Friday, June 07, 2013

Noodling “Strategic Thinking” Through North Carolina

As I turned off I-40 W last month and headed northwest up U.S. Hwy 421 into the North Carolina mountains, the coincidence of the terrain to my mission that day wasn’t lost, nor its connection to my heritage, although I am a native of Idaho.

The class is a “capstone” class on “strategic planning” at the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University.  It is required of students across many majors including economics, finance, marketing and management.  My topic was “strategic thinking.”

I wondered if a part of the class shouldn’t be taught the first year as a foundation; a lens through which to better understand these subjects, as well as a cap prior to graduation.  As I drove that day, the Jeep was crossing and running parallel to the paths taken in 1865 by Stoneman’s Raiders.

Nineteen years before the raid, fresh out of West Point as a second lieutenant in the Dragoons, (cavalry) George Stoneman was the quartermaster with the Mormon Battalion during the war with Mexico. My great-great grandfather Sebert C. Shelton was the quartermaster sergeant for Company D.

I suspect there was talk of California as they stewarded the 25 supply wagons during the march southeast from Fort Leavenworth.  At Santa Fe, Sergeant Shelton was assigned to take a detachment of very sick soldiers north to winter at Pueblo and then to ultimately reconnect with a vanguard wagon train of Mormons and three of my other ancestors.

Stoneman continued on with the battalion to San Diego. After a few months near Ogden, north of Salt Lake City, Shelton also headed to California, ranching for the remainder of his life near Petaluma.  But their paths would cross as least two more times.

A native of the tip of southwestern New York, Stoneman fled Texas with his unit as the Civil War broke out.  A “strategic thinker,” he laid the groundwork that would revolutionize the way cavalry was used by the Union.  He also fought with Sherman in Tennessee and down to Atlanta.

In North Carolina, we often view the Civil War here through the lens of Sherman’s March which culminated with the effective end of the Civil War in Durham, where I live.  But Lee’s earlier surrender of just his Virginia army at Appomattox and the culminating surrender later that month in Durham may not have happened without by-then General Stoneman.

For 61-days in the spring of 1865, Stoneman led between 6,000 and 7,000 cavalry troopers on a series of raids through six different states.  They traveled without supplies and with only a general sense of direction drawing desperately needed resources and troops away from Lee and Johnston as well as cutting off any hope of their retreat or reunion.

Stoneman’s Raiders entered North Carolina through Boone—where I lectured last month—on March 29, 1865.  He was led by North Carolina scouts and followed by units of Union troops from this state.  They headed east along the Yadkin River paralleling my drive up Route 421.

Stoneman wasn’t seeking engagements (though he encountered dozens) but rather to destroy what would eventually be 115 miles of track on four different railroads, numerous depots and locomotive engines and up to 40 railroad bridges along with countless supply and ammunition depots and related manufacturing facilities.

Regularly dividing his cavalry units, Stoneman made it impossible for Confederate intelligence to anticipate his objective, until the very end of his 1,000-mile raid as he headed back through the mountains at Asheville.  He was returning to base in Knoxville while sending one unit after Confederate secessionist leaders as they fled by carriage south from Charlotte into Georgia when they were chased into capture by another Union army.

Feinting at first toward Salisbury from along my route late month, he headed instead up through Dobson and Mt. Airy and into Virginia. His units reached within miles of Lynchburg and Lee’s lines before heading south through Henry County where my great-great-great grandfather Shelton had been born and came of age before returning as a Mormon missionary in the years before he met Stoneman.

The raiders found dozens of small to medium-sized engagements including one at Henry County Courthouse, capturing overall more than 10,000 Confederate soldiers and 17 battle flags.

Fanning out as they came back down into North Carolina, Stoneman’s units narrowly missed capturing CSA President Jefferson Davis as he fled first from Richmond to Danville and then to Greensboro by train.

My first awareness of Stoneman was in 1969 when The Band released their own version of their composition The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Some who subsequently covered the song such as Joan Baez had substituted the words “so much” for “Stoneman’s” in the memorable refrain:

“Virgin Cain is the name and I worked the Danville train –‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.”

As Stoneman’s raiders threatened Greensboro, it was filled not only with paroled Virginia troops riding home after Lee’s surrender but tens of thousands of Johnston’s troops as they reeled there west from Raleigh through Durham and along my route to Boone after engagements with Sherman.

Other units had briefly occupied the Salem part of Winston-Salem and raided Jamestown and High Point while others raiders swung in an arc down to Salisbury in an attempt to free Union prisoners there only to learn they had been dispersed or sent home.

During the raids, Stoneman’s troops were joined by more than 1,000 freed slaves, many of whom joined the Union Army after being escorted back to Tennessee.

Confederate government leaders including Jefferson Davis stopped briefly—but unwelcome—in the Greensboro chaos during Stoneman’s raids in the surrounding country.

On the rainy night of April 15th, Sherman’s cavalry fought his last engagement in southwest Durham before a truce and surrender negotiations began with Johnston.  Meanwhile, Confederate leaders passed near Salisbury as Stoneman’s Raiders completed their destruction there, on their way to Charlotte and then south to Georgia.

The day after Stoneman’s Raiders left Salisbury (feinting toward Charlotte) for home base in Tennessee, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The only person in North Carolina who was aware at the time was General Sherman.

He hurriedly worked out surrender terms with a visibly shaken Johnston, similar to Grant’s for Lee at Appomattox, based on directives for leniency from Lincoln.

Those terms were rejected by Union officials and Sherman was ordered to open negotiations with Johnston under harsher terms.  By then Stoneman had finished with Asheville but his troopers returned under the same stipulations brought about by Lincolns death to lay waste to the town.

Stoneman epitomized the strategic thinking that ended the war.  His were not the only raiders.  General Sheridan did the same down the Shenandoah, while other units did the same through Mississippi and Alabama.  The brilliance of this strategy was studied by General George Patton as his tank battalions, including the 35th in which my father served, fought the Germans across Italy and France in World War II.

These harsh policies of Reconstruction Republicans led Stoneman to become a Democrat after the war.  As much as he is often demonized by Southerners who have reconstructed the meaning of that war, Stoneman sacrificed his military career in protest.

After leading cavalry in battles with Indians in the southwest, he retired from the Army in 1871.  Along with his wife, he moved to California and established a vineyard in a valley below along the San Gabriel mountains near where I would live in the late 1960s.

My great-great-great grandfather Shelton had passed away in 1857 so even if they had not been located several hundred miles apart, there would be no reunion with Stoneman.

However, vineyards didn’t mean the end of Stoneman’s public service.  He served as Railroad Commissioner from 1876 to 1878 and then was elected Governor of California in 1882.  His administration saw the emergence of Progressive Era reforms.

In 1885 though, a fire destroyed his papers and Civil War mementos.  Ruined financially, he returned to New York where he died in 1894.

Even though as a cavalry officer for whom resulting hemorrhoids were especially debilitating, his former commander, U.S. Grant had demoted him to colonel when he retired.  He was therefore without disability, possibly because Stoneman had rejected Republicans over the harshness of Reconstruction.

He incurred frequent and painful surgeries throughout his life.  During my lecture last month at ASU, I didn’t mention my remembrance of Stoneman during my trip there but I did vaguely reference the military as the origin of “strategic thinking.”

By the time my career in community-destination marketing began in the 1970s, “strategic thinking” was emerging in social enterprises.  In 1978, I was one of many indebted to the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Dr. James McGregor Burns entitled Leadership.

Burns’ work as a Harvard professor had earlier been part of my studies at Brigham Young University, both in my areas of study in history and political science.

The importance of “strategic thinking” such as Stoneman’s is captured in a quote by Burns:

“It is persons’ intent, along with skill in exploiting power bases, that signalizes the most human factor in all the economic, social, military, and other “deterministic” forces that are said to make history. It is purpose that
puts man into history.”

There are many good resources about General Stoneman and the Mormon Battalion.  In addition to family history, I found the correlation of events in Chris Hartley’s Stoneman’s Raid, 1865 and Jim Wise’s On Sherman’s Trail particularly enlightening.  Both live in North Carolina.

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