Investigation: 1862

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In December the Radicals had pushed through Congress a measure creating the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The Committee was empowered to inquire into the causes of past defeats—principally, just then, Ball’s Bluff—and was expected to force the executive branch to adopt whatever measures were necessary to secure victory in the future. One measure the Radicals favored was getting rid of generals whose hearts were not in the war—generals like Stone.

Immediately after its creation the Committee plunged into an investigation of General McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, trying particularly to ascertain if the commander was keeping the army inactive because he secretly sympathized with the rebellion. On the side, the chairman, Senator “Bluff Ben” Wade of Ohio, who dominated the agency to such a degree that it could well be termed the Wade Committee, ran a separate inquiry of Stone. Wade asked a number of officers, who were testifying about conditions in the Army of the Potomac, to state who was responsible for the Ball’s Bluff disaster.

Stone himself, appearing as a routine witness on January 5, was questioned in a general fashion about the battle and his policy concerning fugitive slaves. He placed the blame for the defeat on Baker and said that he returned runaways only when asked to do so by the proper civilian authorities. As he walked from the hearing, Stone probably did not suspect that the Committee was whetting an ax for him.

Next Wade summoned a long list of witnesses, consisting mainly of volunteer officers in Stone’s command and civilian residents in his lines, Most of the volunteers had grievances against Stone because of his rigid system of discipline and his supposed prejudice against civilian soldiers. They regaled the Committee with sensational tales to prove Stone was a traitor.

Culled from campfire gossip and based entirely on hearsay evidence, their accusations stated that Stone had been guilty of criminal negligence at Ball’s Bluff; his troops distrusted his loyalty; secessionists liked him: he had permitted the enemy to erect fortifications near his lines; he carried on a mysterious and undoubtedly treasonable correspondence with the Confederates across the river; and once he had actually engaged in a conference with Rebel officers under a flag of truce!

Wade conducted the inquiry in a manner that showed he had prejudged the case. He asked leading questions designed to elicit criticism of Stone, and he bullied witnesses into giving the right answers.

Nearly every officer was asked a question like this: “So far as you know, is there not such a general suspicion of General Stone among officers and men that they would be unwilling to go into battle under him?” It was a dumb witness who did not know how to answer that query. When one officer tried to defend Stone’s course at Ball’s Bluff, Wade shouted angrily, “Now, if it was not the object to take Leesburg, what, in God’s name, was this fragment of a force sent over on these miserable scows for?” Wade asked one officer why Stone had not destroyed a certain flour mill near his lines. The officer replied that he did not know. With an air of one patriot letting another in on a great secret Wade said, “He did not tell you why he had not battered it down, as it was supplying the rebel army with flour?”

When Wade decided he had enough evidence to get Stone, he and the other members of the Committee went to the War Department and presented their findings to their associate in the Radical cause. Secretary Edwin M. Stanton. They were in possession of material, they told Stanton, that “seemed to impeach both the military capacity and the loyalty of General Stone.” The secretary was easily convinced. On January 28 he issued an order for Stone’s arrest and gave it to McClellan to execute.

McClellan shrank from carrying out the order. He knew the falsity of the charges against Stone, and he knew too that the Committee was striking at him through his subordinate. He asked Stanton to give Stone a military trial, but the secretary refused. Then McClellan requested that Stone be granted an opportunity to state his case to the Committee. Stanton was willing, and on January 31 Stone confronted his accusers.

This session was of vital importance to Stone. It was, in effect, his last chance to prove his loyalty and disprove the charges against him. But in presenting a defense, Stone was badly handicapped by two factors over which he had no control. One was the Committee’s rules of procedure. Stone, like every other witness, appeared alone, without counsel, in a secret session. He did not know what testimony had been given against him, or who had given it, or what the specific accusations were. The second factor working against Stone was imposed by McClellan. Just before Stone went to the hearing he received instructions that he was not to discuss any of McClellan’s orders or plans—past or present. The commander was going to stay out of this fight if he could.

At this fatal interview Stone was a frantic and agonized man. He spoke with great emotion and in broken tones. Addressing himself to Wade, he said that Stanton had told him the Committee possessed evidence which impugned his loyalty. He was present to explain his innocence.