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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Stoneman's Disaster Near Macon and Trooper Orlo VanSickle

by Gordon Thorsby

Brigadier George Stoneman

Many veterans recalled their experiences in the Civil War. For James and Orlo VanSickle, little was passed down but the family understands why.

James J. VanSickle was born on Feb. 24, 1823 in Phelps, NY, his son, Orlo H. was the first born in Pennsylvania on Feb. 25, 1845 and together they enlisted in the 8th Michigan Cavalry as soon as Orlo was eighteen. On March 20, 1863, at their enlistment, James was 40, and Orlo was 18. Many farmers of mid-Michigan were staunch pro Unionist and pro-abolitionist. For an 18 year-old, riding 20-30 miles in the saddle a day was tough . For a forty year-old like James, it would have been brutal. A spine is intolerant of the bouncing not to mention the Piles from the leather saddle. These injuries along with the usual camp diseases put James in the hospital several times. Orlo and Dad rode their way through campaigning in Tennessee in 1863 but 1864 and the Atlanta Campaign brought something new.

In July, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman wanted rail tracks around Atlanta destroyed but Brig. Gen. George Stoneman saw an opportunity. Sherman's primary mission was to tear up the tracks at Macon and destroy other materials. Stoneman’s goal was to go after Camp Oglethorpe Officers’ Prison where 1500 Union officers were said to be held and free Andersonville that might be holding a minimum of 15,000 Union soldiers. There was no mention of what Stoneman might do with 15-20,000 freed prisoners in getting them back into friendly lines.

On July 27th, Stoneman, started out with 2,104 troopers and a section of artillery on the Covington Road. Confederate Maj. General Wheeler quickly figured out that Stoneman’s aims were the Macon rail lines, and he dispatched Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson and take three brigades of cavalry to intercept the blue troopers ( Iverson was the same officer who was jettisoned from the Army of Norther Virginia for leading his brigade of North Carolinians into a slaughter on July 1 at Gettysburg.)

Stoneman and the troopers were efficient at tearing up tracks, looting livestock, burning barns, destroyed bridges at Macon. All was quickly accomplished. As is explained in the regimental history,

“The six regiments under General Stoneman marched to Macon,

where he burned a large railroad bridge and destroyed an

immense amount of public property and supplies destined for the

confederate army.”

The plan began breaking down and Stoneman realized his extended plan was too aggressive. He received multiple reports of a blocking force. Stoneman scratched his portion of his plan and resolved to get back to the Federal lines. On 31 Sunday, Stoneman with his troopers exhausted from riding all night rode into a small spot called Sunshine Church where he found Iverson’s three brigades dug in on a ridge and waiting for his force to arrive.

While Stoneman tried to understand his situation, Iverson charged Stoneman’s left flank held by the 8th Michigan. Stoneman responded by ordering an attack as if a charge would break the Southerners’ breastworks. “Even Stoneman’s staff officers begged him to avoid the enemy’s main force and move around to the right.…”

The fighting continued was desperate. Cavalry Charges by one side were countered by charges by cavalry on the other side. Stoneman ordered the Kentuckians and Michiganders to advance on a rail fence at the top of the ridge. The troopers took the fence when the 1st and 3rd Georgia suddenly rose up 20 yards away and poured a volley into the two regiments halting any further advance.

Stoneman boxed in, and his ammunition almost gone, he convened a meeting with his commanders, Adams, and Capron. He would delay the inevitable while Capron and Adams attempted “to cut their way out and save themselves if possible. There were desperate charges and repulses, fighting mounted and dismounted, with the hope of escape.” Capron and Adams’ brigades cut their way out and headed back toward Atlanta. “A large number saved themselves by taking different directions and secreting themselves in the woods and marching nights toward the Union lines. Many were taken prisoners and others made it to Marietta. Stoneman and 440 of his men surrendered” to an angry Confederate force who knew the damage that the troopers had caused. An additional 200 Federal troopers were snapped up as Iverson’s men hunted Federals down.

(accurate date of photograph? Fourteen days after Orlo's capture.)

We do not know if James was present on the raid. We do know about Orlo. He was one of the captured and he was sent immediately to Andersonville Prison. Records don’t indicate when and where Orlo was captured but the date of his capture indicates he may have been with the Stoneman group when they finally surrendered on August 3rd.

What were the losses to the 8th Michigan cavalry? There were possibly 5 killed, 6 wounded, 97 captured, and as many as 68 missing. Of those captured, 67 eventually died in prisons wherever they were confined. Orlo did survive and he was released before the end of the war. He was sent to a hospital and then to Camp Chase, OH for full recovery.

In early 1865, Stoneman was able to assemble a cavalry force and raid one more time from eastern Tennessee into western Virginia, through North Carolina, and eventually to Charlotte in April where he was finally successful. Interestingly, he did not take along the 8th Michigan Cavalry. It was still recovering from his Macon, GA fiasco of 1864.

Orlo is remembered by many as suffering from a variety of health issues, especially stomach issues and his grandson stated he did not discuss the war, especially Andersonville. "it was a bad time and he don't want to talk about it."

He did remember one instance when asked if he ever shot anybody he recalled, “…I was riding down a road in Georgia when someone starting shooting at them from up in a tree some distance away. I took careful aim and fired and the shooting then stopped. When I got near the tree, I saw a pair of boots sticking out of the underbrush so I assumed his shot found its mark.” This was essentially all Orlo was willing to discuss about the war. Any other memories were possibly wished to be forgotten.

The two men moved to Chesaning, MI with their families and they lived out their days. James passed away on June 6, 1887 at 74. Orlo, a butcher in the town, passed away on Feb. 24, 1916, one day short of his 71st birthday. The VanSickles are buried in the sunny portion of the old Wildwood Cemetery, approximately fifteen yards apart, where the two can can keep an eye on one another.

Note 1: John Tyler Stevens became a resident of Chesaning and he was also in the Macon Raid. He survived the raid but he deserted just over thirty days later. He too, is buried in the cemetery. There is no knowledge of any interaction or knowledge of the two men who were the same age.

Note 2: Thank you, Tim Hazen for the information on the VanSickles. They have prominent places in the Cemetery.


Fellow contributor to Civil War Sites, Tim Hazen. Thank you Tim.

Sherman's Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign. by Evans, David, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

"The Macon Raid", Ray Chandler, America’s Civil War, May 2020. Elberton, Ga.

History of the 8th Michigan Cavalry, by Belknap, Charles Eugene, Bentley Library, University of Michigan, 1908.

Historical Data Systems, Inc., P.O. Box 35, Duxbury, MA 02331.

River Rapids Library, Chesaning, MI.

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