It was wet and nearing dusk when the Ohioans approached the village. Evening came early because of the dark rain clouds overhead; the heavy precipitation that characterized March 1865 throughout the South had found the raiders again. Despite the weather, some of the local young men, fearing conscription, had spent the day plowing "vigorously" in the fields. In town, a new conscription officer and some thirty-six Confederate soldiers went about their business. Forty-year-old Calvin J. Cowles, a local herb dealer, had just finished writing a letter when the Federals "came dashing into town and turned everything upside down. . . . They came in with a yell and ran completely through the place frightening a small body (36) of Confederates out of their wits and out of the place. In about half an hour they entered my yard . . . and they met me pistol in hand pointing threateningly at my breast commanding me to open my store which I did as quickly as possible. They 'prowled' the store but did not take my money – burned the Gray House and all my fence convenient to the road – took half my corn and all my fodder – took 4 mules and Nat and the mare – took Nels and Jim off with them. . . . The boys took the … Gilbert saddle and rode off right before our eyes not even saying 'goodbye.'"
Wilkesboro was the home of Lt. Col. J.A. Hampton’s 68th Battalion of Home Guards. Hampton and his men never had a chance; according to Cowles, the Ohioans rushed in "like an avalanche." Local tradition suggests that a skirmish broke out on Barracks Hill between the 12th Ohio and the home guard. If it did, the fight did not amount to much. One cavalryman, Maj. E.C. Moderwell, recalled only that the Federals rounded up a few prisoners and some commissary stores in Wilkesboro. Another Ohio trooper recorded that the town had been evacuated when the troopers arrived. Only Gillem, who was not present, dramatized the event when he reported that the cavalry “drove the enemy” from town. As darkness fell on March 29, the 12th Ohio Cavalry firmly held Wilkesboro. The regiment would remain in Wilkesboro for the night.
A few miles away, the 15th Pennsylvania continued its now downhill trek to Wilkesboro, following the 12th Ohio. As the day lengthened the weather worsened, extinguishing whatever light remained. Streams, hills and dales, and both Lewis Fork and the Yadkin River barred the way. Finally, about 10:00 p.m., the regiment halted at a plantation about four miles from Wilkesboro. In the heavy rain, they camped in a freshly plowed field. But if the weather was miserable, the fine plantation offered a cornucopia. Even the unit’s worn-out horses got their first feed of grain since crossing the state line. Their hosts, the Gray family, welcomed the raiders pleasantly, and expressed their hope for peace. The night’s work was not done for Howard E. Buzby, however. Buzby, a member of Colonel Palmer’s escort, rode off to find Stoneman. Buzby applied his Texas spurs to his horse, Camelback, and pitched into the blackness. When he found the commanding general, he reported, “[Colonel] Palmer sends his compliments, etc.” Stoneman offered no orders, other than instructions not to get too far ahead. Buzby returned to camp, delivered this message to Palmer, and then promptly fell asleep on his blanket.
Last of all came the frustrated 10th Michigan. Trowbridge’s men marched all day to overtake their missing comrades, but only wildlife kept them company. “I do not remember that we saw, during the whole day, a single person of whom we could make a guide or from whom we could gain any information as to the country,” he wrote. As the day ended, the colonel’s dilemma worsened. “Night came on, and it was so dark we could scarcely see our horses heads,” Trowbridge complained. One of the men in the column testified to the difficulty of the rainy march. “This was the worst night march I ever experienced. The rain poured in torrents[,] dark as Egypt in a mountain region[,] the road frequently lying on the verge of awful precipices where to have gone off would have been instant death to both rider and horse,” he wrote.
For more, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley