Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stone Casts Out from Rockville

Charles Stone was almost literally a man pulled between two armies. But while many of his border state contemporaries in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Virginia, and Missouri felt emotionally pulled to fight for the north or south, Stone was a Union man through and through. Rather, Stone had the responsibility of guarding roughly 60 miles of the Potomac River, from Washington to Harper's Ferry. But, in a reoccurring theme of Stone's life, it was up to him to figure out how to get that task done.

Even by summer 1861, neither the North nor the South had an explicit strategic plan (the South would never have one). Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had a pretty clear idea of a strategy that he would tell to anyone who would listen, but Lincoln's cabinet had been so busy trying to make sure Washington wasn't captured, they hadn't approved it yet. In the meantime, Scott grumpily instituted a cordon defense, a line of strong points to keep an enemy from getting past (the South had set up a cordon as well, though Beauregard was busy unsuccessfully trying to convince Jefferson Davis it was a bad idea and to put all the forces under him).

Red markers show the major crossings west of the city, blue show positions of Stone's units on June 13, 1861, and tents indicate locales of major armies. View Rockville Expedition for fully interactive map.

The Potomac River formed the basic dividing line between the two sides with armies facing off at Harper's Ferry and in Northern Virginia. All fine and good to stop major movements, but in between, all along the Potomac, there were shallow spots that could be forded. Scott had asked Stone to guard those fords, to fill in the gaps on the cordon and to stop the steady stream of supplies from Baltimore to Leesburg.

Stone was colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the very first leader of that unit (still in service today, nicknamed "The Golden Dragons" in subsequent wars). The 14th had been founded in May when, with Fort Sumter already captured, Lincoln decided to expand the size of the professional (called the "regular") army. The regiment was supposed to be three battalions, each of eight companies (for a total of 2,400 men - 100 x 8 x 3 - which would make it more the size of modern regiments, rather than the 1,000 of Civil War volunteer regiments), but only two battalions had been raised so far.

Charles Stone and his daughter, Hettie, in 1863
But this wasn't the first unit that Stone had put together. A veteran of the Mexican War and a West Point grad (he graduated 7th out of 41 in 1845), Stone had the misfortune of graduating at a time when the Army was overcrowded with officers and there were no open slots at the entry grade of second lieutenant. He had to spend two years as a brevet second lieutenant before he could be promoted to join the officer corps officially, by which time he was already in Mexico with Scott's army. He participated in capturing Mexico City, but then went off an a side expedition to plant a flag on top of Popocatepetl, Mexico's second highest peak and an active volcano. They left an American flag at the peak.

Stone liked Mexico, returning there in 1857 after a failed banking career in California, to map the states of Sonora and Baja California. In the winter of 1860 he finished his survey and traveled to Washington, DC so he could write and publish a book on the previous three years' research, which put him in the city on Ne Years' Eve 1860 where he ran into Winfield Scott, his old commander, in town to push the Buchanan Administration into taking action. The two had a drink and talked about Mexico City, but Scott had to run to meet with the President. As Stone walked him to his carriage, he related after the war, Scott

Suddenly stopped and faced me, saying: "How is the feeling in the District of Columbia? What proportion of the population would sustain the Government by force, if necessary?"
    "It is my belief," I replied that two-third of the fighting stock of this population would sustain the Government in defending itself...but they are uncertain as to what can be done...and they have no rallying-point."
    The general walked the room again in silence. The carriage came to the door... [and] as he was leaving he turned suddenly, looked me in the face, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said:
    "These people have no rallying-point. Make yourself that rallying-point."

Scott was dead by the time Stone published that account, so there is no one to contradict his version of events, but what is certainly true is that the next morning Stone was inspector general of the DC militia and (in a not-quite-provable claim) the first volunteer of the Civil War. He rewarded Scott's faith by uncovering a scheme whereby Buchanon's Secretary of War (soon-to-be Confederate general John B. Floyd) and the head of the DC militia were smuggling arms from the city arsenal to Confederates in Virginia (and possibly planning to seize Lincoln when he arrived). Thanks to Stone's careful work, Lincoln's inauguration was guarded by loyal troops. The new administration made him a colonel in the regular army and gave him the 14th Infantry.

Now he was the man that Scott trusted to protect the fords. He set out with the 14th, two volunteer regiments, four battalions of his old DC militia, two companies of cavalry, and two cannon, in order to cover 60 miles of Potomac. Leaving a battalion of DC militia at Tenallytown (the historic spelling of Tenleytown, closer to the spelling of 1790 tavern-owner John Tenally) in case he needed to retreat back to the city, Stone made it to Rockville on June 11. He reported that Rockville was "about one-half rabid secessionists, calling themselves 'states-rights' men" and that "couriers are said to have started immediately on the arrival of the first troops at Rockville, to give notice to the enemy at Harper's Ferry of our advance."

The Aqueduct at Seneca Creek today
By June 13, 150 years ago yesterday, Stone had successfully posted defenders at two of the five major crossings of the Potomac between Washington and Harper's Ferry (a ferry near the aqueduct at Seneca Creek and the ferry near Great Falls. The loyal Federal troops fanned out on the day Marylanders went to the poll to elect Congressional representatives (though the Constitution grants Congress the power to set rules for elections of its members, that power was barely exercised for the first 100 years of the nation, and states held their Congressional elections willy-nilly). "The value of the troops here was most opportune," Stone noted in his report to Scott's staffer that night. "The loyal citizens were under most uncomfortable pressure and doubtless would have had difficulty casting unbiased votes at the election today." The loyal citizens of Maryland sent a loyalist Congressional delegation to Washington when the results were tallied.

"A fine spirit seems to be general in the command," Stone reported, "And it is well supplied with everything, except medical attention in the District of Columbia Volunteers." Perhaps he had not quite separated himself from his temporary job as inspector general, because he went on to list the medical deficiencies and impatiently add "no provision has been made for them, although I have long since and repeatedly made the proper recommendations on the subject."

Stone's concern about the DC militia in the event of battle is palpable, and that first action came 150 years ago today. At 8:00 am, Stone sent a rider with a note saying that "I leave within the hour [from Rockville] taking with me the cavalry force to make a reconnaissance beyond Poolesville, towards the ferries, where there are said to be 300 to 400 of the enemy. I do not credit the report, but, if true, it will not be difficult to capture them." These were brave words, considering how spread out his force was, but if things broke right, he could combine the two battalions at Seneca Creek and Great Falls and overwhelm the Confederates. He adds at the end as an afterthought, "I enclose the election returns of this region, showing a large majority for the Union candidate for Congress."

But Stone's battle was not to be. Like most reports throughout the war, especially in its early days, the opposing force of unknown size backed down and Seneca Creek remained safely in the hands of Stones' men. Known to history as a "skirmish", the event was not serious enough that an official report was saved for the archives (if one was even found). But to Stone it was a sign that the "states-rights men" of Maryland around the Potomac were watching his every move and passing it on to the Confederates, and maybe even taking up arms themselves. It was a reminder that would stick with Stone over the next several weeks.

Stone's account of meeting with Scott taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, ed. Ned Bradford,Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., New York, 1956, pp. 12-13. Thanks, Whitney.

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