Brigadier General William J. Palmer
If Aunt Pittypat of Gone With The Wind fame had lived in Henry County during the War Between the States in April 1865, she might have exclaimed and I paraphrase, "Oh, dear, Yankees in Martinsville! How did they ever get in?" By April 1865, the American Civil War was about to come to an end and until that time Patrick and Henry Counties in Virginia were untouched by the hand of armies of the United States of America. That changed as Robert E. Lee evacuated Richmond, the Capitol of Virginia, and the Confederate States of America. As Lee went west for fateful meeting with U. S. Grant to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis came south on the train to Danville.
At this same time from the east came over four thousand cavalry under the overall command of Major General George Stoneman. Stoneman was born on August 22, 1822, in Busti, now Lakewood, New York. Described as “a correct moral man,” he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in the heralded class of 1846 that included George B. McClellan and George Pickett. During his third year, Stoneman’s roommate was Thomas J. Jackson. He was not “Stonewall” yet. After graduating the six foot four inch Stoneman, described as a “generous hearted, whole souled companion,” was part of a march from Kansas to California in the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War. He fell in love with the California and vowed to make it his home one day. U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, appointed Stoneman to the Second United States Cavalry. In 1861, Stoneman refused to surrender to Confederate authorities in Texas. He took part of his command and escaped north via ship.
He served under McClellan in the early part of the war. He received promotion to Brigadier General in August 1862 and Major General in November. During Chancellorsville in May 1863, Stoneman left Hooker raiding towards Richmond and became the scapegoat of the Union defeat. Using medical problems as a reason, specifically hemorrhoids, Stoneman took a desk job running a cavalry bureau near Washington, D. C.
Stoneman went to Georgia taking command of Sherman’s left during the Atlanta Campaign. In an effort to redeem his reputation, Stoneman and 2000 cavalry went on a raid to free the Union soldiers at Andersonville. On July 31, 1864, Stoneman along with 700 of his men became prisoners while raiding towards Andersonville. He was the highest ranking Union general captured during the war.
Exchanged in September 1864, Stoneman presented a two-phase attack on the railroad in southwest Virginia and the Confederate munitions factory at Salisbury, North Carolina. He raided Saltville in December 1864. In early 1865, commanding the Department of East Tennessee near Knoxville, Stoneman started a raid that brought his men to Patrick and Henry Counties. Stoneman did not come to Martinsville, but Brigadier General William J. Palmer, commanding a brigade of Stoneman’s cavalry.
William Jackson Palmer was born on September 16, 1836, on the Kinsale Farm in Leipsic, Kent County, Delaware, into a Quaker Family. In 1841, the family moved to Germantown near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As a young boy, his fascination with steam locomotives “spurred Palmer to learn all he could about railroads.” At age 17 in 1853, Palmer began working in the engineering corps of the Hempfield Railroad near Washington, Pennsylvania. Two years later, he went to England and France to study railroading and coal mining. The next year, Palmer was the railroad President’s Private Secretary learning the inner workings of a railroad.
When Civil War erupted in 1861, Palmer was against violence, but he was more against slavery. In July 1862, Palmer returned to Philadelphia to raise the troops that became the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, raising 1,200 men in ten days. During the Antietam Campaign, Confederates captured Palmer within Southern lines in civilian clothing in what is today Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a few days after the battle along Antietam Creek. Confederates sent Palmer to Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia, suspected as a spy, but later exchanged him in January 1863.
He returned to his regiment in 1863 in Tennessee and served in the Tullahoma, Chickamauga, and Knoxville Campaigns and in 1864 near Chattanooga. On January 14, 1865, near Red Hills, Alabama, leading Company A of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Palmer’s actions led 29 years later to his receiving the Medal of Honor bestowed upon him on February 24, 1894, stating “With less than 200 men, attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, capturing their field piece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.”
During George Stoneman’s Raid, Palmer received appointment as Brevet Brigadier General at age 29. Only George A. Custer became a General at a younger age. One commander said Palmer was worth “a whole brigade of most cavalry.”
Colonel William J. Palmer’s First Brigade of cavalry included the Tenth Michigan Cavalry Regiment under the command of Colonel Luther Trowbridge, the Twelfth Ohio under Colonel Robert H. Bentley and the Fifteenth Pennsylvania under Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Betts.
On March 21, 1865, Stoneman with 4,500 men left Mossy Creek, Tennessee. Stoneman reached Boone, North Carolina, on March 28. The flooding Yadkin River separated Palmer’s men, who crossed to the north side, from the remainder of the force on March 29. On April 1, the commands still divided by the Yadkin River reached Elkin on the north side of the river and Jonesville on the south side respectively.
Stoneman reunited his entire command on the north side of the river in Surry County at Rockford on April 2. On April 2-3, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia evacuated Richmond and Petersburg. Stoneman raided Mount Airy.
A native of Surry County, James Gwyn, commented on the Yankee raiders as they came by his place on the north side of the Yadkin. "The Yankees passed along on both sides of the river…Those who passed acted very well…Treatment of citizens by Palmer’s Brigade on the north side of the river evoked the surprise of the residents who feared much harsher treatment."
As Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond with his youngest son, Stoneman moved to Christiansburg by midnight of April 4-5. Palmer's Brigade destroyed railroad track of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad east of Christiansburg. The return began on April 7 to North Carolina came through Patrick and Henry Counties. The direct route ran through Patrick County, where Stoneman and two brigades under the overall command of Alvin Gillem traversed.
On the return journey of Stoneman’s command Palmer came through Martinsville and Henry County fighting a battle along Jones Creek when he ran into 250 Confederate cavalry under the command of James T. Wheeler. General Gillem in his report said, “Colonel Palmer, commanding the First Brigade had been directed to send the Tenth Michigan directly on the railroad to Martinsville, by some misunderstanding he marched with his entire command.”
General George Brown, in his Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, wrote that, “The regiment moved at 4 a.m. and by a forced night march reached Henry Court House about 7 a.m. of the 8th, to find it occupied by about 500 of Wheeler’s Cavalry…”
Based on this description and the location of the skirmish on Jones Creek north of Martinsville, the encampment appears to have been established in the deep, steep-side valley between the railroad tracks and Commonwealth Boulevard down which Stillhouse Branch flows to empty into Jones Creek today. Wheeler’s Confederate troops took refuge there after receiving an attack by Captain James H. Cummins and a battalion of the 10th Michigan Cavalry.
An account from the Tenth Michigan Cavalry states: “Captain James H. Cummins, commanding the leading battalion, immediately charged and routed the party in the town, and drove them back on the main body. The noise of the firing aroused the main body, which quickly saddled and formed, and when Cummins reached them they were in line of battle. Nothing could restrain the Tenth, however, and they attacked with vigor, and the enemy was driven out of the woods. They mainly took refuge in a deep depression so common at the South, and there, huddled together, they formed an excellent target for the Spencer carbines of Captain Dunn and his plucky boys. The casualties of the enemy were reported as 27 killed.”
The result was on the Union side were five killed including a Sergeant or Lieutenant T. C. Kenyon, “a noble young man,” of the 10th Michigan Cavalry and four others killed. The dead rested in the Episcopal Church Yard, now Baptists, at the corner of Church and Moss Streets in Martinsville until reburial at the National Cemetery in Danville.
Colonel James T. Wheeler wrote on April 8, twelve miles east of Henry Court House, “The enemy attacked me at 7 a.m. today after a spirited fight were repulsed with severe loss on his side. The force which attacked me was 800 strong.” Jefferson Davis, in Danville, wrote on April 9 of the fight to Robert E. Lee, “The enemy cavalry reported in small force at Henry Court House yesterday. Colonel Wheeler engaged them with about half their force say with 250 men and checked them.”
Palmer stayed in Martinsville (apparently in the home at 33 Church Street) and Wheeler withdrew twelve miles from town. Wheeler wrote later on April 8, “At dark tonight the enemy was still in Henry Court House. During the day, he was re-enforced by about 800. They tell citizens that they will advance on Danville in the morning. As yet no buildings have been burned.”
Instead, Palmer rejoined Stoneman’s command on April 9 in Danbury, North Carolina. He did not know that Jefferson Davis was a few miles away in Danville. Stoneman’s raid continued down into Piedmont North Carolina attacking Salisbury on April 12. Stoneman returned to Tennessee four days later. Palmer continued in pursuit of Jefferson Davis. Stoneman left Gillem in command of the rest of his force. Gillem moved through Morganton, Rutherford, where he sacked Asheville and returned to Tennessee on April 26. On May 10, Union cavalry captured President Davis near Irwinville, Georgia. Two days later, the Confederates won the last battle of the war near Brownsville, Texas.
After the war, Stoneman retired in May 1871. He bought a 400-acre estate in the San Gabriel Valley near San Marino, California, called “The Oaks.” He served as Governor of California from 1883 until 1887. Stoneman returned to New York in poor health and had surgery for his recurring hemorrhoid problem and died in Jamestown on September 5, 1894, while visiting a sister. He rests today in Bentley Cemetery in Lakewood, New York. He never visited Martinsville.
Palmer left the United States Army on June 21, 1865. He married and had three daughters. He started railroads in Colorado and founded the city of Colorado Springs. On March 13, 1909, General Palmer died at his estate, Glen Eyrie, “the eagle’s nest,” at age 72. He left an estate estimated between 3 and 5 million dollars that he donated to schools and institutions. This amount today adjusted for inflation would be $102,651,931.82. Even though a “Yankee,” William Jackson Palmer proved himself an officer and a gentleman during the course of his long life and during his visit to Martinsville.
Major General George Stoneman
This an article for Showcase Magazine that I wrote today from three previous articles written for the Henry County Heritage Book.