee was arrested and put on trial for war crimes. He was acquitted. Sadly, all records left in the prison were destroyed.

    1. Thanks for writing, Stephen.
      I would agree with your narrative in general, with only a few comments:
      Stoneman's cavalry numbers are not certain. I think he had about 4,000 on the raid, and probably a little more than 3,000 were involved in the attack on Salisbury on the morning of April 12. The 15th PA Cavalry had been engaged the day before around Greensboro and did not arrive in Salisbury until the town was captured.
      I would not say that Stoneman took retribution. If anything, his troops practiced restraint, and some of the townfolk considered themselves fortunate that Stoneman was merciful compared to Sherman.
      I would be interested in learning more about the episode with Dr. Rumple. It sounds likely but is not something I have read previously. When Dr. Rumple wrote the history of Rowan County a few years later, he omitted Stoneman's Raid. Many of the prisoners from Salisbury were marched to Lenoir and then across the mountains to Knoxville. By all accounts I have seen, the Salisbury prison was burned as soon as it was liberated, so Rumple etc would not have been detained there.