March 23 – April 26, 1865
Union forces had thoroughly beaten the Rebel armies by the spring of 1865, but the Southern people had not yet admitted defeat. The Union practice of waging war not just against enemy soldiers but on civilians, farms, and factories that supported them – known today as “modern” or “total” warfare – had done much to demoralize the people of the Deep South and Virginia. And now it was North Carolina’s turn to experience the wrath of the marauding Union cavalry. Six thousand troopers under the command of Gen. George Stoneman headed east from Mossy Creek, Tenn., on March 23, 1865, with orders to “dismantle the country” — to “destroy but not to fight battles.”
Facing only scattered detachments of regular troops and a few home-guard units, the raiders moved through the state virtually unopposed. On March 28 they plundered the village of Boone, and the next day they captured Wilkesboro, where “they came in with a yell and ran completely through the place, frightening a small body of Confederates out of their wits and out of the place.” On April 2 they turned north and crossed into Virginia, where they spent a week destroying 150 miles of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.
Reentering North Carolina on April 9, they traveled south to the twin towns of Salem and Winston and then moved on to High Point. The local population remembered the Yankee raiders mostly as horse thieves, even though all factories and bridges encountered were burned, as were 1,700 bales of cotton found in High Point.
On April 12 they entered Salisbury, an important railroad hub and military depot and home to an infamous prison for captured Union soldiers. They were disappointed to find the prisoners had been evacuated, but the Yankee raiders set fire to the filthy prison and millions of dollars worth of supplies. The fire was so immense that it could be seen 15 miles away. Traveling west, the blue troopers plundered the towns of Statesville, Lincolnton, Taylorsville, and Asheville before reentering Tennessee on April 26.
Fascinating Fact: Stoneman’s force traveled over 600 miles, captured 2,000 prisoners, and left behind “a destruction that promised a future resultant poverty, bitter indeed . . .”