The Lone Cannon at a Bridge in Rock Hill, SC., Stoneman's Raid April 1865
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Current day Bridge across the Catawba River, Rock Hill SC
Stoneman’s Raid of 1865 is considered the longest raid of the Civil War with over 600 miles traveled. His force of almost 6,000 started on March 23, and end on April 26, 1865. Gen. Ulysses Grant wanted Stoneman cashiered because Stoneman led too many disasters to be anything other than poor generalship. Stoneman discovered one last opportunity to clear his name with a cavalry raid on supply lines in the Carolinas and freeing Salisbury Prison. Maj. Gen. George Thomas issued orders for “Dismantling the country to obstruct Lee’s retreat,” and Stoneman took two brigades east.
The raid of destruction and burning included quite a bit of vandalism and looting. Due to minimal resistance, Stoneman split the force and one group proceeded toward South Carolina. On April 18, Major Erastus C. Moderwell received orders from First Brigade commander Col. Palmer to select 400 “picked men" of the Twelfth Ohio and 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiments and go quietly to go destroy the bridge of the Charlotte, Columbia & Augusta Railroad” at Nations Ford on the Catawba River. The bridge was located on a track of rail between Ft. Mill, Rock Hill, and Yorkville (today named York, SC and a suburb of Charlotte, NC.) across the state line.
The railroad bridge was critical. Confederate Gen. PGT Beauregard even communicated its importance as a main source of supplies to Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The trestle over the ford, was 1,127 feet long and 50 feet over the water and destruction would not be easy. When word came from Gen. Thomas that President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet and possibly as much as thirteen billion dollars was in the vicinity (according to Gen. Thomas more like two billion dollars) the ride seemed worthwhile.
Confederate Brig. Gen. Basil Duke was the only organized but small cavalry force that patrolled the area. Duke served in ‘62-63 under John Hunt Morgan and he recognized the futility of fighting overwhelming numbers. Duke’s troopers didn’t stay but a moment and withdrew to avoid get chewed up against the two regiments. When Moderwell’s
battalion arrived at mid-morning on the 19th, the cavalry was gone but a small force of infantry showed up at the south end of the trestle. A prepared earthwork made of Carolinian red clay and twenty yards in length was visible with the muzzle of a cannon that peered through its opening. The local Home Guard consisted of sixty old men and boys of Rock Hill and Ft. Mill. They were ready to put some hurt on anyone that attempted to cross the wooden trestle.
The Union troopers were not in a mood to fuss with militia after their 50-mile forced march. They dismounted and fanned out across the field and opposite the earthen work. Moderwell surveyed the position for a best method of attack. He preferred safe over fast and bloody. As he eyed the trestle, he noticed the stringers for walking across still in place.
Moderwell pushed out two skirmish lines to the put fire on both flanks simultaneously and occupied the defenders’ attention. The Federals' Carbine fire harmlessly spattered the parapet and kept the South Carolinian’s attention forcing their heads low. The fire prevented the lone gun from being loaded, aimed or fired until there was a brief pause and the guardsmen managed to get a round off that echoed in the river’s valley below and drew everyone’s attention. The round went short and hit in front and spit up clumps of dirt. While the guards busily reloaded, the troopers closed onto the mouth of the trestle. Their advance was steady, and the militia fire was intermittent. The horsemen kept up their skirmishing when the militia gun lurched a second round and landed in the road near the entrance to the bridge. No Federal trooper wanted to be killed or maimed by lowly militia, so Moderwell ordered the skirmishers back to reconsider the situation. It was then that some of the skirmishers from the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry worked their way up and downstream to find a crossing.
Between the morning fog and smoke from the cannon, it took a while for a couple of skirmishers to notice that the bridge was on fire near the foundation. Maybe the militia had done the work for them? Moderwell ordered a cease fire and his cavalrymen simply observed as the flames steadily enveloped the structure. Moderwell also viewed the militia gunners work to spike the lone gun.
Most of the guardsmen then withdrew but a few as a rearguard. Heckling sprung up on both sides until the remaining defenders hauled the cannon to the side of the parapet and blue troopers pondered what was happening. The home guards, readied themselves, gave the gun one heave, and pushed the gun down the bank and into the muddy Catawba below. With that accomplished, the militiamen disappeared “not waiting to see where the cannon stopped." The bridge now gone, the Ohio and Pennsylvania troopers mounted up and retraced their march back to Lincolnton, North Carolina. Everything had just concluded when a locomotive arrived from Charlotte with a white flag that Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
There remain some questions and debate though the skirmish deserved little attention. Southerners told of the Yankees torched the bridge with lamp oil and gun powder. However, in the Official Records of 21 April,1865 from John C. Breckenridge, he received word the militia set the fire. The debate continues to today.
The second story is that of the exact location for the last Confederate Cabinet Meeting. One version has it in nearby Ft. Mill at the William Elliot White Homestead, off state Highway 160, (today an upscale community). It was in the morning in White's yard under a cedar tree, George Trenholm, secretary of the treasury resigned, and Postmaster John Reagan took his place. From there, Davis and his entourage were escorted across a nearby ford in the Catawba River by a military detail because there was no longer a bridge. At the Elliot House, Davis reportedly reviewed the few troops that remained and dismissed them one last time.
The last story is of the lone cannon and that “the boys decided to fish out a cannon which was buried in the mud" with a team of four mules and dragged it to Fort Mill where the cannon disappeared into history to places unknown. What make and caliber? Nobody knows that either.
Note: The Photograph at the top is close to the actual location. The precise site is supposedly near “The Pump House of Rock Hill." The well-known restaurant is to the left and out of the picture. The water level shown is similar on the day of the skirmish.
Stoneman's Bridge, Tom Layton, Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
Fort Mill Times, “Cannon in the Catawba”, Recollections and Reminiscences” Vol 5, 488.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, series I, Vol. 49, 335- 36.
The 1865 Stoneman’s Raid, by Blackwell, Joshua Beau, The History Press, 2010, ppg 60-63.
Stoneman’s Raid, by Hartley, Chris J., John F. Blair, 2010).
"The Last Meeting of the Confederate Cabinet," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review
Vol. 6, No. 3 (December,1919), Published by: Oxford University Press.
The Quarterly, York County Genealogical & Historical Society, Post Office Box 3061CRS, Rock Hill SC 29732.