A red sun announced the dawning of April 3, 1865. Behind Mather, the Blue Ridge Mountains barred the way of the Cavalry Division of East Tennessee. The column got an early start – some men marched as early as 2:00 a.m. – and left Mount Airy for thin air and high country. The direction of the march surprised Michigan trooper Steven Thomas. He told his wife, “It soon became apparent that we were not going to Salisbury at present for we struck out in the direction of Virginia.”
It was about 6:30 a.m. when Betts led the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry across the state line. “Pass the Virginia line and now we are on the sacred soil,” wrote one trooper. They ascended to Fancy Gap without incident. At about 10:00 a.m., Betts encountered Mather’s recalcitrant detachment roughly four miles from Hillsville. Betts was furious that Mather had not captured the train. “His conduct in not capturing a wagon train is inexcusable and he was placed under arrest,” the angry colonel reported.
To finish what was left undone, Betts ordered Lt. Samuel Phillips after the train. Phillips took Companies G and E and galloped off. They met with speedy success. Near Hillsville, the Federal troopers spotted and cornered the wagon train. After a brief fight, the blue-clad raiders captured the prize. “I had charge of the advance. We killed one rebel,” trooper Antes wrote in his diary. The number of wagons they captured remains uncertain. Most Federal sources claim that twenty-two wagons were captured, but Gillem’s report cited only seventeen wagons and one forge. Regardless of the total, the conveyances furnished a much-needed supply of forage. The troopers burned the empty wagons and turned over the animals to the quartermaster.
After navigating Fancy Gap, the column stopped to feed and then set their sights on Hillsville, the seat of Carroll County, Virginia. April 3 marked the first time that an organized body of Union soldiers had penetrated this part of Virginia, and the locals trembled. “There was much apprehension and alarm among the citizens as to the treatment they might receive at our hands,” a veteran recalled. As advance guard, the 15th Pennsylvania introduced the locals to Mr. Lincoln’s army.
Described by the raiders as a “little village” and a “quiet inland town,” Hillsville did not welcome the cavalrymen warmly. A young disabled man by the name of Burnett, mounted on a gray mare, met them outside of town with gun in hand. He came determined to fight, but one look at the fearsome, dust-covered warriors changed his mind. Burnett kicked his horse’s flanks and tried to get away, but a Pennsylvanian shot Burnett’s horse. Now dismounted, the young man crawled into a culvert under the road. He held his breath and hoped to avoid discovery, but the Federals found his hiding place. The troopers pulled the young man out and ordered him to lead the advance.
To read what happened next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley