Stoneman’s Raid, 1865
by Chris J. Hartley
- Hardcover: 464 pages
- Publisher: John F. Blair, Publisher (September 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 089587377X
- ISBN-13: 978-0895873774
Driving Dixie down
As the Civil War was ending, massive cavalry raids became a staple of Union activity. With major CSA armies tied to fixed points or unable to break contact, many areas were almost undefended. A veteran well-armed force could move at will, destroying infrastructure and defeating available forces. Stoneman’s Raid was one of the last cavalry raids of the war. This raid is the inspiration for The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and background for a TV movie. The author did not come to the raid via the book or the movie but grew up in the area of the raid. A self-confessed “history geek”, this was the main event in local history. This happy combination results in an excellent history that is a joy to read.
Major General George Stoneman was not having a good war. In 1863, moving from staff to field he commanded Hooker’s cavalry at Chancellorsville. His raid goes badly; Hooker snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and manages to blame Stoneman. In 1864, leading part of McCook’s cavalry outside of Atlanta, he is forced to surrender. Unlucky or incompetent, no one wants anything to do with him. Except for John Schofield, who wanted Stoneman to command the Department of the Ohio Cavalry. Schofield got his way, more because no one wanted to take the responsibility of saying ‘No’ to a new department commander. Stoneman performed well, producing an excellent force, raiding Virginia and North Carolina.
Logical or not, the Union worried that Lee and Johnston combined could prolong the war. How this would happen, where they would draw supplies and how they could defeat Grant and Sherman’s converging armies is unspecified. Fear is not always logical but taking measures to stop events from occurring is. To counter this, Stoneman is to conduct a major raid, cut railroads, destroy supplies, infrastructure, free POWs and make it impossible for Lee and Johnston to meet.
While specific to Stoneman’s raid in 1865, the planning phase is common to all raids during the war. Supplies are limited to ammunition and barest of essentials, everything else is taken from civilians. The Home Guard or small garrisons are the expected opposition. All main-line CSA units are with the main armies, creating almost a vacuum in many areas. The Union is relies on veterans and Spencer Rifles as a force multiplier in any encounters.
Destruction of railroads is a major objective; bridges over major rivers are a close second. Taken together, they cripple any transportation system. Along the way, raiders burn any bridge, mill or factory. Food, horses disappear. Stoneman seems to have left used up horses rather than shoot them. This resulted in a “swap” that left something behind.
During the raid, movement and misdirection are major factors. The author captures the uncertainty of the authorities and population over objectives and direction. Stoneman makes a real effort to ensure their confusion. The needs of men and horses play a major role in determining the route. This is very true in a mountainous region as the raiders try to balance distance, objectives and need for food.
Operating deep in enemy territory, well behind enemy lines takes a toll. Requirements of foraging, destruction of railroads, bridge burning and road capacity forces splitting the command. The reader understands the isolation of these small units confronting bushwhackers or home guards far from support. Battles and accidents mean leaving the badly hurt behind, often in the care of a Unionist family but subject to the local authorities.
This story plays out against the backdrop of Lee’s surrender, Johnston working with Sherman to end the war, Lincoln’s assignation and Davis’ fleeing south. The raid is a footnote to these events but we see how they touch the men and the southern population. Almost a byproduct is a look at the state of the Confederacy at the end of the war. The author touches on many small items that together build a picture of these people’s lives.
This is an excellent book! Well written, fully researched, with good notes, excellent sources and all the things expected in a serious history. Maps are plentiful and in the right places. A small amount of nit picking is that maps have no scale and do not show mountains or passes. I found this to be a problem a couple of times.
This book looks at a major cavalry raid, the end of the war in the East and life in the Confederacy. It is an easy informative read and very enjoyable.