Disaster at Ball’s Bluff, 21 October 1861
One of the more intriguing characters of the Civil War was BG Charles Pomeroy Stone. On 20 October 1861, MG George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Stone to “conduct a slight demonstration” from his position near Poolesville, Maryland. During late September and into October, McClellan’s forces received information that the Confederates were preparing to consolidate their troops around Centreville and Manassas, Virginia. McClellan hoped that the demonstration would induce the Confederates to evacuate their forces from Leesburg, Virginia, which would give the Federals control of the Potomac River from Washington to Harpers Ferry, Virginia. McClellan ordered Union forces under MG George A. McCall to move to the vicinity of Dranesville, Virginia, about fourteen miles southeast of Leesburg.
His intent in ordering McCall to Dranesville was to intimidate the Confederate commander in the area, COL Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, and to allow Union engineers to map the area. The order to Stone to conduct a demonstration was for the purpose of supporting McCall. Through a series of misunderstood orders and poor military decisions, the resulting Battle of Ball’s Bluff on 21 October 1861 became a controversial disaster and virtually ended a promising military career.
Stone was eminently qualified to lead a division created on 20 September 1861 known as the “Corps of Observation” along the upper Potomac. His 6,500-man division consisted of three brigades under the command of BG Willis A. Gorman, BG Frederick W. Lander, and COL Edward D. Baker.
An 1845 graduate of West Point, Stone was the latest member of a family that fought in every American war since Europeans settled North America. In the Mexican War he served with distinction as an Ordnance officer, winning brevets to first lieutenant and captain. After the war he served for five years as the chief ordnance officer of the Pacific where he located sites for forts and arsenals. Like many officers of that era he resigned his commission to try his hand at business. In 1856 he entered the employ of Mexico to survey the state of Sonora.
When the Civil War broke out LTG Winfield Scott appointed Stone as the inspector general of the District of Columbia. In that capacity he rallied the limited forces available to ensure the security of the capital. This was especially difficult after rebel sympathizers cut off the city by severing railroads leading into Washington after the secessionist attack on troops transiting through Baltimore. Stone’s diligence earned him the trust of President Abraham Lincoln despite the fact that Stone was not a political supporter; this would become a problem for Stone later. Nevertheless, Stone rose quickly through the ranks and ended up being promoted to brigadier general on 6 August 1861 with a date of rank of 17 May, making him eighth in seniority among those appointed thus far.
Stone led a brigade in MG Robert Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah during the Bull Run campaign and saw action in the Shenandoah Valley and in the Rockland Expedition. Shortly after Bull Run, Stone gained command of his division, but soon after taking command, his Army career began to fall apart.
Stone’s division was posted across the Potomac River from Leesburg between Conrad’s Ferry (now known as White’s Ferry) to the north and Edward’s Ferry to the south. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and its towpath ran adjacent to the river on the Maryland side. Harrison’s Island, three miles in length but only 350 yards wide, lay only sixty to eighty yards from the Virginia side of the Potomac. Beyond that rose Ball’s Bluff, an escarpment covered by trees and outcroppings with its sheer 100-foot cliffs only accessible by a single narrow path. Union pickets stood guard on Harrison’s Island behind small entrenchments to protect them from Confederate fire coming from the bluff.
On 19 October 1861 forces under McCall conducted the aforementioned move to Dranesville, but Evans was not intimidated as expected. In fact, one of McCall’s couriers was captured and his plans became known to the Confederate commander. Evans put his troops into defensive positions that were not visible to a Union signal station on Sugar Loaf Mountain. The station mistakenly reported that Confederate forces had evacuated Leesburg. McClellan then decided to put a little extra pressure on the Confederates by having Stone conduct his “demonstration.”
On 20 October Stone deployed his forces at the two ferries and strengthened the pickets on Harrison’s Island in preparation for the demonstration. McClellan had not explained to Stone that he intended for no troops to cross the Potomac, only expecting Stone to conduct a show of force. After Union artillery in Maryland drove the few Confederate observers from the Ball’s Bluff vicinity, two Federal companies crossed the Potomac River in three flatboats. While some troops maneuvered near Edward’s Ferry, a small scouting party under the command of CPT Chase Philbrick headed off just before dark towards Leesburg from Ball’s Bluff. As darkness fell Stone withdrew his troops back to Maryland.
Philbrick’s party marched less than a mile from the bluff when in the darkness they spotted what appeared to be thirty Confederate tents but no troops along a ridgeline. The scouting party then fell back to the bluff and returned across the Potomac. At about 2200, Stone learned of the Confederate camp and saw an opportunity for a quick raid. Even though he did not have specific authority for such an operation from McClellan, Stone devised the idea for the raid based on instructions he received two months prior that should Stone “see the opportunity of capturing or dispersing any small party by crossing the river, you (Stone) are at liberty to do so, though great discretion is recommended in making such a movement.” In Stone’s mind, an unguarded Confederate camp was just such an opportunity that should be exploited.
Stone then ordered the 15th Massachusetts Infantry under the command of COL Charles Devens to silently cross the Potomac and destroy the camp. In support he ordered two companies of COL William R. Lee’s 20th Massachusetts Infantry from Harrison’s Island to the bluff. He also ordered artillery to the towpath opposite Harrison’s Island to provide fire support as necessary. Other guns were posted north of Conrad’s Ferry near the mouth of the Monocacy River. Devens was ordered to reduce the Confederate camp and return to Maryland unless he found a strong position that could be held until reinforcements arrived.
Devens crossed the Potomac at about midnight with roughly 300 men in just two boats that could accommodate no more than thirty men at one time. Later, the soldiers located another skiff, but this did little to accelerate the crossing. It took about four hours to complete the trip. At the same time COL Lee crossed the river to lead two of his companies into Virginia, leaving five others at Harrison’s Island under the command of MAJ Paul Revere, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero.
First light came shortly before 0600 when Devens led his men inland with Philbrick’s company on point. Lee and his two companies remained on the bluff. When Devens came to the spot of the Confederate camp, all were shocked to find that what was perceived the night before was only an optical illusion created by light shining through spaces in the trees. Rather than withdraw, Devens was determined to salvage some measure of success and reconnoitered towards Leesburg. After a while he still saw no enemy troops and decided to exercise his discretion to remain in Virginia. At approximately 0700 he sent word to Stone that he was awaiting further orders.
Stone then compounded what was obviously an ill-advised movement by ordering Gorman to send troops from Edward’s Ferry across the Potomac. His orders were to advance as far as the Leesburg Turnpike and report his finding back to Stone. All along Stone thought that McCall was across the Potomac and advancing on Leesburg, not knowing that he had withdrawn from the area the evening before.
Confederate officers became aware of the Union incursion soon after it commenced and responded quickly. At about 0730 Confederates fired upon Lee’s troops at the bluff, opening the battle and wounding a federal sergeant. Infantry and cavalry troops hurried to the scene. Unsure of the enemy strength facing him, Devens ordered his troops back towards the bluff. Several Union soldiers were killed, wounded, and captured during the ensuing skirmishes. Back at the bluff COL Lee heard the firing inland and expected Devens’ forces to return any minute. He deployed his two companies across the path to protect them as they approached. At about 0830 Devens’ forces arrived and halted in front of Lee. Lee suggested to Devens that he form a line of battle but Devens did not respond. Rather, after about thirty minutes and without a word to Lee, he marched his troops back up the path out of sight in the direction of his previous position to await orders from Stone.
At about the same time, Stone learned that the Confederate camp never existed and that forces under Gorman had engaged in a minor skirmish with Confederates on the Virginia side of the Potomac in the vicinity of Edward’s Ferry. He informed McClellan who responded with a noncommittal “I congratulate your command. Keep me constantly informed.” Stone sent orders to Devens to maintain his position while he sent cavalry to reinforce and scout towards town. Five other companies of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry crossed the Potomac and advanced towards Smart’s Mill on Devens’ right flank. Devens preferred that those companies join him so he summoned them. By 1100 Devens had ten companies of infantry consisting of about 650 men with him.
As all this was going on, Lee sent a message to MAJ Revere on Harrison’s Island, apprising him of the situation and stating that “we are determined to fight.” Thus prompted, Revere unilaterally crossed his five companies from Harrison’s Island and joined Lee. By noon on 21 October Lee had 317 men with him.
Thus far COL Baker was not involved in the operation. At about 1000 Baker met with Stone at Edward’s Ferry. Stone informed Baker that McCall’s division was at Dranesville still not knowing that McCall had withdrawn from there the previous night. Stone ordered Baker to take charge of his right wing at Harrison’s Island and Ball’s Bluff. He told Baker to hold the ground previously taken but not to fight a superior force. He urged Baker to exercise discretion in the execution of his orders and, at Baker’s request, Stone put these orders in writing. Baker’s first course of action was to begin having his own regiments cross the river in support of Devens and Lee.
Late in the morning McClellan began to understand that things in Virginia were not going as well as he anticipated and ordered McCall and BG Nathaniel P. Banks to hold their commands in readiness to support Stone should it come to that. However, any support Stone could expect from that quarter would not be coming quickly as both generals were now quite a march away from Leesburg.
As the battle at Ball’s Bluff continued and intensified, the newly appointed commander of the Union right wing, Baker, remained at Harrison’s Island to oversee the transport of troops across the river. This operation was complicated and delayed by the lack of suitable boats for the job, even with the addition of a few newly found boats during the morning. By the afternoon Stone estimated that he was facing a Confederate force of 4,000, although the actual number was 1,700.
Baker did not reach the battlefield until about 1400. Upon reaching the field Baker told Lee “I congratulate you upon the prospect of a battle” and proceeded to inspect the troops. About then Devens and his men returned to the bluff for a second time and Baker congratulated him for his performance that day. Baker ordered the other colonels to establish a defensive line on the bluff while he summoned reinforcements. Due to a lack of terrain awareness, however, much of the battle line was poorly laid, allowing Confederate forces to approach unseen until they were within yards of the Union troops.
Throughout the afternoon Baker moved about the battlefield without regard to his own safety. Stone believed that Baker was advancing, but in reality, Baker was barely holding his own. Some Union units were running out of ammunition and the number of wounded men mounted. At about 1700 Baker was standing in the open conferring with other officers when he was struck down. COL Lee, believing that he was the next senior commander, claimed command as Baker’s body was borne back across the Potomac. COL Milton Cogswell of the 42d New York Infantry (the Tammany Regiment), however, was actually the senior commander present, so command went to him.
Cogswell believed that trying to retreat down the bluff and cross the river would be suicidal, so he determined to cut his way out of the trap towards Edward’s Ferry. This attempt to break out was thwarted by Virginians and Mississippians, giving Cogswell no choice but to order a desperate retreat down the bluff. This idea was so repulsive to Devens that he obliged Cogswell to repeat it before witnesses.
As darkness fell Union troops fled down the single path that most of them had climbed earlier in the day. As troops mingled on the narrow bank below small numbers of them–wounded and uninjured alike–crowded into the few available boats for the return trip to Maryland.
Confederate riflemen gathered above and began to pepper the federals with small arms fire, causing panic below. Boats riddled with bullets sank and several soldiers jumped into the cold Potomac in the hopes of escaping the carnage. Many were hit by Confederate fire while others simply drowned in the swift current. Bodies of Union soldiers would be found weeks later several miles downstream; many were later recovered from the Potomac around Washington. Men that remained on the beach became the targets of Mississippians that had worked their way to the river south of Ball’s Bluff.
At 1830 Stone learned of Baker’s death. In response he ordered COL Edward W. Hinks to take his 19th Massachusetts Infantry to Harrison’s Island to assist in the evacuation. He also ordered Gorman’s troops, positioned at Edward’s Ferry, to return to the Maryland side. By 2000 most Union troops still on the riverbank at Ball’s Bluff had surrendered (714 in all were captured) but some shooting continued into the night. At 2130 Stone reported the disaster to McClellan and at 2200 President Lincoln learned of the death of his friend. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was over but the clamor that followed it was just beginning.
Forty-nine Union soldiers were killed-in-action at Ball’s Bluff, and dozens of others drowned trying to flee. Hundreds more were listed as wounded, captured, or missing. Among them was the former United States’ Senator from Oregon, and friend of Abraham Lincoln, COL Baker. Had Baker survived this battle it would have been merely a footnote of Civil War history. Instead, his death turned this minor defeat into a major controversy that incited contemporaries and has fascinated historians ever since.
A life-long politician, Baker was a political leader in Illinois, California, and Oregon before the war. He had a friendship with Abraham Lincoln so deep that the future President named his second son, Eddie, in his honor. Even though he had been a colonel in the Mexican War, Baker was no military man. He vacated his seat in the Senate to raise a regiment of volunteers in Pennsylvania, and was about to be commissioned as a general officer at the time of his death.
The reaction to the battle was immediate and fierce. The press and politicians alike laid the blame for the battle on Stone’s shoulders. On the day after the battle Washington newspapers published the text of an order, provided by a Baker subordinate, from Stone to Baker. The order directed Baker to “make a dash on Leesburg.” Upon receipt of the order, Baker was quoted as saying, “I will obey General Stone’s order but it will be my death warrant.” Stone immediate challenged the authenticity of the order, declaring it a forgery. Several versions of these orders appeared in other papers, including one in the Washington Daily Intelligencer, that directed Baker to use his discretion and warning him to avoid a trap.
Congress was especially upset at the death of a popular former member and some were quick to find fault with Stone. Representative P. C. Shanks (R-IN) called Baker’s death a murder and alluded to treasonable acts on the part of those who supported slavery. Although Congressman Shanks did not name Stone, his meaning was clear. Shanks was just one of many voices blaming Stone and demanding that the War Department take action against him.
Stone’s only support came from his boss, MG McClellan. That support was strong but short lived. Soon after the battle McClellan sent a telegram to his division commanders clearly blaming the disaster on Baker while absolving Stone. McClellan also wrote a letter to his wife Ellen, stating, “The man directly to blame for the affair was Col Baker who was killed–he was in command, disregarded entirely the instructions he had received from Stone, & violated all military rules & precautions.” Clearly, McClellan thought that Stone’s performance that day was blameless.
Stone’s official report denied responsibility and accused Baker of disregarding his orders. He addressed the critical issue of whether Baker was given enough boats to bring his men across the Potomac by placing responsibility on Baker. Stone claimed that Baker knew that there was not enough boats and that he accepted the risk. The report explained that Baker’s actions were driven by impetuosity and a desire to fight. In an answer to those who quoted Baker’s description of his orders as a “death-warrant,” Stone wrote in his report that he was disgusted at those who “put false words in the mouth of the brave dead” and that “Colonel Baker received that order from my own hand on the field and at his own request, that he might ‘have some written authority for assuming command’…and seemed delighted at receiving it…”
Despite the support received from MG McClellan and Stone’s official explanations, outrage over the battle grew. Members of the House of Representatives and Senate began to agitate for an inquiry into the debacle at Ball’s Bluff. Stone continued to be the focus of this attention because of his reputation as a Southern sympathizer, largely because of his wife’s Southern heritage. As a result, Stone’s reputation put him under a cloud of suspicion in an environment where anyone might be suspected of secessionist tendencies.
Being married into a Southern family was not unusual; many Union generals and politicians were connected to the South by family ties. In this respect he was not unlike Kentucky born President Lincoln. In Stone’s case, however, these relationships caused rumors of his alleged support for the Southern cause. Speculation about his true loyalties was mixed with vague stories that he ordered the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Stone denied any wrongdoing and insisted that his actions were in accordance with War Department directives. He admitted expelling disruptive escaped slaves from his camps, but denied returning them to captivity.
The rumors and accusations began well before Ball’s Bluff. Early in his command they had reached Massachusetts Governor John Andrews, who denounced Stone’s rumored practices in letters to Massachusetts officers. These letters soon reached the attention of Stone, leading to a bitter exchange of correspondence with Andrews. The Governor protested Stone’s alleged actions because they incensed the abolitionist leanings of Massachusetts. Stone protested what he saw as Andrew’s unwarranted interference with his prerogatives as a commander. Andrew eventually turned the letters over to the fiery U. S. Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA). An acrimonious relationship between Stone and Sumner then ensued only to be exacerbated by Ball’s Bluff.
After the battle, on 18 December 1861, Sumner took to the floor of the Senate to declare that Stone “is now adding to achievements…by engaging in…the work of surrendering fugitive slaves.” Stone responded in a letter made public which denounced the speech as a “slander and a falsehood.” He added, “There can hardly be better proof that a soldier in the field is faithfully performing his duty than the fact that while he is receiving the shot of the public enemy in front he is at the same time receiving viterpuration (sic) of a well-known coward from a safe distance in the rear.” The reference to Sumner’s cowardice alluded to the savage beating Sumner experienced years before at the hands of Democratic Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
Besides Stone’s problems with Governor Andrews and Senator Sumner, he had the problem of being known as a Lincoln opponent. This reputation stemmed partly from a conversation he had with Leonard Swett, a Lincoln friend from Bloomington, Illinois. After Stone’s 1861 work on the defenses of Washington, Swett thanked him on the behalf of the President. Stone’s response made it crystal clear that he was no friend of Lincoln.
And so, in December 1861 Stone had three problems: he had a unsubstantiated reputation of being a Southern sympathizer; he was a known opponent of the President; and, he was the overall commander of a battle that resulted in the death of a popular former Republican senator. His reputation, combined with an environment of increasing distrust of West Point graduates, and the Republican frustration with any conciliatory feelings for the South, combined to create unrest in the Congress.
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was born from that unrest. Committee membership was overwhelmingly Republican, with only one Democratic representative and one Democratic senator being among the seven members. The committee had the authority to investigate any aspect of the war it deemed necessary. Ball’s Bluff was the first issue it took up.
On 5 January 1862, Stone made his first of three appearances before the committee. The deck was stacked against him even before he appeared. The committee had already received confidential information purporting to attest to Stone’s disloyalty. Unaware of what information the committee already had, Stone refused to answer any questions regarding the military plans of MG McClellan. This served to further convince the committee membership that Stone was hiding something. Stone essentially limited his testimony by repeating his statements in his official report, placing responsibility for Baker’s actions squarely on the former senator’s shoulders. Later, the committee took testimony from a Baker subordinate. Even though the subordinate had obvious conflicts of interest and his story was less than credible, the committee accepted his testimony while discounting the veracity of Stone’s statements.
Within a few weeks of hearing from Stone and others, a subcommittee of three members visited Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Even though there is no record of what they discussed, it is plain that Stone’s future was the topic. The next day, 28 January 1862, Stanton ordered Stone’s arrest. The coincidence between Stanton’s interview with the subcommittee and his order to arrest Stone cannot be ignored. Only the intervention of McClellan postponed the order. At McClellan’s urging Stanton allowed Stone to appear before the committee a second time.
Stone appeared before the committee on 31 January, this time under the orders of McClellan but unaware of the pending arrest order. Now he was completely informed of the accusations against him but was not told that his accusers were members of his own command. The committee accused Stone of negligently ignoring the transportation needs of Baker’s command, allowing improper communications with the enemy, and allowing enemy fortifications to be built within range of his guns. Stone was shocked by the charges and left the committee knowing full well that there was widespread suspicion of him. In a desire to clear his name, he asked Stanton to appoint a court inquiry. Stanton responded, “There is no occasion for your inquiry; go back to your command.” Despite this reassurance, hours later Stanton ordered McClellan to carry out his previous arrest order. McClellan, having recently received a sketchy report from his intelligence chief, Allen Pinkerton, that was less than favorable concerning Stone, wasted no time in transmitting the order to the Provost Marshal. Stone was arrested in the middle of the night and spirited away.
Stone’s arrest brought rejoicing in Republican papers while Democratic papers complained of partisan motivations. Military men worried that similar treatment awaited them should they also lose a battle. The arrest caused many to ask why McClellan did not support Stone more vigorously, and to suggest that the committee ordered it. Senator Benjamin F.Wade (R-OH), the committee’s chairman, declared that the committee had nothing to do with Stone’s arrest, claiming that the investigation of Ball’s Bluff was conducted under the orders of Congress.
Stone was imprisoned for six months without benefit of charges or representation. Just as quickly and without sufficient explanation as he was arrested, he was released on 16 August 1862. No charges were filed and no apology offered by the government. He was merely released as the furor over Ball’s Bluff died down. Stone was no longer imprisoned but neither was he restored to command. It would be months until the War Department gave him another assignment. Before that happened, he would appear one more time before his nemesis, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Stone’s third and final appearance before the committee occurred on 27 February 1863, sixteen months after Ball’s Bluff. Unlike his previous appearances, Stone and the committee showed each other a spirit of mutual respect and cordiality. Stone candidly explained his actions at Ball’s Bluff and his reticence to answer questions in previous appearances. He now told the committee that previously they had not asked him specific questions, and his answers were consistent with his orders from MG McClellan.
Stone did not clarify whether he received instructions from McClellan himself or from a staff officer. The committee also asked him who he thought was responsible for his arrest. Surprisingly, Stone did not blame the committee, but suggested that McClellan abandoned him because the general believed himself to be the true target of the Republicans.
Later McClellan appeared before the committee. By this time he was no longer in command and would later become the Democratic nominee to challenge Lincoln in 1864. His testimony was that he only intended for Stone to conduct a demonstration from the Maryland side of the Potomac. He denied any order, or intention, for Stone to send troops across the river. On the subject of Stone’s arrest, McClellan placed responsibility solely on Stanton, claiming that he only carried out the arrest order when he received Pinkerton’s report that corroborated the accusations against Stone. McClellan also blamed Stanton for not arranging a court-martial for Stone. According to McClellan, Stanton refused to arrange a court-martial despite several requests by McClellan. Stanton’s reason, said McClellan, was because the committee had not finished its investigation.
After McClellan testified, the committee issued its final report on Ball’s Bluff that sidestepped the central issue of who was responsible for the debacle. The report criticized Stone in muted terms while denying responsibility for Stone’s imprisonment. That report closed the Ball’s Bluff controversy for the country, but for Stone it would never be closed.
Stone had to wait for months before he was restored to duty even though his services were widely sought after. Stone never received another command but he was finally assigned as Chief of Staff of MG Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf. That assignment lasted only until the unsuccessful Red River Campaign. When that operation failed, a media campaign suggested that Stone might have been responsible. To avoid embarrassment the War Department relieved Stone and refused to reassign him. Even LTG Ulysses S. Grant asked for Stone without result. The futility of the situation was obvious to everyone, including Stone himself. He resigned his commission and left the Army for the final time in September 1864.
What should one make of the Ball’s Bluff affair? When compared to the magnitude of what followed, it was of little military significance. But as a political matter it was huge. The celebrity of Edward Baker and the undeserved reputation of Charles P. Stone, combined with the political differences between the parties at the outset of the Civil War, joined to create a major political drama. On the surface it appeared to be about loyalty and military competence, but in a deeper sense, it was about the contest between the political parties. The prize in this contest was nothing less than the right to run the country during the war. Would a Republican administration under Lincoln run the country or would the Democratic wing of the Congress be in charge? That was the unspoken question.
Stone became a convenient target of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War because of his reputation and bad luck to have commanded at Ball’s Bluff. He was an easy target because he had no political connections and no supporters like his commander, MG George B. McClellan. The committee could not attack McClellan, a man with substantial political and military support. Lincoln’s support of him, even if tentative, was sufficient to insulate McClellan from any criticism or political attack. So, when it was suspected that Stone might be a traitor he became the popular target for those hoping to inflict indirect damage on McClellan.
While this may explain why the Republican members of the committee denounced Stone, it does not explain why Democratic members failed to support him. The two Democratic members, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee and Representative Moses Fowler Odell of New York, were in the distinct minority on the committee. Besides being outnumbered, there were political factors that precluded their support of Stone. Johnson had eyes on the Democratic nomination for the White House in 1864. Had he vigorously supported Stone he would have given an inadvertent boost to his potential political rival, George B. McClellan. Additionally, neither Johnson nor Odell were knowledgeable in military matters. Finally, both had been vocal in their denunciations of disloyalty. Support of Stone in the face of the accusations of treason lodged against him would have been counter to their previous statements. Stone may have expected the Democratic members of the committee to support him, but they could not. If they were perceived to be supporting a traitor, their political careers would have been over. Any vigorous support of Stone was a political risk that Johnson and Odell could not take. The politically safe route was for them to stand by as Republicans attacked Stone.
Even if Stone had no expectations of support from Democrats, he certainly should have expected his commander to support him. After all, it was McClellan who ordered him to operate in the Leesburg area. Stone also must have been aware that McClellan supported him in public and private during the immediate aftermath of Ball’s Bluff. With that in mind the question remains, why did McClellan fail to support Stone during his appearances before the committee?
Perhaps it has something to do with McClellan’s political shrewdness. McClellan must have realized that with Stone in the sights of the committee, it would not be long before they might set their sights on himself. Better to let his subordinate twist in the wind than to put him at risk by being too visible. A conversation McClellan had about that time with a member of Stone’s staff betrays the general’s attitude. McClellan told the officer, speaking of the committee’s dealing with Stone, “They want a victim.” “Yes,” replied the officer, “and when they have once tasted blood, got one victim, no one can tell who will be the next victim.” The inference clearly being that McClellan himself might be next. With the recognition that he was potentially the next target of the committee, McClellan faded into the background, allowing the spotlight of suspicion to cast solely upon Stone.
All McClellan needed at this point was a safe excuse to completely abandon Stone. His intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton, provided one by producing a vague and hardly credible report suggesting that Stone was respected in Confederate circles. McClellan accepted this piece of gossip as evidence of Stone’s disloyalty. It was not much, but it was enough to give McClellan the justification to carry out Stanton’s order to arrest Stone.
With Stone imprisoned, the heat was off of McClellan. The committee had their victim and McClellan protected himself against those who might accuse him of being a Southern sympathizer. He continued commanding the Army of the Potomac until relieved by President Lincoln in November 1862. As Senator Johnson feared, McClellan was the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1864. The committee never seriously targeted him as it went on to investigate other military controversies.
Once he resigned from the Army, Stone continued his career in other venues. After the war he served as superintendent of a Virginia mining company and later traveled to Egypt where he served in the Egyptian Army for thirteen years, rising to the position of Chief of Staff before returning to the United States. He then held a number of engineer positions, including a job where he worked on the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.
Charles P. Stone died at the age of 62 on 24 January 1887 and is buried at West Point. A man of many accomplishments, he is little known outside the small circle of Civil War historians and buffs. Had he not been victimized by the rising hysteria after Ball’s Bluff, who knows what his historical legacy would be? Perhaps we would remember him in the same vein as the other greats of military history instead of the victim of political machinations.
As it happened, without credible evidence of treasonous action or military dereliction, Stone was accused and imprisoned without charges or trial to satisfy the political hunger of two competing interests. Even though the United States was fighting a war for its own identity and existence, two political parties found the time and resources to fight amongst themselves, using an unfortunate soldier as their pawn. Only when his political usefulness passed was he released without explanation or apology. Political ambitions ruined him militarily and personally, and he became a defenseless scapegoat for the impetuous actions of a political soldier. It is sad that the country’s political leaders could divert themselves from the most contentious issues of our history to launch an unwarranted attack on a man who was risking his all to protect them. Sadder still is that Stone’s commander would abandon him, and allow him to be a scapegoat, as a self-protection measure.