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Suspected but not convicted, this General went to prison
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Stone was a member of the McClellan circle. He was the kind of officer the commander liked to have around him—cultivated, conservative, definitely a gentleman. Like most of the officers in the group, and like McClellan himself, Stone was a mediocre soldier. He was trained in the older concept of war. the leisurely, prepare-at-length and fight-only-when-ready kind of war that had characterized the struggles of the Eighteenth Century. Of the hard, ruthless, war-to-the-knife type of warfare that the Civil War would become, he had no notion whatsoever.
He was also almost completely ignorant of another modem development, and his ignorance would cause him untold trouble. Again like McClellan, he had no realization that the civilians were going to take a hand in running this war and that he would have to accommodate himself to this fact. Stone assumed, as most regular officers did, that the army was the army and that the civil authority was the politicians. Between the two there was little connection. If politicians tried to interfere with the military, you put them in their place.
Soldiers like McClellan and Stone thought that war was something that could he conducted in a vacuum without any relation to political realities. It might have been that way once; it would not he that way in the Civil War or ever again.
During his tenure of command on the Potomac, Stone gave a striking demonstration of his naïveté in political matters. Runaway slaves were always coming into the camps, and sometimes soldiers with abolitionist opinions would spirit them away to freedom. Stone, who had conservative views on the slavery issue, published an order that in effect denied fugitives the right of asylum in his lines. A little later two slaves entered the camp of a Massachusetts regiment. Pursuant to Stone’s orders, officers turned them back to their owner.
News of this episode came to John A. Andrew, the forthright, Radical Republican governor of the Bay State. He wrote a letter to the regiment’s colonel rebuking the officers concerned and denouncing the employment of any Massachusetts man in the business of slave-catching. The colonel referred the letter to Stone, who wrote the governor to mind his own business and stop interfering with national troops.
After another exchange of angry epistles, Andrew passed the correspondence on to Senator Charles Sumner, who flayed Stone in a Senate speech. The general replied with a letter that was a virtual invitation to a duel. Throughout the controversy Stone was convinced that his position was completely correct: he was repelling civilian interference with army affairs. In a technical military sense, he was right, but he had made two powerful men his mortal enemies.
Stone’s dispute with Andrew and Sumner reached a climax at about the same time that the public was shocked by the debacle at Ball’s Bluff. To a casual observer the dispute and the battle might seem to be separate events, but in the thinking of many people in Washington they were associated, with the result that a deadly finger of suspicion was pointed at Stone.
It was a time of preternatural suspicion. In the strain of war a new attitude was taking shape in the minds of men, and particularly in the minds of Republican Congressmen: nobody could be trusted, anybody might be a secret ally of the Rebels. Everybody—whether he was a soldier, a civil servant, a legislator, or what not—had to establish his loyalty in some way, preferably by taking some kind of oath.
The trouble was that nobody knew exactly how to define loyalty. The dividing line between loyalty and disloyalty was hazy and tended to get confused with the dividing line between conflicting political opinions. It was so much easier to detect treason in the form of a wrong opinion. This new technique of judging loyalty, which also provided a new standard for judging generals, was about to encase Stone in a cloud of doubt he could never dispel.
After Ball’s Bluff ugly rumors concerning Stone circulated in Washington. According to these whispered accounts, he was carrying on a treasonable intercourse with the enemy. Rebel spies passed and repassed his lines with no interference. Stone wrote and sent letters to the Confederates over the river and received mysterious packages in return. He and his wife, who had Southern relatives, associated intimately with the slaveholders in his district. He had assigned guards to protect the property of known Rebels, and he had forced his soldiers to act as slave-catchers.
As the Radical Republicans put these stories together with the Andrew controversy, they suddenly realized what Stone really was. In his conduct they detected a pattern, and the pattern was wrong. Stone was a friend of McClellan and a Democrat; he was proslavery; and he had dealings with the wrong people. The next conclusions followed easily: he was secretly a traitor, and there must be others like him in high places in the army.
Ball’s Bluff could easily be explained now. Stone had deliberately sent his men into a trap and Baker to his death.
Of the charges and suspicions against him and of the forces preparing his destruction, General Stone knew little if anything. He was aware, of course, that his conducting at Ball’ Bluff had been criticized, but McClellan told him not to worry on that score as Lincoln have been given a true picture of the battle. Stone had no inkling that his loyalty was under scrutiny or that he was about to be investigated by one of the most powerful Congressional committees in American legislative history.