The rain and hail tapered off overnight, and the morning of March 22 opened fine and beautiful at Strawberry Plains. Roll call came before sunrise for some because foraging duties beckoned. The rest of the division stirred soon afterward. By 8:00 a.m., Stoneman’s men had left their soggy camps behind. The division took up a line of march paralleling the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, a strategically important line that had once borne supplies to Confederate armies in Virginia. Stoneman and Gillem did not plan to push the men this day; they wanted to cover only about fifteen miles to Mossy Creek, where they would marshal their forces and instill their organization. By mid-afternoon, the column had passed through Friends Station and New Market and bivouacked in the Mossy Creek area. There the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee took shape for the campaign ahead.
The value of marshaling the division at Mossy Creek, which was still close to Federal lines, had much to do with the political situation in East Tennessee. The region was thick with opposing sentiments and bloody guerilla conflict, so the raid’s leadership wanted their men well in hand for any problems that might arise. At the bottom of the region’s struggles were tradition and history. Most residents of East Tennessee had little interest in and little to do with the slavery-centered power base in the western part of the state; indeed, the distinction of East Tennessee had fueled an on-again, off-again desire to carve the area into a separate state. This also explained the region’s later disaffection with the war, to the point that many called it the “Switzerland of America.” When 1861 rolled around, few East Tennesseans supported secession, even after Lincoln’s call for volunteers turned others reluctantly against the Union. On the contrary, the arrival of Confederate forces sparked a strong reaction in support of the Lincoln government. In November 1861, Unionists burned five important railroad bridges between Bristol and Chattanooga. It only got worse under the April 1862 Conscription Act, which made white males between eighteen and thirty-five subject to military service. Confederate authorities came down hard, and loyalists resisted by running, hiding, and sometimes by fighting. Those who ran lived to fight another day. By one count, more than thirty thousand East Tennesseans enlisted in the Union Army, some in the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee.
The geographic center of the Confederacy, East Tennessee had further strategic value. The region was the gateway to Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley beyond. East Tennessee also guarded the flanks of Confederate strongholds in Virginia, Western Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. And it was a fertile region that could supply the needs of thousands of soldiers with the help of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. Witnessed one Confederate officer, “The country … contains as fine farming lands and has as delightful a climate as can be found…. Cattle, sheep, and swine, poultry, vegetables, maple-sugar, honey, were all abundant for the immediate wants of the troops.” In recognition, main force armies had occasionally trod the banks of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in hopes of securing East Tennessee. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s was the last Confederate army to visit.
The big question was the raid’s objective, since Stoneman had made no formal announcement about his plans. “We are evidently going on a very extensive expedition,” thought a horseman from the 11th Michigan, but he had no idea where. Cavalryman Charles F. Weller, hearing premature rumors that Lee had evacuated Richmond, weighed in. “The object of the expidition is not yet known but I think we are going for the Sunny South R.R. which is now Lees only outlet from Richmond,” he wrote. If that was merely a guess, the twenty-year-old son of a Methodist minister knew one thing for sure. “We will in all probability have some hard servace to perform during the comeing six months they have not given us good horses & Spencer Carbines for nothing,” Weller predicted. Ohioan Joseph Banks, also eager to know their destination, listed the Shenandoah Valley, Lynchburg, Richmond, and Saltville as possible targets. Another Michigan man hesitated to guess because he knew the division’s leadership didn’t want him to know. “The object of the expedition was kept a profound secret,” he complained. “If any one but General Stoneman knew it, the knowledge was not allowed to get to many of the subordinate officers.” Trooper Paul Hersh came a little nearer the truth. “Of course, I can say nothing as to the destination, but rumor has it that we will … raid into North Carolina, where we will form a junction with a cavalry force from the coast. Time will 'tell the tale.'"
For more, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.