Friday, February 16, 2018

Stoneman's 1863 raid

We here in North Carolina talk a great deal about Stoneman's 1865 raid through the western parts of North Carolina. His troopers fought numerous skirmishes and one pitched battle (Salisbury). Unable to destroy the bridge over the Yadkin River on the Rowan-Davidson County line, Stoneman turned back toward the west, moving toward Statesville, Taylorsville, and Lenoir. Stoneman himself returned to Tennessee with about 1,000 prisoners, while the majority of his command moved further west. Stoneman's moving through the western parts of North Carolina most likely played a role in the decision of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and his surrender to Sherman in late April 1865.

George Stoneman
Yet there is another Stoneman's Raid. On the surface it did not amount to much and, at times, is seen as a failure. Maybe there is more to this raid than meets the eye.

In April 1863, Joseph Hooker puts the Army of the Potomac in motion. His plan is to move swiftly over the Rappahannock River and force Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia out of their Fredericksburg entrenchments. Of course, we know that Lee divided his army, met Hooker, split the ANV again, and won a decisive victory over the Federals. (Short summary.) Part of Hooker's plan was to send his cavalry, under the command of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, on a long distance raid against Lee's supply lines.  Cutting these lines would help force Lee out into the open. Hooker famously wrote to Stoneman on April 12: "Let your watchword be fight, and let all your orders be fight, fight, fight."

Stoneman's Raid began on April 28. Plagued by bad weather, portions of Stoneman's command were not on the south bank of the North Anna River until May 2. There were several skirmishes, some of the railroad tracks were torn up, depots burned, and telegraph lines cut. Stoneman returned to Union lines on May 8. Hooker was not pleased with Stoneman's results (Hooker and the Army of the Potomac had already retreated). "If Lee had been severed from his base of supplies, I certainly should not have retired across the River before giving him an old fashioned struggle for the ascendency," Hooker wrote after the war. In his eyes, it was Stoneman's fault that Chancellorsville was a lost battle.

But did Stoneman's raid really work? Many soldiers in the Confederate army wrote of being on quarter rations following the battle of Chancellorsville. Tally Simpson (3rd South Carolina Infantry) even goes a step further. On May 10, 1863, he wrote home that "We are beginning to live hard as soon as we return[ed] to camp. Stoneman's raid reduced our rations no little. I am compelled to go hungry half of the time." (228)  William Stilwell (53rd Georgia Infantry) wrote home on May 13: "The whole army is on quarter rations. A lb. and a half of meat from six days-take it as it come-bone, skin, and dirt, and it was so rank that it can hardly be eaten..." (159) Toward the end of May, it appears that rations started flowing once again into the Confederate camps around Fredericksburg.

Kent Masterson Brown, in his remarkable book Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (2005), outlines the extreme shortages faced by the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863. If Lee's army did not move out of the war-ravaged central Virginia area, it faced certain collapse due to a short of food and forage. There are, of course, other reasons, not just Stoneman's raid early in May. There had been a drought in 1862, and too much rain in early 1863. But Stoneman's Raid, and the extra work it took to get the already taxed railroad back into working shape, certainly did not help the dire situation that Lee faced. By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was on its way to the rich barns of Pennsylvania. 

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