March 26, 1865 was a Sunday. The air was chilly and the ground was white with frost, but the Union cavalrymen did not take time to either warm up or observe the Sabbath. Rations were still being distributed from the trains; Frank Frankenberry received coffee and sugar. Other men tended their horses. Already some mounts were showing the wear and tear of the journey, so two Pennsylvanians from Company K of the 15th were sent back to Knoxville with all of the unserviceable horses. The rest of the horses were fed and men drew rations, and then the streamlined division headed into the rising sun, leaving the comfort and security of Tillson’s troops and trains. Some troopers left as early as 4 a.m., and the entire column lurched into motion over the next several hours. Parts of the 11th Michigan were among the last to leave, finally putting hoof to road around 10:00 a.m. The morning slipped away uneventfully as the Federals rode through Leesburg, crossed a high ridge, and approached Jonesboro around midday. Now undefended, Jonesboro, one of the state’s oldest towns, was as uninviting as most East Tennessee hamlets. They “look like Northern villages that have set out to travel and got stuck in the mud,” one traveler thought. “Has been a pretty town, but shows the effect of war,” added a raider. Soon Jonesboro was behind them, and the afternoon passed away. Bored, the men had nothing to do but ride, talk, and enjoy the scenery. Pennsylvanian Septimus Knight was the exception; he drew the extra duty of shepherding the growing mass of blacks – mostly escaped slaves – now following the column. The hobbled condition of Knight’s horse, which had been kicked the night before, made his job even harder.
Thirty miles of ever-harsher terrain slipped away. Pennsylvania troopers from Company A surprised and captured four enemy soldiers, but that was the extent of the day’s excitement. Between 9:00 p.m. and midnight, they camped in a broad area extending from Buffalo Creek to Dry Cove and Doe River Cove – but near the North Carolina road. The men were worn out, but their horses still had to be fed. Gillem and Stoneman spread out the division’s campsites to make foraging easier, but it didn’t help. “As we get nearer to the mountain forage becomes more scarce, and to-day our horses went hungry,” a cavalryman lamented.
The horses didn’t go hungry from a lack of effort on the part of their riders. Each day, men searched local residences for horses, mules, food, and anything of use to sustain the march. These visits were sometimes traumatic for the locals. Not far from Doe River Cove lived a typical East Tennessee family that knew only too well the hard hand of war. One son lay in a cold grave, killed at Spotsylvania. Two more sons had been wounded in other battles but remained in the army. Still, the night Stoneman came, no fewer than eight people were at home. The man of the house was seriously ill. His aging wife waited at his bedside. Their three daughters were also on hand to help, as were four servants. A Confederate soldier on furlough rounded out the home’s occupants.
Rumor had preceded the raiders. “’Stoneman! Stoneman!’ was the dread name on every lip,” one of the daughters, Matt, remembered years later. The raiders appeared at midnight, cloaked in an eerie, rainy darkness. “A heavy wind moaned through the tree tops and drove an unintermitting patter of rain against the windows – a typical March night, an ideal opportunity for mischief,” remembered Matt. Suddenly, heavy thumps of booted feet and deep voices came from the front porch. Someone knocked loudly on the door. Hearts pounding, the daughters jumped to their feet and whispered urgently to each other. Julia, the eldest, with a young servant girl at her side, finally went to the door, trembling as she walked. “Who’s there?” she called weakly.
After a long, ominous silence a muffled answer came from the other side of the door. “Cavalrymen from Stoneman’s army.”
“What – what do you want?” Julia asked.
“Supper and – O, just anything,” replied several voices. The girls knew that meant anything they could lay their hands on – food, loot, or worse.
The door cracked open. A tiny beam of candlelight streamed in, revealing menacing armed shadows on the porch. Helpless, Julia opened the door wide, and the soldiers came in. Matt watched from a corner. “They tramped ponderously in, the shadows, uniformed in dark Northern blue, dripping with rain and clanking their spurs and scabbards, two dozen or more – tall, powerful men, principally well drilled and toughened by countless sleepless nights in the saddle,” she wrote, with understandable exaggeration. A few men walked toward the closed door of her father’s room, which was also the refuge of their Confederate friend. Quickly, tears welling in her eyes, Matt stepped in front of the door, and appealed to the officer in charge. “O, please don’t let them enter this room! It is my father’s room, and he is terribly sick, and the sight of all – all these blue uniforms, I – I fear, would kill him. Surely there is nothing in there you want. O, anything else – but to kill my father! Please keep them back.”
To find out what happens next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley