General 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.