On Palm Sunday, the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee vanished into North Carolina like a ghost. Echoes of their passing lingered for days in Virginia. The Confederate treasury, just arrived from Richmond, was evacuated from Danville because of rumors of an enemy cavalry threat. Reserves dashed to Danville’s weak works. “Raiding parties were careering around us in various directions, robbing and maltreating the inhabitants, but none of the thieves ventured within reach of our guns,” complained one of Danville’s defenders.
The uproar spread. In Lynchburg, a witness wrote, “gloom and sadness confirmed the entire community.” In Christiansburg, the grim news from Appomattox Court House shook John Echols’ command. “If the light of heaven had gone out, a more utter despair and consternation would not have ensued,” wrote one man. The command began to fall apart. Grasping for any hope, Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax suggested that Echols and Lomax combine forces and march to Johnston’s aid. Around blazing campfires, Echols called for the opinions of his officers. Could and should the command join Johnston? After much debate, they decided to furlough the infantry and take only Vaughn’s and Duke’s horse brigades to North Carolina. Speed was required and muddy mountain roads lay ahead, so they also decided to leave their artillery and trains behind. The Confederates spiked their guns and gave goods from the trains to needy citizens. Duke’s men, their horses still foraging in North Carolina, mounted the animals that had once pulled their guns and wagons. There were still not enough mounts, and many lacked proper equipment, but it was the best they could do. On the afternoon of April 12, Duke’s and Vaughn’s ragtag remnants started for Fancy Gap.
“The rain was falling in torrents when we prepared to start upon a march which seemed fraught with danger,” Basil Duke recalled. “The men were drenched, and mounted upon mules without saddles, and with blind bridles or rope halters. Everything conspired to remind them of the gloomy situation. The dreadful news was fresh in their ears. Thousands of men had disbanded around them; two Kentucky brigades had left in their sight to go home; they were told that Stoneman held the mountain gaps in the
mountains through which they had to pass.” The troopers rode in silence, picking up a few men from other brigades along the way.
Other North Carolina-bound refugees included Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet. An unbowed Davis had hoped to remain in Virginia, but Lee’s capitulation ended the government’s authority in the state. Resolving to find Johnston and his army, the Confederate leaders evacuated Danville near midnight on April 10. Their train lumbered through the darkness along the Piedmont Railroad toward Greensboro.
To read what happened next, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley