Thursday, April 9, 2015

A pawn in Grant's checkmate of Lee

Gen. Davis Tillson was assigned to guard the mountain passes behind Stoneman in North Carolina in case the cavalry had to retreat. That contingency suggests that the Union expected much more of a fight than the Confederates actually put up. 
Reporting from Boone on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Gen. Tillson relayed the following update to Gen. George Thomas back in Nashville:
General Stoneman was at or near Wilkesborough N.C., on the 30th, moving down the Yadkin River with the supposed intention of destroying the important railroad bridge over the Yadkin River. This is an entirely different route from that General Stoneman said he should take when I last saw him.
By April 9, it had been nearly two weeks since Thomas had heard from Stoneman. If Tillson was correct, it meant that Stoneman had abandoned his primary mission, which was to attack the railroads in Virginia. Thomas had instructed Stoneman to follow the New River, which runs northeast from Boone toward Christiansburg, Va. Stoneman had assured Thomas on March 23, "I hope to be well into Virginia by the 28th." Their original plan went nowhere near Wilkesboro. 
Gen. Tillson's report was troubling, but it was also flawed.  First, it was 10 days out of date, reflecting the painfully slow communications in the South in 1865. Second, Thomas knew better than to try to suppose Stoneman's intentions. 
It turns out that Gen. Stoneman's route through Wilkesboro was not insubordination but just a calculated detour that doubled as a feint. Once he got to Boone and saw how long winter lingers in the mountains, he realized that his 4,000 cavalry would go hungry if they depended on the New River valley for food and forage.
In fact, Stoneman had notified Gen. Thomas of his change in plans in his report March 28 from Boone: "I shall be compelled to alter slightly from the proposed route on account of the great scarcity of forage and subsistence for the men. ... We shall, with ordinary good luck, be out of the mountains to-morrow." He neglected to say that they would be on the wrong side of the mountains, in North Carolina rather than in Virginia.
Stoneman chose to proceed east down the Yadkin Valley, which was 2,000 feet lower than Boone and already turning green. Stoneman's turn to the north was delayed by flooding along the Yadkin, but he entered Virginia on April 3, and by April 9 he had carried out his orders and accomplished his missiondestroying the railroads to prevent any westward retreat by Robert E. Lee.

Gen. Stoneman's military mindset was similar to that articulated by his old West Point roomate, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson: "Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy if possible."
In fact, Stoneman was so determined to surprise the enemy that he sometimes confounded his own side as well.  
Stoneman's own troops knew better than to try to anticipate his plans. Here's what one Ohio soldier wrote in the Cleveland Daily Leader May 30, 1865:
General Stoneman's characteristic is reticence. His own trustiest officers know nothing of where or when he is to move, and are soon taught by his strategy—as incomprehensible to his command as his enemy—to forebear surmising.
A history of the 12th Ohio Cavalry written in 1871 by Capt. Frank H. Mason expresses similar frustrations, followed by revelation:
It would be interesting even at this late day, to know the precise object of that tortuous, zigzag course from Knoxville to Christiansburg. To make three hundred and fifty miles of actual progress the column had marched nearly twice that distance. [Actually, the direct route from Knoxville to Christiansburg would have been about 250 miles, and the cavalry's route was about 400.] If Stoneman's purpose was to deceive and confuse his enemy, he must have been remarkably successful, for his own men, even his Brigade commanders, were kept wholly in the dark. They went from point to point as they were directed from day to day, but no man in the column except its commander could even guess its destination.
At Christiansburg, while ripping up the track of the Virginia railroad, the whole scheme was suddenly revealed to us. We were cutting the last avenues of escape that lay open to Lee, and were a part of the machine by which the last great army of the Confederacy was to be hopelessly ensnared. Grant was at Petersburg playing his pieces in the final combination against Lee, and Stoneman was the hand with which he had reached out to move the pawns. From this moment, every soldier in Stoneman’s Division felt that the end was near. The collapse was approaching, and we, every man of us, would be in at the death.

As far as I can tell, Stoneman had no contact with his headquarters from the time he left Boone March 28 until April 13, when he reported the conquest of Salisbury. For two weeks, he was guided by his own instincts. One officer described the general's nightly routine, sitting alone with his maps, "swearing and planning."
Gen. Stoneman and aviation pioneer
Thaddeus Lowe ascended in this balloon
to scout troop movements near Richmond.

Like any commander, Stoneman craved military intelligence. Back in 1862, for example, Stoneman personally went up 500 feet in a hydrogen balloon to scout the prospects of an attack against Richmond. When crossing the Blue Ridge at Boone, he set up a series of mountaintop flag stations in hopes of communicating messages between North Carolina and Tennessee.
Given the scarcity of telegraph and railroad lines in the mountains and foothills he raided, it was almost impossible to stay in touch. That's why the telegraph shenanigans the night of April 4 in Christiansburg were so important.
When Stoneman's second-in-command, Gen. Alvan Gillem, filed his report on the raid, he alluded to the Wilkesboro detour as part of the deception that made the raid so successful:
I cannot close this report without remarking on the complete surprise of the rebels at every point at which we appeared. When the expedition crossed the Blue Ridge into North Carolina, they were convinced that Salisbury was the point of intended attack. By turning due north from Jonesville, the enemy were completely surprised and the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad at our mercy. When marching south in the direction of Danville and Greensborough by Martinsville, the enemy withdrew several thousand of their troops from Salisbury before they discovered the real point of attack.
The Confederates were not only surprised but played into Stoneman's hands when they concentrated their forces to defend their towns, even burning their own storehouses and bridges to keep them from falling into Yankee hands. Stoneman had no interest in holding territory, taking prisoners, or laying siege. He understood the tactical advantage of cutting railroad and telegraph lifelines, which the rebels often left undefended. 
By April 9, the date of Tillson's misinformed report, Stoneman was finished in Virginia and had returned to North Carolina, where he was about to spring attacks on Greensboro and Salisbury.
By the way, something else happened on Palm Sunday, April 9 (although the news wouldn't reach Stoneman until April 13) ...
Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox, April 9, 1865 (illustration by Alfred Waud)

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