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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.
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.
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.
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.
On February 27, 1863, Stone met the inquisitors for the third time. His final appearance was a triumphant acquittal. He had now seen a copy of the testimony and the charges against him, and could answer each accusation specifically. He easily demolished the Committee’s previous indictment.
Wade, in seeming astonishment, asked “Why did you not give these explanations when you were here before?” Stone replied, “Because … the committee did not state to me the particular cases … I gave general answers to general allegations.”
This was as close as Stone ever came to any official exoneration. He was never able to secure the formal trial which he desired, nor could he be assigned to his old command. For a period he served in the Gulf Department. Later he returned to the East to command a brigade in the Army of the Potomac.
Before embarking on the spring campaign in 1814, he wrote a final appeal to Lincoln: “This will be the last letter which I shall address to you during my life, or to justify myself in history … I respectfully ask, for the sake of the service which I have loved and never dishonored, and for the sake of my name in history … that some act, some word, some order may issue from the Executive which shall place my name clear of reproach, as I know it should be.”
The act, the word, the order never came. Even if he had been a brilliant soldier, his usefulness was ended. Wherever he went, that cloud of suspicion, unknown and damning, moved with him. In 1864 he resigned his commission.
After the war Stone had no trouble seeming employment. Mining and construction companies were eager to hire his engineering talents. In 1870 he went to Egypt to be chief of staff of the khedive’s army. He returned to the United States in 1883 and his death came in 1887. Ironically, in his last job he superintended the laying of the foundation of the Statue of Liberty.