On the morning of March 27, Stoneman issued orders based on the plans gruffly laid the night before. His goal: to make a rapid push across the Watauga River and into North Carolina, reuniting his division in the process. At about 8:00 a.m. on March 27, a clear, warm Monday, the First and Second Brigades left their camps. For a few miles, their route paralleled the Watauga River. Behind them, the Iron Mountains passed into the distance; ahead loomed the Stone Mountains, the last obstacle between the raiders and North Carolina. Frank Frankenberry called it a “romantic road. Mountains on each side … and a small stream by the road side.” About five miles down the road, at a crossing of the Watauga River, officers called a halt. After a three-hour pause to rest and feed their hungry horses, the march resumed. Only a few homes lined the rugged route; a lonely wood road that trailed off into the wilderness was the only intersecting road they passed. That afternoon, the Federals stopped to feed again. Stoneman, wisely taking precautions to ensure he knew what – or who – awaited, sent a company ahead on a scout.
This was the second patrol of the day. At 8:30 a.m., Sgt. William F. Colton took one hundred men from the 15th Pennsylvania’s First Battalion up the Stone Mountains to secure a key gap. The veteran sergeant endeavored to execute the orders with his usual efficiency, but en route he stopped to feed the contingent’s horses. Palmer had ordered him to do just that, but it was the wrong thing to do. By 1:15 p.m. the chore was finished and the men were ready to continue, but Stoneman appeared as the troopers were moving out. Asking what Colton’s orders were, the general probed, “Were you ordered to feed?” Colton answered that he was. “Well, sir, either you have disobeyed your orders or my orders were misconveyed to you. You can halt here and report to Colonel Palmer.” With that Stoneman abruptly rode off, apparently to find another force to complete the task. A chastened Colton later confided to his diary, “It was cutting, but what could I say?” A few minutes later, he received other orders and was unable to complete the mission. Colton could only hope for an opportunity to redeem himself.
Around noon on March 27 in Elizabethton, Miller’s Tennesseeans left town on Gillem’s orders to follow the rest of the division into North Carolina. They rode southward through Valley Forge, found Stoneman’s winding column at Doe River Cove, and fell in. They made it as far as present-day Butler before camping for the night. Once again, some Tennessee troopers scattered to visit friends and family in the vicinity, but others gave military needs a higher priority. Stoneman’s troopers fortified Fort Hill, located near Butler, and established a post to relay signals from the North Carolina mountains back to Tennessee.
At the front of the column, the 15th Pennsylvania led the way, followed by the 10th Michigan and 12th Ohio. Stoneman and Gillem marched with the Second Brigade. The road, although narrow, winding, and steep, was a good one. Some citizens showed their colors and turned out to help, building fires and standing watch at fords and tricky places in the road. A local named Henderson Smith grabbed a torch and guided the 15th Pennsylvania over the unfamiliar route. Palmer sent orders back for the cavalrymen to pitch in and build fires too. Yet despite all these precautions, nighttime marching on a mountain road was still dangerous. At one troublesome spot, an artillery caisson tumbled over an embankment and into the depths, lost forever. A few horses and mules also fell to their deaths. An ambulance followed the caisson and fell into the blackness, and three men were disabled on the treacherous roads. One of the three men was probably Henry Birdsall of the 11th Michigan. “I turned a somersault off my horse backward,” he wrote. “Hurt me considerable but I got over better than could have been expected.”
The march was both surreal and beautiful. Wrote one veteran, “Looking back as we toiled up the mountain, the scene was grand and imposing as the march of the column was shown by the trail of fire along the road. Occasionally an old pine tree would take fire and blaze up almost instantaneously, looking like a column of fire. It was an impromptu illumination, and the sight of it repaid us for the toilsome night march.” Another veteran described it even more vividly. “The fires were lighting up everything about, and the troopers looked like mounted specters, moving silently along. On the one side were the troopers, taking up nearly the whole road; on the other was the dark ravine below, with the tree tops coming up nearly on a level with the road,” he wrote. Another cavalryman wrote, “There were places on the western ascent where it was necessary for men and horses to scramble almost perpendicular cliffs, and the memory of that cold night on top of the mountain is very vivid yet.”
And so the march continued. “We kept moving along, walking and leading our horses, stealing a little rest when the column would stop,” wrote a veteran. In the darkness, the extra horseshoes the men received at Morristown clanked annoyingly against each other. Some tired of the noise and tossed the extra shoes aside. Finally, when the division’s lead elements cleared the pass at the top of the mountain, Stoneman and Gillem relented. Between midnight and 5:00 a.m., depending on the troopers’ location in the long column, the exhausted raiders finally paused. As one trooper remembered it, “I was unfortunate in having to stop where the road was narrow and badly washed in gutters,” he recalled. “I crowded up the bank to the side of the road, gathered a few crooked sticks, laid them across the gutter and lay down with my horse standing beside me. My feet extended over the path at the side of the road. I was disturbed several times by orderlies passing over my feet, but soon got used to that.” But if rest was scarce that night, progress was evident. Angelo Wiser marked the First Brigade’s headquarters at the Reese home, a mere two hundred yards from the North Carolina line.
The Tennessee phase had ended successfully. Confederate defenders were back on their heels. Before the raiders lay new objectives and new obstacles. The next chapter of Stoneman’s raid was about to begin.
To find out what happens next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley