On this day in WNC history: As the Civil War neared its end, a final raid into western North Carolina shaped the memory of the conflict for many residents. March 26, 1865 found nearly 6,000 Union cavalrymen under Gen. George Stoneman moving between Morristown, TN and Boone, NC. Stoneman’s raiders intended to disrupt railroad and supply lines, liberate prisoners of war held in Salisbury, and to spirit up Unionists. His command split several times, and detachments crisscrossed western NC, raiding or fighting with Home Guard forces in Boone, Morganton, Rutherfordton, and Asheville. Ultimately, his raid continued past Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, ending finally on April 26, as Joseph Johnston surrender to Gen. Sherman near Durham.
Stoneman’s forces included several units of Unionists from east Tennessee/western North Carolina. They also included the 40th U.S. Colored Troops and an additional Black heavy artillery force. As Stoneman’s command returned to Tennessee, newly freed people liberated under the Union army sometimes joined the ranks as soldiers. They include George Avery a 19-year-old man recently enslaved by the McDowells (of Smith-McDowell House namesake) who joined the 40th USCT in Greeneville, TN April 29.
The end of marked hostilities also gave the soldiers a chance to admire the beauty or uniqueness of the land. Passing through the Hickory Nut Gorge, Capt. Harry Weand of Pennsylvania wrote: “Our March today was through the grandest scenery we have looked on during our term of service…Towering above us, almost to the clouds, were the precipitous crags of the Hickory Mountains, and at High Falls the water drops 300 feet…It was so imposing that the usual chat of the riders was hushed, as they gazed with awe…”
(Images: George Stoneman, Wikimedia Commons; George Avery Enlistment, WNCHA Archives; T.H. Lindsey, “Chimney Rock and Falls,” Photograph, c1880, Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Library)