Shallow Ford was an important crossroads. Its popularity as a river crossing stretched for centuries, from early Native American usage to the 1700s, when European immigrants came from the north. A sand and gravel bar sat just beneath the surface near a bend in the river, making a firm low-water highway for travelers. Warriors had fought here too; in 1780, a skirmish near the ford claimed the lives of more than a dozen men. But April 11, 1865, was like no other day in the ford’s history. When dawn broke, its light revealed thousands of dust-covered, well-armed cavalrymen, led by Alvan Gillem and George Stoneman. They splashed into the Yadkin around 7:00 a.m.
From George Stoneman’s perspective, Shallow Ford had a strategic purpose. By crossing the river there, Stoneman gained access to the least-defended route into Salisbury. The route also offered security for his flank and rear. Between Shallow Ford and Salisbury, the Yadkin River followed a winding but generally north-south line, parallel to the Salisbury Road. Thus, the river would protect his left from Confederates around Greensboro and Lexington. Controlling Shallow Ford would also ensure rear protection. Palmer’s troopers would handle that once they finished with Salem and Greensboro.
Confederate forces recognized the ford’s importance. Days earlier, news of raiders at Patterson’s Factory and of “disguised men … lurking along the Yadkin” caused “great consternation” in Salem. At a public meeting, Lt. Col. Alfred H. Belo, a Confederate officer home on furlough, proposed “that if the citizens would provide me with good horses, I would gather together the soldiers home on furlough and keep the town informed of their movements.” The idea was well-received, and in short order Colonel Belo and home guard commander R.F. Armfield had assembled about 230 men on the west bank of Shallow Ford in “a little breastwork.” From his headquarters at the R.C. Puryear home, Belo also established a line of couriers between the river and Salem. These troopers eventually warded off a few of Stoneman’s outriders at one point, but that was it. When Stoneman detoured into Virginia, most of the ford’s defenders were released. Only a few home guardsmen still manned the trenches the morning Stoneman arrived, and the Federals dispatched them with ease. “The detachment of the enemy guarding the ford were taken by surprise, made but a feeble resistance, and fled, leaving upwards of 100 new muskets in our hands,” Gillem reported. The Federals also captured a mail rider near the ford, but he was freed. Johnston and Beauregard soon heard of Stoneman’s whereabouts.
Some warning had preceded the raiders. About 2:00 a.m., someone knocked on the door of R.C. Puryear’s home in Huntsville, a village about a mile from the ford. The visitor brought a message from a man who lived a few miles away: General Stoneman and a Federal army were on the way. The former congressman roused his children. “Dressing as rapidly as possible we packed trunks with the most valuable things – negroes made wagons ready and things were sent out to be concealed in the woods.” The Puryears also hid the family’s silver in a corner of the icehouse, under blocks of ice and straw. Brig. Gen. Thomas Clingman, an Army of Northern Virginia veteran who was at home after being wounded near Petersburg, and a few other soldiers on leave, also took the chance to escape. Those who stayed behind crossed their fingers and made ready. “Just at that time without any degree of procrastination every body ‘got busy’ and for awhile there was ‘something doing,’” recalled a local citizen. “Those who had horses hustled out to hide them, and the men proceeded to make themselves scarce about town….”
For the raiders, crossing the river was not as easy as expected due to the recent rains. A traveler noted a few days later, “the name given to this Ford is evidently a misnomer or ironical, for I found it very deep.” Once across, the vanguard traced the old stage road a short distance to Huntsville. About a mile beyond, they stopped to feed and rest. It took some time, however, for the full column to pass the ford. Frank Frankenberry with the trains and Mallaby’s signal corps detachment did not arrive at Huntsville until about 10:00 a.m. According to Frankenberry, the column was fired on at some point that morning, but they were mere potshots. Meanwhile, the scenery noticeably improved. “We are now in a better country,” he wrote. Huntsville, which Frankenberry described as “a small village,” was the perfect place to fall out, eat breakfast, and prepare for the next stage of the journey. Frankenberry did so by having a shoe put on his horse.
Meanwhile, troopers roamed the countryside. On the north side of Huntsville, the cavalrymen found a large warehouse containing government corn, flour, meat, and more. They gladly consumed those goods. They also discovered the “White Store,” a building about one hundred yards east of the warehouse. The raiders burned it, along with the stock of goods, guns, and ammunition inside.[v]
To read what happened next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley