Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Medal of Honor and even bigger prizes

On this map from Craig Swain's blog, blue arrows show the six-pronged raid of April 11, 1865. Red indicates railroads. Yellow stars north and southwest of Greensboro mark bridges Stoneman burned.
GREENSBORO, N.C.
    The Congressional Medal of Honor was established in 1861 and bestowed upon 1,522 heroes of the Civil War. The last of those was earned during Stoneman's Raid in North Carolina.
    On a foggy morning 150 years ago today, April 11, 1865, Lt. Col. Charles M. Betts led 75 soldiers toward Greensboro, which was guarded by thousands of Confederates. Betts did not yet know it, but Robert E. Lee had surrendered two days earlier, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis had evacuated Richmond and was on his way from Danville to Greensboro.
     Betts had no intention of attacking Greensboro, but he wanted the Confederates to think so. By forcing the Confederates to defend against that possibility, he was able to provide cover for simultaneous raids against nearby armories and railroad bridges.
Lt. Col. Charles Betts received the
Medal of Honor in 1892 for capturing
 a Confederate battalion April 11, 1865.
     The 27-year-old Betts and his Pennsylvania soldiers rode overnight from Salem through Kernersville and Sandy Ridge, where a slave informed them that a battalion from the Third South Carolina Cavalry was camped nearby. Charging out of the morning fog, they overwhelmed the Confederates so quickly that the Yankees were able to eat the breakfast the rebels had been cooking. Betts' troops killed one and took 48 captives, including their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Johnson, who got off only one shot before he surrendered at saber-point.
     Historian Chris Hartley tells of one awed South Carolina prisoner who asked, "Do y'all fight this way all the time?" Sgt. William McGee answered, "Yes, this is our style of fighting; how do you like it?"
     With almost as many prisoners as he had soldiers, Betts had his hands full, and he knew he was in a precarious position deep in enemy territory. Still, there was another tempting target nearby. Betts summoned Sgt. Selden Wilson and told him to pick 10 good men and fresh horses. Wilson chose one of the captured horses, wearing the South Carolina coat of arms on its bridle.
     Betts gave these 11 men what could have been a suicide mission: Attack the North Carolina Railroad just four miles from Greensboro, cut the telegraph line, and burn the bridge over Buffalo Creek. Amazingly, not only was the bridge undefended, but a local farmer offered to help the Yankees. "I will help you," he said, "for I am as good a Union man as God ever let live, but this the first time I ever dared say so."
     Buffalo Creek wasn't the biggest bridge-burning of the day. The other one became more famous than any Medal of Honor, thanks to the song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
till Stoneman’s cavalry came, and tore up the tracks again.
     The Danville train was the Confederacy's last lifeline between Virginia and North Carolina. 
     When Lt. Col. Betts threatened Greensboro, he was providing cover for a raid on the railroad to Danville. Major Abram Garner led 99 men who circled west of Greensboro to destroy the Reedy Fork bridge north of town. It did not burn easily, so Garner's troops attacked it with axes. They were interrupted by a skirmish and one last passing train, but within hours they brought it down. They had to take an even longer way back to avoid capture, and by the time they caught up with Stoneman, they had missed the long-awaited Battle of Salisbury.
     Confederate President Jefferson Davis had crossed that very bridge just hours before it was destroyed. The next day, when President Davis heard what happened, he said defiantly, "A miss is as good as a mile." He would elude capture for another month.
     Ultimately, Lt. Col. Betts and some of these same Pennsylvanian raiders would finally chase Jeff Davis into a trap deep in Georgia on May 10.


While Stoneman's 1st Brigade was raiding around Greensboro, his other two brigades fought a skirmish April 11 in Mocksville on their way to attack Salisbury the following morning.

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