Charles P. Stone: Scapegoat for Defeat

This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series Union General Officers
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General Charles Pomeroy Charles Pomeroy Stone was the first of more than a few general officers who were blamed for the early Union defeats. If anything they were only guilty of leading untrained and inexperienced troops who broke under fire.

Charles Stone was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1924. He entered West Point in 1841 and graduated four years later, the seventh of 41 cadets. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of ordnance.

Stone stayed at West Point, serving as an assistant professor and teaching geography, history, and also ethics from August 28, 1845, to January 13, 1846. Afterwards he was posted to the Watervliet Arsenal in New York as Assistant Ordnance Officer, and then to Fortress Monroe, both in 1846. While there Stone worked in the facilities arsenal and was an assistant to Capt. Benjamin Huger, whom he would serve under in the war with Mexico.

Stone gave distinguished service during the Mexican War. He fought from the Siege of Veracruz to the Battle for Mexico City and was given three brevet promotions for his actions.

After the war he took a leave of absence and proceeded to Europe to study military practices of the armies there for two years. He returned in 1850 and continued on arsenal duty. He married married Maria Louisa Clary in 1853 and three years later resigned from the Army “finding the pay inadequate” for his family. In the following eight years he worked in a number of positions. He returned to Washington in 1860 and in 1861 he was writing a report on his survey of Sonora, Mexico.

Stone’s Civil War Career

After a dinner with his former commander Winfield Scott, Stone was asked to be Inspector General of the District of Columbia Militia at the rank of colonel as of January 1, 1861, and was thus reputed to be the first volunteer officer mustered into the Union Army before the Civil War. In this role, he secured the capital for the arrival of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, and was personally responsible for security at the new president’s inaugural

Stone was appointed Colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment on May 14, and then a brigadier general in the Union Army that August, to rank from May 17. He commanded a brigade in Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson‘s Army of the Shenandoah during the First Bull Run campaign in June and July. Stone then was given command of a division, called the Corps of Observation, guarding the fords along the upper Potomac River that fall.

During this period Stone became embroiled in a controversy with his home state’s governor, John A. Andrew, and Charles Sumner, the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, both powerful and influential Radical Republican politicians. Stone had ordered his men “not to incite and encourage insubordination among the coloured servants in the neighbourhood.” 

When the men of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry returned some runaway slaves to their masters based on Stone’s orders, several of the men wrote to their families. Eventually Andrew and Sumner found out and a series of heated letters went back and forth. Stone’s dealings with these two men would have tragic consequences in his near future.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff (link to complete battle post)

On October 20, 1861, Stone was ordered to conduct a reconnaissance across the Potomac River in the Leesburg, Virginia area by General George B. McClellan. At the time Stone’s large 10,000-man division was bivouacked in the Poolesville, Maryland area.

McClellan hoped that this action, combined with a movement by Brig. Gen. George A. McCall‘s division of 13,000 men toward Dranesville the day before, would encourage a Confederate withdrawal from the area without an engagement occurring. Considering that the total Union force in the immediate area would be 23,000 men, It would appear that Union troops far outnumbered their adversaries.

Stone would have reasonably believed that McCall would be in a position to support any offensive actions that he might take. But Stone did not take into account McClellan’s timidity. On October 21st he ordered McCall to withdraw to his previous position at Langley. Unfortunately, Stone was not informed and he proceeded with his original plan.

Stone brought up his artillery to Edward’s Ferry on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. From this position they would be able to shell Confederate forces on the Virginia and cover the Union troops who were assigned to cross the river. He then ordered small reconnaissance parties from the 1st Minnesota Infantry across. They returned without incident.

He then sent out 20 soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry to scout toward Leesburg and see whether the Union movements had the desired effect or not. Crossing at Harrison’s Island on the river, these men scaled Ball’s Bluff and encountered what they believed was a Confederate camp of at least thirty men less than a mile inland. The patrol returned to Harrison Island around 10 p.m. and reported by messenger to Stone who was at Edwards Ferry.

Stone led part of his command across the river from Edward’s Ferry. At the same time he ordered Col. Charles Devens and 300 men of his 15thDeath of Col. Edward Baker Massachusetts to immediately cross over to Ball’s Bluff that night. Their orders were to march to the Confederate camp and destroy it at daybreak. Stone gave Devens the discretion to march to Leesburg or return to Harrison Island after the assault.

Meanwhile, Devens found that there was no camp to raid. He reported that fact to Stone. Stone ordered Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward D. Baker to take overall command. At the same time he instructed Baker that the raiding party was to be turned back into a reconnaissance. Stone ordered the rest of the 15th Massachusetts over and added the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, under Col. William R. Lee, to this effort as well. The total force numbered slightly over 1,700 troops.

Devens force now numbering about 650 became engaged with a growing force of Confederates. Devens began to withdraw back to Ball’s Bluff at about 2:00 and met Baker shortly afterward. By 3:00 the fighting became heavy with the Confederates forcing the Union force into a position that precluded any maneuvering.

Col. Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans was in charge of the forces opposing Stone, and when he learned of the crossings he split his 2,000-man command. Three of his regiments were ordered to deal with Stone by blocking the road from Edwards Ferry to Leesburg, while the remainder fought and defeated Baker’s force at Ball’s Bluff. Since Baker sent no updates to Stone, he was unaware that any fighting was taking place.

The fighting at Ball’s Bluff continued from about 3:00 and lasted until just after dark. At about 4:30 Col. Baker was struck by a volley of bullets through his heart and brain that killed him instantly. He remains the only United States Senator to die in battle. Shortly after dark the 17th Mississippi arrived and spearheaded the final assault on the Union positions.

The Union troops were routed and many of them attempted to climb down the steep slope at the southern end of Ball’s Bluff. Many of the boats were capsized and the troops were drowned. Bodies floated downriver to Washington and even as far as Mt. Vernon in the days following the battle. A total of 223 Federals were killed, 226 were wounded, and 553 were captured on the banks of the Potomac later that night.

The Aftermath of Ball’s Bluff

The abject defeat coupled with Baker’s death had an enormous impact in Washington. Stone was treated as the scapegoat for the defeat. Members of Congress suspected that there was a conspiracy to betray the Union. The desire to learn why Federal forces had lost battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff, led to the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Stone was called to testify before the committee and all of his testimony and that of 38 others remained a secret. His official report was leaked to the press and it caused an outcry. In it he praised Baker’s courage but questioned his abilities as a field commander. Massachusetts Governor Andrew and Senator Sumner, openly denounced this report and began to point accusing fingers at Stone, not at Baker.

Stone’s loyalty to the Union and his position on slavery were more in question than his military abilities and decisions. The committee’s questions accused him of improper and frequent communications with the Confederates, of not re-enforcing Baker, of using his men to protect slaveholder property in Maryland, and of returning runaway slaves to their owners—despite the last two of these following Maryland as well as Federal law.

Another problem for Stone defending himself was an order from McClellan forbidding him to give testimony “regarding his [McClellan’s] plans, his orders for the movement of troops, or his orders concerning the position of troops.” This made it impossible for Stone to explain his movements to the committee, but kept McClellan out of the investigation as well.

Stone was arrested just after midnight on February 8, 1862, on orders of Maj. Gen. McClellan, who was acting under orders from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. He was taken to Fort Lafayette, an island coastal fortification in the Narrows of New York Harbor. He was held here and later at the nearby Fort Hamilton in solitary confinement until his release in August 1862. He was never charged and was never given an explanation or an apology. Some say that Stone was arrested at the orders of President Lincoln who was a close personal friend of Baker’s.

Stone returned to Washington to await a new assignment. Finally, in February of 1863 he was allowed to see the secret testimony and was able to rebut all of the charges since McClellan’s order no longer applied. The committee cleared him of all charges. Eventually he was given minor assignment finished his army career as a brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac. He resigned his commission in September 1864.

Charles Stone eventually served as chief of staff and general aide-de-camp for the khedive Isma’il Pasha of Egypt. While there he was given the rank of lieutenant general and the title of Ferik Pasha. He died on January 24, 1887 in New York City and is buried at the West Point Cemetery.

 

 

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