February 9, 1862 (Sunday)
Nearly four months had passed since the Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff. Though it was no Manassas, it had become symbolic of the troubles of the Union army in the east. During the battle, the officer responsible for much of the disaster, Edward Baker, a US Senator playing colonel, was killed. This left a gnawing pain in the stomach of Washington for lack of someone to blame. Eyes quickly turned to the commanding officer, General Charles Stone.
Prior to Ball’s Bluff, Stone had had an illustrious military career. He graduated seventh in his class at West Point and fought in the Mexican War before heading west. As war became reality, Stone gained the favor and respect of General Winfield Scott and, later, of General McClellan. Due to his views that slavery should not be an issue in the conflict, he gained neither the favor nor respect of the Radical Republicans. Soon, he found himself dancing precariously on the edge of downfall.
A month or so after Ball’s Bluff, a mild hysteria of disloyalty swept through the capital. Politicians and even ranking officers saw secessionists lurking behind every corner. The defeat at Ball’s Bluff was so nearly perfect that no other explanation aside from treason could suffice. There was a rumor that Confederate General “Shanks” Evans, commander of the Rebel forces at Ball’s Bluff, and a friend of Stone’s, had been in collusion.
In December, the New York Tribune quoted Stone calling the Rebels “gentlemen,” and claiming that “many of them are my intimate friends,” in a one-sided story speculating that Stone would soon defect to the other side.1
On the same day that the Tribune ran the damning article, Stone was called to appear before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. On January 5th, he was seated before them.
At first, the committee, who held no love for McClellan, bombarded Stone with questions about the possibility of a winter campaign. Stone, following McClellan’s instructions, said little about it. The questions then turned to the rumors that he had returned escaped slaves (in Maryland, a loyal state, and so exempt from the Confiscation Act of 1861) to their owners. Stone explained that while he had never done so, he also had no right to declare martial law in a loyal state. If he returned any slaves, said Stone, it was in accordance to the law of Maryland, which he was obliged to follow.
While in line with Lincoln’s own views at the time, it did not go over well with the Joint Committee, who then turned to matters of Ball’s Bluff. During their questioning, Stone was incredibly frank. He had no idea what was truly at stake. While he did not pass the buck or throw Senator Baker under the bus, he was honest about Baker’s mistakes.2
After the interrogation, Stone returned to his command along the Potomac. Though many historians claim that Stone had no idea of the machinations against him in Washington, he must have had at least an inkling. A speech on the floor of the House, two days after Stone’s testimony, did everything but outwardly accuse him of ineptitude and betrayal. After reading the speech in the papers, Stone wrote to McClellan, asking if he “ought to ask for a Court of Inquiry.”
McClellan told him that it wouldn’t have to come to that, and showed him the dispatch he (McClellan) sent to President Lincoln, absolving Stone of any blame for Ball’s Bluff. Stone was more or less satisfied.
If they Joint Committee had set their sights upon McClellan, they had to know by this time that he was untouchable. And so they focused upon Stone. With each new interrogation concerning Ball’s Bluff, the Committee led, misled, and encouraged those called before it to question and denounce not only Stone’s military leadership, but his personal character. Stone was never given the opportunity to cross examine or even face those who accused him. He was never even allowed to view the so-called evidence against him.
The final report of the Joint Committee concluded that General Stone had ordered Col. Baker to cross the Potomac. He had, they claimed, sent Baker and his men to their deaths.
They handed their report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in late January. On the 28th of that month, Stanton verbally ordered McClellan to arrest General Stone. McClellan refused to do it unless it was in writing. Stanton wrote it himself, signed it and handed it to McClellan, who argued that he should not have to do it.
Nevertheless, a few days later, McClellan called Stone to Washington, but rather than arrest him, he relieved him of his command and went himself (that is, McClellan went) before the Joint Committee. He told them that Stone was not under arrest, but should be allowed to answer any questions concerning his loyalty.
The questioning did not go well at all. The committee accused Stone of communicating freely with the enemy. This was an outright lie, which Stone defended voraciously. His defense, it seems, was sufficient and convincing enough to appease even Secretary Stanton. On February 7, Stanton told Stone that no charges were being brought against him.
But then Allen Pinkerton, McClellan’s intelligence officer, stepped in. Apparently, a civilian in Leesburg, Virginia made a statement that Stone was indeed disloyal. He was “very popular with the Rebel officers at Leesburg and with all secessionists in that vicinity.” He claimed that many of the locals doubted Stone’s loyalty to the Union and believed that his conduct at Ball’s Bluff proved it. There was also evidence that Stone had returned escaped slaves to the Virginian owners.
When Pinkerton submitted the report to McClellan, the General agreed that it was too important to ignore. That same night, he took it to Secretary Stanton, who again ordered Stone’s arrest.
The next day, McClellan composed the order. Through the provost marshal, General George Sykes was verbally ordered to arrest General Stone, an old friend and West Point classmate. Sykes was given no written order, nor was he told the reason for the arrest.
Very early in the morning of this date (around midnight of February 9), Sykes, accompanied by eighteen men from the 3rd US Infantry, arrested Stone as he was entering his room at Willard’s Hotel. Sykes suggested that Stone changed into civilian clothes, as he was to be taken to Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor.
“Why, Fort Lafayette is where they send secessionists,” replied Stone.
After a few reassuring words to his wife, Stone was escorted to a nearby building where he was kept under guard until morning, when he was taken by train to Fort Lafayette. It would take two days to arrive at the harbor fort.3