Lt. Col. Charles Betts thought that the plan of the campaign changed dramatically on Sunday, April 2. According to the Pennsylvanian, a minister shared information straight from Richmond suggesting that Robert E. Lee was planning to give up Richmond and march to Pennsylvania. This, Betts recalled, prompted Stoneman to strike at the rail lines in southwest Virginia instead of marching east to join Sherman. This story, however, has no basis in fact. As Ohioan Frank Mason recalled, not even Stoneman’s brigade commanders understood their leader’s plans. The only change that occurred on April 2 was that the Yadkin River finally became fordable. At last, Stoneman could carry out George H. Thomas’s March 18 orders directing him to capture Christiansburg. From that point, Stoneman could destroy railroad track and drop bridges on the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, and even threaten Lynchburg.
The division therefore went to work. Per Gillem’s instructions, Palmer dispatched men to Rockford early on April 2. Extant records do not say how much of his brigade went, but there is no doubt that the town felt the presence of Union troopers that day. Septimus Knight of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry was probably among the group. According to his field diary, he left Elkin at 8:00 a.m. The march began like any other; as the column wound its way toward Rockford, the men kept their eyes open for anything that could help their cause, including replacement horses.
A ride of about eleven miles brought the Federals to Rockford. Formerly the proud seat of Surry County, the once-prosperous town had played host to the likes of James K. Polk, Aaron Burr and Andrew Jackson. But Rockford was now in decline; fifteen years before, the county seat had moved to Dobson. Only Rockford’s location along the Yadkin River made it important to Stoneman. While the division turned northward, a strong presence in Rockford would provide a strategic bulwark against any threats to the Federal rear and flank. A rumor suggested that the Rockford home guard tried to defend the town, but this was false. The only action the locals took – and this was true throughout much of Surry – was to hide animals and bury valuables.
Federal outriders also made their way to Siloam, another Surry County community, where violence erupted. Lt. Col. William Luffman, commander of the 11th Georgia Infantry Regiment, was recuperating from a wound at the home of Maj. R. E. Reeves, another Confederate veteran. Early on April 2, the Spring Place, Georgia, native was taking a bath when he and his host heard a ruckus in the yard. Luffman looked outside and saw a knot of Federal troopers. “Great heavens, Major, the Yankees are upon us!” Luffman yelled. Grabbing his carbine, the colonel ran outside and saw a Federal sitting on his own horse.
To read what happened next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley
Meanwhile, in Palmer’s camp, the sound of “Boots and Saddles” broke the early morning stillness of April 1, 1865. Colonel Betts began day twelve of the raid by ordering his Pennsylvanians to once again test Roaring River. This time the raging stream proved fordable. Pickets were called in – one, Frederic Antes, was relieved at about 9:00 a.m. – and the eastward procession began anew. The day was pleasant and warm; the sky above was clear; and the countryside made a favorable impression. Betts described it as “a very woody country, with few houses,” and “a very barren country with but few inhabitants.” Weand was particularly taken by the terrain. “On April 1st we marched through an immense pine forest. It was the finest piece of timber land I ever saw.”
By 4:00 p.m., the Federals had put about ten miles of empty countryside behind them, and the quiet streets and modest buildings of Elkin were at hand. The town impressed one horseman as a “small but thriving” community that fortunately for them was not thriving with Confederate defenders. On Big Elkin Creek, a tributary of the Yadkin that flowed through town, sat the only structure of military value: the Elkin Manufacturing Company, a small cotton mill that had been in business for almost twenty years. Owned by the Gwyn family, the concern employed about sixty people, mostly young single women who boarded with local residents. The mill had manufactured Confederate uniforms for most of the war, so it was conceivably a legitimate target.
Forty-year-old Richard Ransome Gwyn managed the mill. A frail man who had not fought in the war, Gwyn tried to protect his operation. According to tradition, he met the Federals at the mouth of Big Elkin Creek and offered them the hospitality of his home. He also offered to secure food for his guests. Palmer accepted and established his headquarters in Gwyn’s home, which sat on a hill near the factory. The Pennsylvanian was apparently pleased by this gesture, and also by the fact that Gwyn was a fellow Mason. To this day, some say that Palmer placed a guard around the cotton mill to prevent its destruction.
The men also enjoyed their visit to Big Elkin Creek – particularly their opportunity to fraternize with the factory’s female employees, who welcomed the visitors with “quite a reception.” Flirting became the main pastime at the mill. Meanwhile, the men found ample supplies inside the factory, the local general store, and a nearby grist mill. Quartermasters lost no time in seizing and distributing bacon, flour, butter, honey, lard, molasses, chestnuts, and tobacco. It was a case of perfect timing, because rations had not been issued in a week. The only problem was finding the time to prepare the food. A Pennsylvanian wrote, “We miss our ‘hard-tack’ very much, now that it is all gone. In place of it flour and cornmeal are issued, which usually is mixed with water and fried, but if we stop long enough the colored women bake it for us, and how good it tastes!”
Palmer recognized that the haul at the mill would not satiate his ravenous brigade, so he sought other food sources. He found a couple of other mills in the area and put them to work, and soon had three mills grinding meal. His troopers also added about five hundred bales of cotton to the list of captures.
Thanks to these foraging successes, the people of Elkin suffered comparatively less than their neighbors in Wilkes and Watauga. Old Man Dickie Gwyn, Richard’s father, was one of the few who made an unwilling contribution to the cause. Federal troopers took all the corn, fodder, and straw from his home, Cedar Point, which sat on a hill west of Big Elkin Creek. The raiders did not molest Gwyn’s bacon or his horses, and his cattle escaped as well. Thus satisfied, the Federals camped for the night in and around Elkin.
Mallaby’s signal corps unit, still divided by the river, did its job and kept communications open. The signalers south of the Yadkin left the Wilkesboro area at 7:30 a.m. and reached Jonesville around noon. Meanwhile, across the river, the flagmen said goodbye to their lady friends, but only after enjoying a good breakfast and picking up horses to replace the ones they had left on the other side of the river. These cavalrymen also followed the Yadkin River eastward, crossed Roaring River at a deep ford, and finally caught up with the 10th Michigan. By 1:00 p.m., the two detachments were able to raise their flags again and start sending messages. When suppertime rolled around, Frankenberry was able to take a break. Camping beside Palmer’s headquarters near Elkin Factory, the Pennsylvanian tore into a supper of fried meat and a large biscuit. As he ate, Frankenberry listened to the mill grinding away and admired the hundreds of bales of cotton stacked nearby.
For more, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley