At dawn on Wednesday, April 5, the main body of the Cavalry Division of East Tennessee focused its destructive power on the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. As one of the best-constructed and maintained roads in the South, it had a well-ditched roadbed. Stone ballast supported every joint along the rails. However, it would not stay that way for long, because Stoneman and Gillem planned to destroy as much of the line as possible. Gillem ordered Palmer’s brigade to burn bridges, railroad ties, and destroy stores east of Christiansburg while Brown’s brigade wrecked tracks and rail facilities west of town. As these parties ranged along the road, a reserve was established in town. This force probably included most of the Third Brigade, already weakened by the detachment of Miller’s men.
Their task began at daylight. Christiansburg, a pretty town with a “fine seminary,” felt the hard Federal hand first. Commissaries had the town’s black women bake bread while unit surgeons moved their patients into Confederate hospitals. Meanwhile, Federal soldiers discovered and destroyed quartermaster’s stores and burned some loaded railroad cars. “We took our first lessons here in destroying railroad tracks,” recalled one veteran. The Christiansburg depot was torched, and the adjoining tracks were wrecked.
Ohio cavalrymen E.C. Moderwell explained that the process for ruining a railroad track was simple, but it was also hard work. “We usually took all the fence rails from both sides of the track and piled them on one rail of the rail road, forming a continuous pile, then set the fence rails on fire,” he wrote. “The heat in a short time, by expansion, distorts the rail into all sorts of shapes, and the fire burns off the one end of the ties. To one who has never seen a rail of iron subjected to this treatment the effects are truly wonderful. The rail very often assumes a zigzag shape, resembling a letter Z …. A regiment of men could in this way destroy from three to five miles an hour.”
Meanwhile, Brown’s brigade marched west. Their objective was Central Depot [today Radford, Virginia], a small railroad town that housed key railroad facilities, including a roundhouse that usually contained several engines and cars. Even more crucial was the nearby bridge over the New River. Known also as the New River Bridge or Long Bridge, the 700-foot span was covered by a tin roof and supported by metal piers sunk in the riverbed. In May 1864, Union troops had burned the bridge’s wooden frame but had left its metal piers intact. Within five weeks the bridge had been rebuilt with fire-resistant green timber, so destroying it would pose a formidable challenge to Brown’s raiders.
To read what happened next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley