SALEM, VA – As the 150th Anniversary of the nation’s bloodiest and greatest conflict in history is now in its third year, the public’s attention is turned to the crucial and critical moments that defined the year 1863. While many may remember the Emancipation Proclamation and the bloody battle of Gettysburg, here in the Roanoke Valley we should also remember a crucial event that took place 150 years ago this Dec. 16 – Averell’s Raid on Salem.
With the Northern grip on the South tightening, many on both sides were speculating that a peace agreement would officially end the bloodshed. However, the war was far from over. On December 5, 1863, Brigadier General Benjamin Kelley, commander of the Union Department of Western Virginia, was looking to make another thrust into Confederate-held territory.
He ordered General William W. Averell to “proceed with all your available force now at New Creek, (West Virginia), without delay, and then by the most practicable route to the line of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, at Bonsack’s Station, in Botetourt County, (Virginia), or Salem, in Roanoke County.” Once there, Averell was to “destroy all the bridges, water-stations, and depots on the railroad in that neighborhood, and otherwise injure and destroy the road as far as possible by removing the rails and rendering them useless by heating and bending.”
Averell and Kelley’s plan was to use four different commands to seize various locations and hold them until Averell could reach his destination, do his damage, and escape. However, this ambitious plan fell through when the other commanders prematurely withdrew, leaving Averell unsupported.
Averell, unknowingly kept going forward to Salem to cut the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and destroy the supplies stored at Salem. It wasn’t until a recess from the long, hard, march on December 15, 1863 that Averell learned of this glitch in the plan through a dispatch via messenger. This prompted Averell to get his column, numbering about 2,500 men, to get back on the road to Salem.
By 1 p.m., they had seized the road leading to New Castle, Virginia, despite torrents of rain that had fallen on them since they left West Virginia. They marched all night on December 15 and reached Salem the next morning. When they were only four miles from their destination, Averell’s cavalry ran into a group of Confederate soldiers. At the head of the four-man squad was a native Salemite, 26-year-old Thomas J. Chapman.
Thomas J. Chapman was the son of a wealthy hotelier/clerk, Henry Harrison Chapman, and his wife Nancy Wright Chapman. The family, including Thomas’ four siblings, lived at Monterey, a stately brick mansion now owned by Roanoke College. When the Civil War broke out, Thomas Chapman enlisted on May 14, 1861, in the Salem Flying Artillery.
Thomas Chapman enlisted as a private on May 14, 1861. For the first year, the unit was designated as Company A, Virginia 9th Infantry Regiment and was sent to Craney Island, outside of Richmond, Virginia, to drill and work as one of the batteries defending the Confederate coast. On May 8, 1862, after numerous attempts by the company commander, Abraham Hupp, the unit was transferred out of the 9th Virginia Infantry and finally became an artillery unit. Chapman would soon fight with this unit in many of the major battles of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On October 15, 1863, Chapman was discharged from the Salem Flying Artillery and became one of the Confederacy’s patrollers in the Roanoke County region. His primary responsibilities were to arrest deserters and to intercept reports of Federal movements in and around the Roanoke Valley. He became Captain of Roanoke College’s own defense unit, known as the Roanoke College Home Guards or the Roanoke College “Young Guards.”
As Chapman’s squad neared Hanging Rock, they met a figure in the gap. They demanded the man announce his unit and the man responded, “Echols’ Division.” The five began a friendly chat. Unfortunately for Chapman and his men, the figure was a scout from Averell’s column and when the rest of the column caught up with him, he dropped his friendly tone and demanded they surrender.
Chapman responded that he would not surrender himself, his men, or the town to the Union troopers and was thus, shot and killed on the spot. The rest of his squad was captured, and Averell’s men raced the last few miles into Salem.
By 10 o’ clock in the morning, cries of “the Yankees are coming-they are already in town” went up as the Union troopers came charging up the streets “four abreast and pistols in hand, cocked, ready to fire.” The crowds in the streets of Salem “took to their heels, and wagons, horses, and every living thing joined in the general stampede.”
The Yankees first stopped at the Post Office and cut the telegraph wires. They then formed themselves into three lines of battle and waited for an approaching train to arrive at the depot. As the train arrived, they fired on it causing it to retreat back up the track. The Yankees then burned the tracks and the surrounding depots and mills. The Union and Confederate reports of the Salem Raid differ in how much of the supplies were actually destroyed. It took the Confederate army and the townspeople several days to restore and repair the damaged railroad tracks and replace the burned bridges.
This event is worth remembering 150 years later due to the fact that this was the most daring cavalry raid of the entire war and that the duty and love the common soldier in the Confederacy felt towards defending hearth and home, even to the point of one’s death, was felt very strongly.
– By David Harold Moeller