Wherein we begin the tribulations of Charles P. Stone
The Senate had changed since it last met in the summer. In the days following the Union defeat at Bull Run (actually, before it too) the top critics of the Lincoln Administration were Democratic Senators John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky and Trusten Polk from Missouri. Neither was present when the Senate reconvened at the beginning of December. Breckinridge had fled to the Confederacy and was expelled December 4, but Polk's whereabouts (as well of those of his fellow Missouri Senator Wade Johnson) were unknown. It was suspected (correctly) that both had joined the Confederates, and on December 18 the Senate debated expelling two more of their colleagues. The fourth missing member was Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, who had been killed leading troops at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in late October.
Outside the Senate, the war effort had changed to. The top military adviser was now Maj. General George B. McClellan, who had advocated a policy of holding on all fronts while the Army of the Potomac, which he also commanded, was built up for an advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond. Unfortunately, the Lincoln administration still favored a policy closer to that devised by the former general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, which relied on a blockade of the South and controlling the Mississippi River to break the control of secessionists over Southern State governments.
The combination of traitors in their midst and strategic shifts brought back a Senate (and House) much more aggressive about overseeing the Administration's execution of the war. One of their very first acts when returning was to create a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Chaired by Senator Benjamin Wade (D-OH). At the top of the Committee's list of priorities was to find out what had happened at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff.
Unfortunately, the increased scrutiny from Congress was also taking on a more vindictive tone, as Members saw signs of traitors everywhere in the rapidly built-up army. On December 18, Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) took to the floor to target Brig. General Charles P. Stone, who had commanded Baker, a friend of Sumner's, at Ball's Bluff.
Stone was a Massachusetts man and had played an early roll in weeding out Confederate sympathizers in the District of Columbia militia and securing the capital (including providing security for Lincoln's inauguration). He had been a favorite of Winfield Scott, and had an early independent assignment as commander of the Rockville Expedition, but he had managed to also secure the respect of George McClellan, receiving an early tap to head one of the Army of the Potomac's divisions. Sumner and Stone should have gotten along well.
But Charles Stone was rapidly becoming one of the most hated generals in the Northern armies. It started in the feverish reporting on the death of Edward Baker. On October 28, the day of Baker's funeral, Washington's local paper, The Evening Star, ran a copy of Stone's orders to Baker that day, telling him to seize Leesburg at all hazards. "I will obey General Stone's order," Baker said, according to the paper, "but it will be my death warrant." The only problem was none of it was true.
The report electrified the Republican Party who demanded an investigation in November. When the Administration indicated it was satisfied with the inquiries of McClellan, who determined publicly the entire affair was an accident and privately that it was Baker's fault, Republican Senators got the idea for the Joint Committee. Senator Wade and Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler, in particular, suspected the Lincoln Administration was irresolute in their prosecution of the war and advancement of Republican ideals.
They were also angry that the first Republican candidate for President, Maj. General John C. Fremont, had been relieved of command in Missouri for freeing the slaves of rebellious citizens of that state and for generally angering the Blair family, longtime Democratic stalwarts who had only switched to the Republican side in the latest election (in fact, patriarch Francis P. Blair had helped found the Democratic Party). Fremont had been removed from command after a victorious battle, meanwhile Stone's disaster had gone unpunished.
Stone made things worse when he came out swinging against his detractors. He called the order printed in the Star and other newspapers a "shameless forgery" in his own letters to the paper, but went a step further by sharply criticizing Baker for disregarding his true orders, which clearly stated that no attempt should be made to hold on the Virginia side of the Potomac if there were not sufficient means for reinforcing them (i.e. enough boats). "The plain truth," Stone wrote in a letter to the Adjutant General that made its way to the press, "is that this brave and impetuous soldier was determined at all hazards to bring on an action, and made use of the discretion allowed him to do so."
Sumner was drawn into the fight further by the Massachusetts men under Stone's command who had fought at Ball's Bluff. Stone was something of a martinet, a prim and proper soldier who insisted his men be so as well. At the beginning of 1861, the most men he had ever held to his high standards was one or two in addition to himself. By October, just ten months later, he led a division of over 10,000 men, and his inexperience at applying those standards had made him many enemies.
After Ball's Bluff, Stone pushed his Massachusetts men over the edge. Over the course of the scout to Virginia, the battle, and the ensuing retreat, a handful of black men had wound up Stone's Poolesville camp. According to Stone's friend who was then Assistant Adjutant General at the War Office, Edward Townsend, at least a few of these men were slaves of Leesburg's mill owner. Townsend wrote that they wanted to return to their families (and that they liked their master), and so Stone sent them over under a flag of truce a few weeks later.
According to the Massachusetts men, however, Stone had ordered the men to shackle them as escaped slaves at the request of Virginia slave catchers that had approached him seeking their return. Under duress, the men obeyed. Whichever the case (and the Massachusetts men seem to have the more plausible story, since Townsend's was written well after the war, when the uncomfortable early policy of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law was glossed over), the colonel of the regiment sent a letter to the Governor of Massachusetts, who ordered him to not return any more slaves and forwarded the complaint to Senator Sumner.
It was this letter that was the topic of Sumner's biting oration on the Senate Floor, December 18.
Brigadier General Stone, the well-known commander of Ball's Bluff, is now adding to his achievements there by engaging ably and actively in the work of surrendering fugitive slaves. He does this, sir, most successfully. He is victorious when the simple question is whether a fugitive slave shall be surrendered to a rebel.Sumner announced he was filing an official grievance with the War Department, and announced his intention to support legislation being introduced by Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) to free escaped slaves from rebellious owners.
But it also marked the formal beginning of a more personal war between Stone and the Republican Congress. It was Stone's turn to respond, and he would.