George Stoneman's 1865 Union cavalry raid did much for his tattered reputation, perhaps even helping the major general to the governorship of California in 1883.
But many take a darker view of Stoneman's Raid. When the first North Carolina historical markers commemorating the raid were installed over seventy years afterward, citizens tore them down and threw them in a river.
Stoneman's Raid has always been like that. Some see it as a model action in which a mostly well-behaved force rode over a thousand miles and achieved important military objectives. Others say it was a brutal, unnecessary pillaging of a broad swath of six Confederate states after the Civil War was already decided.
Regardless, no other such action has inspired both a classic song - The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - and a Disney TV movie.
After leading a failed raid in the Chancellorsville campaign and later earning the dubious honor of being the highest-ranking Union prisoner of war, Stoneman was described as "one of the most worthless officers in the service" by Edwin Stanton. The 1865 raid was his last chance at redemption.
Beginning in Knoxville in March 1865, Stoneman led about four thousand cavalrymen over the mountains and into North Carolina and Virginia. The raiders tore up tracks, burned bridges, destroyed Confederate stores, captured towns like Christiansburg and Salisbury, fought some surprisingly sharp skirmishes, and terrified the population, achieving a sometimes exaggerated reputation. Their mission did not end until Confederate president Jefferson Davis was captured. Reconstruction would be harder in their wake.
Chris J. Hartley's Stoneman's Raid, 1865 is the most detailed and complete account ever written of an action that remains as controversial today as it was in its time.