Last month, North Carolina publisher John F. Blair released Chris Hartley's Stoneman's Raid, 1865. According to his author bio, Hartley has worked in marketing and communications for several large companies and has published several Civil War articles. Most recently, he contributed the feature article (dealing with a portion of Stoneman's Raid) for Blue & Gray magazine Issue #6, Volume XXVI.
DW: Chris, thank you for joining me for a short conversation about your new book. What got you interested in Stoneman’s Raid? When you mention your “Stoneman’s Raid” book to others (and don’t mention the year) do they automatically think Chancellorsville Campaign?
CH: I grew up in the area that Stoneman’s cavalry raided in 1865, and today I still live there, so I could not help but be drawn to this event. It is hard to miss the historical markers commemorating the raid – they seem to be everywhere – yet not many people know much about it, so I set out to correct that.
That lack of knowledge about the raid is even more common outside of North Carolina and Virginia. In fact, except for serious Civil War students, I’ve encountered few people who know much about any of Stoneman’s raids. That includes his Chancellorsville raid, his ill-fated July 1864 Atlanta campaign raid, his more successful outing in Southwestern Virginia in December 1864, and his 1865 effort.
DW: Just briefly for the readers unfamiliar with the subject, can you summarize the main points of the raid and how your book addresses them?
CW: In the spring of 1865, Federal Maj. Gen. George Stoneman launched a cavalry raid deep into the heart of the Confederacy that was designed to help end the Civil War. Over a span of two months, Stoneman’s cavalry rode well over a thousand miles across six southern states, fighting fierce skirmishes and destroying massive amounts of supplies and facilities. It stands as one of the longest raids in American military history.
My book tells the story of the raid, from its conception to its conclusion, and also analyzes the results. Taking a cue from the odd fact that Stoneman’s raid is the backdrop for a hit song from the 1960s – the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – I attempt to assess whether or not Stoneman’s Raid truly did “Drive Old Dixie Down.”
DW: George Stoneman clearly had his ups and downs during the Civil War. What do you make of his strengths and weaknesses as an independent cavalry commander?
CH: As a battlefield commander, Stoneman enjoyed mixed success. Perhaps he deserves some of the blame for the cavalry’s failures during the Chancellorsville and Atlanta campaigns, but by no means does he deserve all of it as he was also the victim of bad weather, conflicting orders, and other difficulties. To his credit, he learned from those experiences and was afterward careful to execute his orders to the letter. Stoneman’s 1865 raid was his best. He led decisively and creatively and used his men in a manner that showed he understood their individual strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps Bruce Catton said it best: “Operating under a better general [George Thomas], he [Stoneman] was a better cavalryman.”
I should add that Stoneman contributed much to the ultimate success of the Union cavalry, and that is often overlooked. In 1861, he became the first chief of cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Although the job was more title than substance at the time, he managed to improve the mounted arm by emphasizing drill and discipline, improving rations, medical facilities, and equipment, and by culling out weak officers. In 1863, Stoneman became chief of the Cavalry Bureau. In that role he did even more to enhance the Union cavalry as he focused on training and procuring horses and equipment. His work then was still being felt in 1865 when the Union cavalry had become a mighty force.
DW: Are there any underappreciated individuals or events associated with the raid that you’d like to mention?
CH: Stoneman’s final raid strikes me as remarkable because of the number of luminaries from both sides that were involved to some degree. Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Lee, Johnston, Pemberton, Semmes, and Beauregard are among those famous men who cross the stage.
There were also a number of memorable characters who were direct participants, starting with William J. Palmer. The best Union brigade commander on the raid, Palmer was one of the Union’s youngest generals and a Medal of Honor winner who went on to become a railroad tycoon. Another is Myles Keogh, Stoneman’s aide during the raid, who fought with distinction during the raid. After the war, Keogh remained in the cavalry, and went on to die at Custer’s side at Little Bighorn.
From an event standpoint, this raid has much to offer. The includes difficulties and controversies in planning, indiscretions, and a series of surprisingly sharp skirmishes at unexpected places such as present-day Martinsville, Virginia, and Salisbury, Morganton, and Asheville, N.C. The action at Salisbury itself is high drama, with Stoneman’s desire to liberate the Confederate Prison there – a desire that is frustrated. The raiders even go on to play a role in the pursuit and capture of Jefferson Davis.
DW: Prior to your book, the only full length treatment that I can readily recall is The Raid: East Tennessee, Western N. Carolina, Southwest Virginia by Thomas Ramsey (self published, I think, back in the 1970s). Does it have any value for readers today?
CH: Actually, Ramsey’s The Raid is about Stoneman’s Raid of December 1864, which targeted the salt and lead mines in Southwestern Virginia. The only book about Stoneman’s subsequent 1865 raid is Ina W. Van Noppen’s Stoneman’s Last Raid. Published in 1961, Van Noppen’s book is good but it is out of print, hard to find, and slim - and it overlooked a number of primary sources on the raid that I was able to consult for my book.
DW: Thanks for the clarification on Ramsey. That's what I get for making an assumption just from the title. I haven't checked lately, but don't think I've ever seen a copy for sale on the secondary market. In your research did you find any books associated with the raid that you could recommend to today’s reader as little noticed gems?
CH: Two regimental histories stand out in my mind. The 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s unit history (History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, Which Was Recruited and Known as the Anderson Cavalry in the Rebellion of 1861-1865, edited by Charles H. Kirk) is a must read for anyone interested in the raid. So too is the unit history for the Union 13th Tennessee Cavalry, Samuel W. Scott and Samuel P. Angel’s History of the Thirteenth Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, U.S.A.
Also, Cornelia P. Spencer’s The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina is valuable and a historical document in its own right as it was published soon after the war. Ms. Spencer gives the contemporary Southern viewpoint of the raid, and also traces other late-war activities in North Carolina. Her book is quite well done – she relied on eyewitness sources wherever possible.
DW: In the literature, is there much controversy about whether the raid was necessary, and, if so, whether the level of destruction was excessive? What are your personal thoughts on the matter?
CH: There is indeed some controversy. Despite the implications of the Band’s song, the destruction wrought by Stoneman’s raiders was largely confined to objectives that were military in nature – rails, rolling stock, military supplies, public buildings, etc. In contrast to some other operations in the Civil War, the raiders did not wantonly destroy everything in their path. So from that standpoint, it can be argued that the raiders’ destruction was not excessive.
However, that did not mean that the local population did not suffer, or that the raid came at the wrong time – the waning days of the war. Since the raiders operated with no supply line, they had to take food, forage, and horses wherever they found it. As Grant put it, “Indeed much valuable property was destroyed and many lives lost at a time when we would have liked to spare them.” Because of this, I argue in my book that the destruction the raiders sowed retarded postwar recovery in the areas it touched.
DW: What is the ultimate legacy of Stoneman’s Raid? Do you think the raid hastened the end of the war in any significant way?
CH: Had Lee’s or Johnston’s Confederate armies somehow managed to escape the grasp of their Union foes, they would most likely have headed west, directly into the region Stoneman raided. There they would have been in trouble with no supplies or infrastructure to rely on, for Stoneman’s raiders did their job well. Of course, that did not happen, so Stoneman’s final raid did little to help end the war, except for a very minor impact on the Appomattox Campaign.
As Grant later wrote of Stoneman’s and some companion raids farther west, “The war was practically over before their victories were gained. They were so late in commencing operations, that they did not hold any troops away that otherwise would have been operating against the armies which were gradually forcing the Confederate armies to a surrender.”
Instead, as I pointed out earlier, the raid’s destruction made Reconstruction harder.
DW: Now for the question I ask every author. Do you have anything currently in the works or planned for the future that you can mention?
CH: Yes – I’m working on a new expanded edition of my first book, Stuart’s Tarheels: James B. Gordon and his North Carolina Cavalry, which has been out of print for over a decade. I am also in the very early stages of a new biography of Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill. Hill was a prolific writer, so it is going to take a while.
DW: Thanks for your time, Chris, and best of luck with Stoneman's Raid, 1865. I look forward to reading it.
CH: Thank you!