"I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate, and this appears a propitious occasion"Major-General George Stoneman, Department of the Ohio HQ, Knoxville, Tenn., November 26, 1864.
Stoneman's disastrous raid into Georgia during the summer of 1864, coupled with his defeat and capture at Macon, had shattered the Union general's personal reputation. Critics opinionated that the New Yorker "couldn't command a company let alone a corps of cavalry." It was a low point in Stoneman's career and likely bemoaned by his chief of staff, Myles Keogh, who must have wondered if his career was now destined to be in administration alongside his general; desk-bound for the remainder of the war. However, George Stoneman (right) did retain the confidence of some high profile commanders, particularly Major General John M. Schofield, commander of the Department of the Ohio.
Soon after Stoneman had recovered from his three month spell of captivity, Schofield (left) offered him the position as his second in command. It was a chance for redemption that the normally stoical George Stoneman was eager to grasp. Within weeks, he had put together a plan to yet again raid deep into enemy territory, targeting the South's dwindling resources including the vital salt mill at Saltville, Virginia. It was a daring plan and one of personal courage for Stoneman as a second failed raid would surely spell a lifetime of ignominy. As his senior aide, Major Myles Keogh was dispatched to Lexington to oversee the assembly of a new cavalry force drawn from loyal Tennesseans and Kentuckians. From there, Keogh updated Stoneman as to the progress:
By the end of November 1864, plans were at an advanced stage and on November 26, Stoneman reported to Major General Schofield from Knoxville, Tennessee, confirming his intentions and seeking final, formal approval to begin his raid. Stoneman estimated the enemy to be "from 3,000 to 6,000" in strength and hoped that by rapid march he "may be able to reach Bristol before the enemy can, and thus cut him off from Saltville, and force him across the mountains into North Carolina, and maybe to destroy the salt-works." This would be second such raid on Saltville in 1864; the first failing dramatically, accompanied by a public outcry at the alleged murder of wounded coloured Union troops. These troopers belonged to the 5th U.S. Cavalry and this same regiment now moved with Stoneman's command, keen to seek some element of perceived justice. They were not alone. Before he departed, Stoneman reminded Schofield that he needed little motivation to ensure that this raid would be swift and successful:LEXINGTON, November 17, 1864. (Received 10.20 a. m. 18th.)
Major-General STONEMAN, Headquarters Department of the Ohio:Major-General Burbridge will have 1,000 men on the road to Crab Orchard by to-morrow night. Shall he push them on? To where, and by what route? We shall have 3,000 concentrated on the route you spoke of in four days, and if he has permission from headquarters to press horses from loyal as well as disloyal citizens, he can have altogether from 6,000 to 8,000 men ready in ten days. There are two field batteries mounted and complete. Telegraph orders.M. W. KEOGH,Major and Aide-de-Camp.
His fellow New Yorker, John Schofield, approved the initial stages of the strategy - "I approve of the first part of the plan proposed in your letter, November 26, viz, to push enemy as far back as practicable into Virginia and destroy the salt-work and railroad" - although obviously still retained some reservations as to the plan's success by continuing, "I cannot decide as to further operations until affairs here take more definite shape...""I hope you will not disapprove it, as I think I can see very important results from its execution. I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate, and this appears a propitious occasion. I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant..."
On December 10, Stoneman and Keogh left Knoxville with two brigades totalling 5,700 cavalrymen en route to west Virginia from where the Confederacy drew a large part of their now meager supplies. Previously bedevilled by inclement weather conditions on past raids, Stoneman could be forgiven for thinking a winter campaign would suffer similar problems but the general's luck had turned. From Bristol, on the Tennessee/Virgina border, and on to Abingdon and Wytheville, the Union cavalry scattered all Rebel forces sent to fight them, covering an average of 42 miles per day.
Initially, it was General Basil Duke's Confederate cavalry that bore the brunt of Stoneman's large army and by the 14th, Duke's cavalry was in retreat back towards Abingdon. After a day's rest in camp at Glade Spring, Stoneman's cavalry rode toward Marion, destroying anything that they considered a benefit to the southern cause, such as railroad and telegraph facilities. Foraging in enemy country was also brutal on the local populace and the blue-coated troopers prioritised their own need over that of civilians, seizing all supplies or food, regardless if they held any apparent military value.
On December 17 and 18, the Union raiders struck the salt mines at Saltville, the lead works around Wytheville and the ironworks at Marion, Virginia. At Saltville, Major Keogh personally led one of Stoneman's brigades that charged and dispersed a contingent of Virgina Home Guards. With the Confederate defences now captured or in retreat, Stoneman set about the task he had intended and which the previous October raid had failed to do - the destruction of the industrial complex in the area.
Interior of the Salt Works ('Harper's Weekly' - Jan 14, 1865)
Digging for Salt ('Harper's Weekly' - Jan 14, 1865)
The wells around Saltville were of huge importance as salt was in common use during the war years in the preservation of meat and other food, in curing hides for leather goods and in the care of livestock. It was estimated that almost two-thirds of the South's supply of salt came from the region that Stoneman now occupied. In his official report, Stoneman gives some indication of how his troops attempted to decommission the salt works:
"The wells, instead of not being seriously damaged, as is stated in the official report, were, by the use of bomb-shells, railroad iron, spikes, nails, &c., put in such a condition as to render it impossible to use them until they were cleared out. [The] engineers at the works are of the opinion that it will be much cheaper and more expedient to bore new wells than to clear out the old ones. The engines and pumps were also destroyed and the structures all burnt to the ground."
By December 29, the Union cavalry was back in Knoxville, having taken 879 prisoners, 19 cannons and 25,000 shells. Stoneman was pleased to report "the total destruction, as far as in the power of man to accomplish [of] all the foundries, mills, factories, storehouses, wagon and ambulance trains, turnpike bridge, &c. that we could find." Stoneman also recorded his praise for Keogh in the official report:
Schofield was delighted, and probably relieved, that his faith in Stoneman had been rewarded. General George Thomas also wrote to Stoneman congratulating him on his "complete and splendid success, and for which you richly deserve, and I have earnestly recommended you receive, the thanks of the War Department." Nonetheless, despite the Union generals exuberance, the salt works were back in working order for the Confederacy within two months, although the destroyed railroad system around the area hampered salt distribution."In addition to the officers whose names have been mentioned in the foregoing report, I wish to call your special attention to Major M. W. Keogh, aide-de-camp, Captain Robert Morrow, assistant adjutant-general, Lieutenant R. Williams, ordnance officer, and Captain J. B. Roberts, Tenth Michigan Cavalry, commanding scouts and couriers, as being young officers of unusual merit, and to each of whom I am under many obligations."
In finishing his letter to Stoneman, General Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga", detailed some of the Union victories that they had been achieved while the raid was taking place. He opinionated that the Rebels were now "totally demoralized"; General Sherman having also completed his "triumphant march through Georgia to Savannah, which place he captured on the 21st instant, with quantities of stores, arms, and ammunition, and 150 locomotives." By now, the end was clearly in sight for the Southern Confederacy...