Stoneman’s Raid lasted a month in Watauga County.
Iron markers, erected in the 1940s and 1950s, tell a fraction of a complex story that engulfed the area 150 years ago. These markers tell us that a skirmish was fought in the area on March 28, 1865, that a group of cavalrymen passed through the area, and that a fort was erected. The story of Stoneman’s Raid is one that brought the Civil War home to Watauga County.
In March 1865, Federal General George Stoneman was ordered to take some 6,000 cavalrymen and a few pieces of artillery, and move into Western North Carolina. Stoneman was to destroy as much of the available infrastructure as possible, while capturing the prison in Salisbury. He would inadvertently serve as a wedge between the two principal Confederate armies.
The raid started in late March 1865. On March 28, Stoneman sent a detachment of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry, under Major Myles Keogh, into Boone. Seeing the blue-coated cavalrymen ride into Boone from the west, some home guardsmen fled, while others went into the house of James W. Councill, where they opened fire on the Kentucky soldiers. Opening fire themselves, the cavalrymen charged into the town. The rest of the home guard scattered, with the Federal cavalry in hot pursuit. Local residents Warren Green and Ephraim Norris were killed, and several others were wounded. The “battle of Boone” was actually just a mere skirmish, lasting but a few moments.
Federals swarmed the town, and Stoneman’s men arrested just about every male in the vicinity. The number captured was reported as 68. A makeshift field hospital was established in the home of Jacob Council. One of the wounded was forced to lie on his stomach on the floor while a Federal doctor cut the bullet out of his back. It was also rumored that one of the Federal soldiers had his arm amputated as well. Stoneman spent the evening at the home of John Councill, which was given special protection against depredations. Federal soldiers continued to move through Watauga County for at least a day after Stoneman left. Brigadier General Alvan Gillem ordered the jail, along with the majority of court records, burned. Those captured were placed under guard and sent on into Tennessee.
Orders went out that the Federal column was to be split, with a portion heading through Deep Gap toward Wilkesboro, while the other group made its way through Blowing Rock and into Caldwell County. Stoneman’s command was eventually reunited and ventured into Virginia, before returning on April 9 to North Carolina. The Federals worked their way through Mocksville and Mooresville, fighting a pitched battle, which they won, at Salisbury, on April 12. This was followed by a defeat when the Federals attempted to take the bridge over the Yadkin River. Stoneman then proceeded to work his way back west, destroying Confederate supply depots in Salisbury and Statesville in the process. Stoneman’s men moved through Taylorsville and Lenoir, but the grand plan to liberate the Salisbury prisoners never materialized. Most of the prisoners had already been paroled and sent to the North.
War in all of its worst manifestations visited Watauga County following the main thrust by Stoneman. Two Federal regiments under the command of Colonel George Kirk were ordered into the area, possibly passing through Banner Elk before arriving in Boone on April 5. Kirk established his headquarters in Boone at the Councill home, keeping just more than 400 men with him. On April 7, Major Andrew Bahney was ordered to take portions of the Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry to Deep Gap, while Major William Rollins took a portion of the Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry to Blowing Rock. Furthermore, Kirk was ordered to blockade both Sampson Gap and the Meat Camp Road. Boone, Deep Gap, and Watauga Gap near Blowing Rock were all fortified.
In Boone, Kirk ordered holes cut into the walls of the courthouse to provide firing ports, while three frame dwelling houses and a log smoke house owned by John “Jack” Horton were dismantled and used to build a barricade around the courthouse. Ironically, Horton was a Unionist, but like his more Confederate-inclined neighbors, he was indiscriminately preyed upon by the invaders. The stronghold in Deep Gap was “a palisade fort enclosing about an acre and ditched around.” At Watauga Gap, the Federals also built works, possibly dismantling the summer home of Caldwell County resident James Harper, while at the same time cutting down trees to provide better observation points. The Federal soldiers named this work Fort Rollins, in honor of their major. These works were all constructed to help protect Stoneman’s rear and keep open a line of retreat if it were needed.
At least two temporary field hospitals were established in Watauga County to nurse sick Federal soldiers. The first was in Deep Gap at the home of Ples and Margaret Welch, while the other was in Boone. Five members of the Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry died while stationed there and were buried in the old town cemetery.
Word quickly spread that the Federals were garrisoned in the area. People hurriedly began to hide what little food and few valuables that they still had after four years of hardship and war. Since the majority of Kirk’s men were from the area, and many had been hunted heavily by the home guard, their retribution on the local citizenry was vicious. They moved out in small bands to steal and “requisition” from the local population. “They came to our home every day to commandeer what they could find,” recalled Alfred Adams. The home of Jonathan and Malinda Horton was robbed 18 times in 14 days.
General Stoneman was back in Watauga County on April 17 with a large number of Confederate prisoners. One prisoner estimated the total number at more than 1,000. Those prisoners were quartered in Blowing Rock for a night. At some point, several of them attempted to escape into an ivy (mountain laurel) thicket alongside the road. The Federal soldiers opened fire, killing one and wounding another. Stoneman spent the night with the Jordan Councill family once again. Whereas Stoneman had been kind to Mrs. Councill, due to the fact that she had often fed Federal prisoners at the jail in Boone, Kirk had kept the family locked in their rooms.
Stoneman, “standing in the piazza and taking survey of what had once been a happy and beautiful home,” now found “the fencing all gone, the gardens, shrubbery, and yard trampled bare, covered with raw hides of cattle and sheep, decaying carcasses, and all manner of filth.” Stoneman left the following day, heading back into west Tennessee. His thousand prisoners moved to the west, camping the next night at the head of Cove Creek and the following night at Dugger’s Forge in Carter County, Tenn.
On April 23, Kirk received orders to move his command on toward Warm Springs and Asheville. Almost a month had passed since those first shots rang out along the streets of Boone. Stoneman’s men were soldiers, and operated (more or less) under the articles of war. Kirk’s men were little more than marauders indiscriminately bringing the hell of war to all those whom they could reach in Watauga and the surrounding area.