Monday, April 20, 2015

Swannanoa: One last stand for the Lost Cause

     Four weeks after marching out of Knoxville, Stoneman's cavalry seemed invincible. Their only retreats were at Wytheville April 5 and the Yadkin River bridge April 12, and even in those actions the Yankees largely accomplished their missions.
     Now that Lee had surrendered, the westbound troops knew that Asheville could be their last stop before turning north and heading home to Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
     But Rhett Butler could have warned them about the rebels: "They'll turn and make a last stand, if I know anything about them." 
Gen. James G. Martin
was known as "Old One
Wing," after losing an
arm in the Mexican War.
    Indeed, they did. At Swannanoa Gap on April 20, 1865, the shorthanded Confederates and their one-armed commander, Gen. James Martin, stopped Stoneman's Raid from crossing the Blue Ridge and gained a temporary reprieve for the town of Asheville. Union Gen. Alvan Gillem refused to call it a defeat, but some of his soldiers did. The historical marker doesn't say so, but I believe Swannanoa Gap was the last Confederate victory of the Civil War.
     The Confederates had no more than 700 men at Swannanoa Gap against the Union's 1,900, but they had the advantages of artillery and higher ground. "Stonemen's men could not reach the gap because their route had been barricaded by felled trees in the mountain gorge," Confederate veteran George Fortune said in a 1928 interview. Steep and rocky mountainsides prevented the Union cavalry from going cross-country. 
Any Yankees who entered the gorge were sitting ducks for Confederate sharpshooters posed along the horseshoe-shaped ridge.
     There is a gravestone marked "Bill" near the eastern portal of the Swannanoa Gap railroad tunnel (built 15 years after the war in 1880) that may mark a casualty of this fight. Click on the Civil War Trails marker below to read more about the mystery of this grave. (The marker below is at Andrews Geyser, a great little destination near Old Fort at the foot of the mountain.)
     The old road where the rebels made their last stand was the forerunner of U.S. 70. Highway That road was abandoned when I-40 was built and is now open to bicyclists and walkers as the splendid Point Lookout Trail
     Union Gen. Gillem left part of his force at the foot of Swannanoa Gap to keep the rebels there on the defensive, while he made a 75-mile detour via the Carson House, Rutherfordton, and Columbus to cross the Blue Ridge two days later at Howards Gap near Hendersonville. Confederate Gen. Martin anticipated that move, too, but he couldn't find enough defenders willing for another fight.

Next: Emma's War, Chapter 3: 'So awfully desolate and forsaken'

 Andrews Geyser is a memorial to the 120 men who died building the railroad across the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap. It is named for Col. Alexander Boyd Andrews, who oversaw the construction. The Round Knob Hotel in this picture burned in 1903, but the geyser (built in 1885 and relocated in 1911) still puts on a show.

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