- Historic Sites
Suspected but not convicted, this General went to prison
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Bluntly Wade replied. “In the course of our investigations here there has come out in evidence matters which may be said to impeach you.” The chairman refused to let Stone examine the testimony; neither would he reveal the names of the witnesses who had accused him. He did condescend to inform Stone that there were four general indictments of his conduct: he had ordered Baker’s men to cross the river without adequate means of transportation; he had failed to reinforce Baker during the battle: he had held undue intercom se with the enemy; and he had permitted the Rebels to erect fortifications that he could have battered down.
Wade’s refusal to present a bill of particulars forced Stone to reply with a general and somewhat vague defense. He had to guess at what hostile witnesses had said. Nevertheless, he was able to demonstrate that he had given Baker wide discretionary authority at Ball’s Bluff and that the defeat had been partly caused by the colonel’s rashness and by the difficulties of the terrain.
Stone made a detailed answer to the charge of intercourse with the enemy. All his communications, he said, had dealt with routine matters like supplies for prisoners and the exchange of mail. He had watched carefully to insure that no letters or newspapers containing military information went to the South, while in similar documents coming north he often found valuable knowledge. As for the batteries near his lines, they were too far distant to be bombarded.
The accusation of treason lurking in Wade’s indictment crushed Stone. “That is one humiliation I had hoped I never should be subjected to,” he cried. “I thought there was one calumny that could not be brought against me.” Recalling his services in organizing the defenses of the Capital before the inauguration, he ended by saying: “I have, so help me Heaven, but one object in all this, and that is to see the United State’s successful. I have been as faithful as I can be. And I am exceedingly sore at this outrageous charge.”
Stone’s testimony and his impassioned plea made no impression on the Committee. Wade turned the new evidence over to Stanton. and the secretary renewed his pressure on McClellan to execute the arrest order.
By this time the commander was becoming alarmed for his own position. If the Radicals wanted a sacrifice, McClellan preferred that it be Stone. He soon found an opportunity to get out from under.
A Negro refugee came in from Leesburg with a story that Stone was on friendly terms with secessionists in the neighborhood. This hazy tale was of a piece with the Committee’s flimsy evidence. But it was enough for McClellan. He transmitted the information to Stanton and consented to arrest Stone. At midnight on February 8 Stone was placed in custody and taken to Fort Lafayette in New York harbor. To the last he was confident that McClellan would save him from disgrace.
The Wade Committee always denied that it had been the instigating force behind the arrest. All it had been, said Wade, was to collect evidence that seemed to impugn Stone’s loyalty and turn the evidence over to others to judge.
All of which was poppycock, as Wade well knew and once came close to admitting. Stone’s friends in the Senate tried to smoke out the chairman on the Committee’s role in the affair. Wade would not say the Committee had forced Stone’s arrest, but he conceded it had done something. In thinly veiled phrases he charged that Stone was a traitor. People who invoked the Constitution to defend Stone, Wade said, were in reality Rebel sympathizers. It did not matter that the proof against Stone was not conclusive. In a dangerous crisis like a war the government could not afford to wait for complete proof. It must punish immediately before the suspect could damage the government.
At Fort Lafayette Stone was placed in solitary confinement in a small room. At the end of fifty days his doctor protested that this harsh treatment was destroying the general’s health. He was then transferred by order of the War Department to Fort Hamilton.
He remained in prison for a total period of 189 days. During this time he made repeated requests to the government for a military trial, or, if there were no charges against him, for permission to return to the army. He received no answer. The War Department’s refusal to grant him a hearing violated the Articles of War, which specified that an arrested officer was entitled to a prompt trial. But how could Stone be tried? Nobody knew exactly what he was guilty of.
Finally, in August, 1862 after repeated protests by Stone’s supporters in Congress, Stanton ordered his release. He was a free man, but he had received no official vindication and no promise that he would he restored to command. For months he waited for orders. Then he went to Washington to ask for an active assignment and to take steps to clear his name.
He saw Lincoln, Stanton, and other dignitaries. Everyone sympathized with him and denounced the perpetrators of his arrest—and threw the blame on someone else. His request for a court of inquiry were brushed aside: really, General Stone, that is not necessary. The most that he could wring from the authorities was permission to re-appear before the Committee.