Were it not for an eve-of-surrender battle in Martinsville, the entire Civil War would have ended quite differently.
That’s the theory of Jarred Marlowe, who on Tuesday gave the program “April 25: Danville, Martinsville, and the End of the Civil War” at the Bassett Historical Center.
The Civil War ran from April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865. Throughout most of the war, the capital of the Confederate States of America was Richmond. However, on April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet relocated to Danville, where they stationed themselves at the mansion of Maj. William T. Sutherlin, wartime quartermaster for Danville. (That house now is the home of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.)
Danville was a crucial city for the Confederacy because it provided significant provisions of food for the Confederate forces. That supply was dependent upon the rail lines running from Danville; the Richmond-Danville rail lines were the only ones not cut by the Union forces.
Danville “had half a million bread rations and one million meat rations ready to go on the rails at any time,” Marlowe said. The movement of provisions was aided by secret commissaries throughout the South, with Willow Del, run by Capt. Isaac Watson of Climax, being a main one.
Additionally, the Danville rail lines were heavily defended by the Home Guard led by Robert Enoch Withers.
Because of that dependability of the rail line, “When Davis wanted to evacuate [Richmond], he had no choice” other than Danville, Marlowe said.
Due to significant losses at the battles of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Chickamauga, Georgia in 1863, “the tide starts to turn” against the South in the war, he said.
On April 2, 1865, in Richmond, Davis got a message that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was going to surrender Petersburg and Davis must leave Richmond immediately. As Richmond burned, “Davis and the entire government left town” and arrived in Danville on the morning of April 3.
Davis discovered that Danville was not well protected. Arrangements were made to dispatch Confederate cavalry from Greensboro, N.C., to Danville. However, by April 5, those forces had been redirected to Raleigh, N.C. – but Davis didn’t know that, and he still thought help was coming to Danville.
Meanwhile, the Union was headed toward Danville from the west, as part of what is known as “Stoneman’s Raid.” Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, who had been in Morristown, Tenn., in March and April sent and led Union forces through Virginia to cut rail lines, get Confederate supplies, and do anything else to destroy the South.
On April 8, a Union force of 800 was at Henry Courthouse. They encountered a Confederate force of 420 in or near Martinsville. The location of that battle is generally thought to be Jones Creek (where Kwik Lube and Roselawn Burial Park are now), but it’s possible it happened further east (where Leatherwood Food Lion is now).
“The attack began at 7 a.m. with the Union soldiers surprising the Confederates in their camp,” Marlowe said.
“Five Union soldiers were killed in action to one Confederate soldier. The Confederates retreated to Cascade. That’s when” word came that the Union was headed to Danville next.
However, the war came to a de facto end the next day, April 9, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. (Word still had to spread, and other units had to surrender; the official declaration of the end of the war was on Aug. 20, 1866.)
If the April 8 battle in Martinsville hadn’t slowed down the Union troops, or “if Stoneman went a few miles east,” Marlowe said, they “would have captured the Confederate treasury” and important goods. “That would have been a definitive end to the war before Lee surrendered. Everything was waiting for him … there were records that Danville was completely defenseless. What if Davis had been captured before Lee surrendered? What if Danville was the new Appomattox?”
Marlowe is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. He is the president of the Col. George Waller Chapter Sons of the American Revolution and a consultant for the Blue and Gray Education Society and a former board member of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society.
Other upcoming programs on local history include:
“The Maps of Thomas Jefferson” by Zack Fleming: 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center & Museum, 1 E. Main St., Martinsville.
“We Are Still Here” by Renae “Spring Morning” Wagoner: 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Bassett Historical Center, 3964 Fairystone Park Highway, Bassett. Wagoner, a Spencer resident who is of Shawnee descent, will share Native American culture and views.
“Founders’ Day” by the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society: 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21., at the MHC Heritage Center & Museum. The program is about figures in history who helped shape the local area.
Holly Kozelsky is the executive director of the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center & Museum at 1 E. Main St., Martinsville. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; its website is mhchistoricalsociety.org.