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06/24/15

The Union Raiders: George Stoneman

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series The Union Destroyers

General George StonemanGeneral George Stoneman was an unusual cavalryman. At 6 feet 4 inches he towered over most of his subordinates.By comparison he was a full foot taller than his fellow cavalry commander, General Philip Sheridan. He also suffered from chronic hemorrhoids, a condition that relegated him to a desk job after the Battle of Chancellorsville.

George Stoneman graduated from West Point in 1946 where his roommate was the future Confederate general Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. He served the years before the war in a variety of positions across the West in the Cavalry. By 1861 he held the rank of captain.

Returning east, he served as a major of the 1st U.S. Cavalry and then adjutant to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in western Virginia. As the cavalry was being organized in the Army of the Potomac, he commanded the Cavalry Reserve and then the Cavalry Division, with the title Chief of Cavalry. He was promoted to brigadier general on August 13, 1861. He did not relate well to McClellan, who did not understand the proper use of cavalry in warfare, relegating it to assignment in small units to infantry brigades. This organization fared poorly in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles of 1862, where the centralized Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart seriously outperformed their Union counterparts.

From the end of the Peninsula Campaign to the aftermath of the disaster at Fredericksburg, Stoneman served as an infantry corps commander. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862. Following Fredericksburg, a new commanding general took over the Army of the Potomac: Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker had a better understanding of the strategic value of a centralized Cavalry Corps and he named Stoneman to lead it. The centralized corps could undertake long raids into enemy territory, destroying supplies, and gathering intelligence about the enemy forces. They were not subject to the commanders of small infantry units.

Hooker’s plan for the cavalry at Chancellorsville was daring. Hooker assigned Stoneman a key role in which his Cavalry Corps would raid deeply into Robert E. Lee’s rear areas and destroy vital railroad lines and supplies, distracting Lee from Hooker’s main assaults. However, Stoneman was a disappointment in this strategic role. The Cavalry Corps got off to a good start in May 1863, but quickly bogged down after crossing the Rapidan River.

During the entire battle, Stoneman accomplished little and Hooker considered him one of the principal reasons for the Union defeat at Chancellorsville. Hooker needed a scapegoat to blame for the defeat and Stoneman was relieved of command to deflect criticism from him. He was moved into a desk job in Washington as Chief of the U.S. Cavalry Bureau.

By 1864 Stoneman had grown tired of the desk job and asked for an active duty assignment. Stoneman was given the command of the Cavalry Corps of what would be known as the Army of the Ohio. Stoneman and his aide Major Myles Keogh were captured outside of Macon, Georgia but were exchanged after almost three months in captivity.

In December 1864, he led a raid from East Tennessee into southwestern Virginia. Stoneman, soon after arriving at Knoxville, made up his mind to capture the Salt Works, and on the 11th inst. had concentrated three brigades. Both sides were not at all evenly matched with Stoneman having 4,500 troopers and his Confederate adversaries 2,800. The expedition resulted in the Battle of Marion and the Second Battle of Saltville against a Confederate force under the command of John C. Breckinridge and accomplished the destruction of the saltworks at Saltville, Virginia

His revised orders from Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, were to ‘dismantle the country to obstruct Lee’s retreat’ by destroying parts of the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, the North Carolina Railroad, and the Danville-Greensboro line. Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander, believed that Stoneman’s raid, in conjunction with a simultaneous raid by Northern cavalry in Alabama, would ‘leave nothing for the rebellion to stand upon.’

With a force of 6,000 cavalrymen Stoneman was opposed by Confederate home guardsmen scattered about in various places such as Watauga County, where Major Harvey Bingham had two companies, or Ashe County where a Captain Price commanded a small company. The area had been placed under the direction of General P.G.T. Beauregard, but the regular troops in his command were described as ‘insufficient to stop [Stoneman].’ Stoneman took advantage of this by dividing his force several times to cover more ground.

Stoneman’s men took Salem, Martinsville, and other towns, destroyed Moratock Iron Furnace (a Confederate foundry), struck at Boone on March 28, then divided his force again and sent part into Virginia on April 2. It returned to North Carolina a week later. On April 12, the Federals occupied Salisbury and burned the already abandoned prison, as well as public buildings, industrial structures, and supply depots. Stoneman moved west the next day, dividing his command again in the face of limited resistance.

Other than a fight at Swannanoa Gap, Stoneman and his cavalrymen encountered only bushwhackers and isolated groups of Confederate soldiers. Stoneman’s forces approached Asheville on April 23, negotiated a truce, and rode through the streets on April 26, while Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson surrendered to Union Gen. William T. Sherman near Durham. In recognition of his service, he was brevetted major general in the regular army.

 

06/23/15

The Union Raiders: Grierson’s Raid

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series The Union Destroyers

Benjamin GriersonWe think that we know everything there is to know about Grierson’s Raid because of the 1959 movie The Horse Soldiers starring John Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers. But reality is totally different from the movies.

The only things that are the same between reality and the movies are just these few facts. The raid began at LaGrange, Tennessee. The cavalry units were the same in the movie and real life. They destroyed everything of military value at Newton Station, Mississippi. And they rode to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Everything else in the movie is simply made up.

The Union raiders were commanded by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher who, oddly, hated horses after being kicked in the head by one as a child. The raid lasted from April 17, 1863 until May 2, 1863.

Grierson’s cavalry brigade consisted of the 6th and 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa Cavalry regiments. Grierson and his 1,700 horse troopers, some in Confederate uniforms serving as scouts for the main force, rode over six hundred miles through hostile territory (from southern Tennessee, through the state of Mississippi and into Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana), over routes no Union soldier had traveled before.

Total casualties for Grierson’s Brigade during the raid were three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. Five sick and wounded men were left behind along the route, too ill to continue.

Although many Confederate cavalry units pursued Grierson vigorously across the state (most notably those led by Wirt Adams and Robert V. Richardson), they were unsuccessful in stopping the raid.

Grierson had several objectives during the raid. First, the Union high command wanted to see how the Confederates would react to a cavalry into the heart of the South. Detachments of his troops made feints confusing the Confederates as to his actual whereabouts, intent and direction.

At the same time his troops were ordered to tear up railroads and burn crossties, free slaves, burn Confederate Grierson's Raidstorehouses, destroy locomotives and commissary stores, rip up bridges and trestles and burn buildings. They inflicted ten times the casualties they received.

On April 24th Grierson’s troops attacked the key railroad crossing at Newton Station, Mississippi. They succeeded in securing the town without any serious fighting, and captured two Confederate trains. The raiders also destroyed several miles of railroad track and telegraph wires in the vicinity, severing communications between Confederate-held Vicksburg and the Eastern Theatre commanders.

The two trains (one a freight and the second a mixed freight and passenger) were actually captured by Lt-Colonel William Blackburn, who had ridden ahead in darkness to scout the town. His men set fire to the trains, and exploding ammunition led the nearby Grierson to assume the worst, that a major battle had started. He arrived with the main force to find Blackburn’s men helping themselves to confiscated whiskey.

Over the next few hours Union forces destroyed trackage and equipment, east to the Chunkey River and west as far as possible. A large building in the town with uniforms and arms was burned, and the railroad depot was burned (not before local hospital staff were allowed to remove medicine and food). Assembling his forces Grierson departed the area around 2pm, leaving ruin and wreckage.

Grierson and his exhausted troopers ultimately rode in to Union-occupied Baton Rouge, Louisiana. An entire division of Pemberton’s soldiers were tied up defending the vital Vicksburg-Jackson railroad from the evasive Grierson.

Combined with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s feint northeast of Vicksburg (the Battle of Snyder’s Bluff), the beleaguered Confederates were unable to muster the forces necessary to oppose Grant’s eventual landing below Vicksburg on the east side of the Mississippi at Bruinsburg.