- Historic Sites
Suspected but not convicted, this General went to prison
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
The haze of a beautiful autumn hung over the Maryland countryside. The Northern soldiers holding the Potomac line above Washington in that fall of 1861 had never seen a region quite like it. They were delighted with the mild weather; they were impressed by the striking vistas of scenery that unrolled around their comfortable camps; they were intrigued by the queer, almost alien ways, of the white natives; and they were positively fascinated with the colored slaves who crept into the camps seeking refuge. This business of soldiering, they decided, might not be so unpleasant after all. In fact, it was fun some of the time, and it promised a strange new kind of excitement they had never experienced back in their little home towns in New England and the Middle West.
True, their division commander, Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, was one of those West Point martinets who believed that route marches and plenty of target practice were just the things for green troops. But the training was not too tiresome, and the men realized it was necessary to prepare them to fight Confederates. And they were eager to fight. As they improved as soldiers, they developed a soldierly pride in the division and wanted to show what it could do. They wondered why General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, did not turn them loose on the rebels across the river.
Late in October they got their fight. McClellan received intelligence that the Confederates were planning to pull out of Leesburg and other places on the upper Potomac. To ascertain the intentions of the enemy he sent a division over the river to Dranesville. He informed Stone what lie was doing and suggested that Stone make a reconnaissance on his own sector. Although McClellan’s dispatch was vaguely worded, he obviously had in mind a small, exploratory movement. Stone went somewhat beyond McClellan’s instructions. He crossed two regiments at Edwards’ Ferry and sent two others farther upriver to cross at Harrison’s Island.
The force at Harrison’s Island made it over the river with great difficulty. At Stone’s headquarters nobody had given much thought to transportation, and only three small boats were available. Nevertheless, the regiments were finally crossed, and early on the morning of October 21 they took position on an eminence called Ball’s Bluff. In the woods around them were Confederate troops, who gave no indication of retiring and every indication of attacking. The ranking officer sent word to Stone, who replied that reinforcements were on the way and that with them, as commanding officer, would come Colonel Edward D. Baker.
This man Baker was quite a figure. A resident of Illinois and a close friend of Lincoln, he had gone to California in the gold rush days. Later he moved to Oregon, where the legislature in 1860 elected him to the United States Senate. He played a busy role in the secession crisis, introducing Lincoln at the inauguration ceremonies and making speeches in the Senate in which he called for a ruthless war and military government of a conquered South. When the hostilities started, he raised a Pennsylvania regiment and became its colonel. He was a romantic character in the best Nineteenth Century tradition, capable of quoting poetry in the heat of battle and telling others to follow where they saw his white plume shining. He knew almost nothing about how to direct men in battle.
When Baker arrived on the scene, the situation was getting rough. Everything at the Bluff was in confusion, and the Confederates were pouring a galling lire into the huddled troops from the heights above. Baker decided that it would be folly to try to escape in the boats and that his men would have to fight where they were. Before he could form a plan of action, a Confederate bullet took him in the heart.
After that his force lost any sense of cohesion it had left. Some of the troops tried to escape in the scows or by swimming the river; most of them had to surrender. When the casualties were counted, it was found that of the approximated 1,000 men who had crossed the river, 200 had been shot and 700 captured.
In the press, Ball’s Bluff was referred to as a disaster, which it was in a minor sense. The war was young, and the nation was not yet accustomed to big battles and huge casualty lists. The little battle seemed large in 1861. and obviously it had been mismanaged by somebody. The gallant Senator who had lost his life could not be to blame. Some officer higher up must, have bungled. Out of the recriminations and the grief and the suspicions would tome a grim chain of circumstances that would wreck the reputation and the career of Charles Stone.
At the beginning of the war Stone seemed to have one of the brightest futures in the army. A native of Greenfield, Massachusetts, he graduated, from West Point in 1845, and served with merit in the Mexican War. He remained in the army until 1856, when he resigned to take a job with a private organization. Early in 1861, when there was talk that the South might try to prevent Lincoln from being inaugurated, he accepted from President Buchanan the post of inspector general of the District of Columbia.
In a real sense, he had charge of Lincoln’s life in those tense spring Jays when rumors of assassination filled the air. Lincoln trusted him, and Stone was very proud of the way in which he had guarded the President. After that promotion was rapid—a colonel in the regular army and then a brigadier general of volunteers commanding a division.