Friday, December 23, 2011

Public Shot

The further adventures of Charles P. Stone's foot in his mouth

Charles P. Stone was furious when he sat down to write on December 23. Just a few days earlier, his own State's senator, Charles Sumner (R-MA), had denounced him on the Floor of the U.S. Senate. Angry that the Lincoln Administration and the War Department were forcing Massachusetts soldiers to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner's thundering denunciation of the policy dragged Stone to the center of the fight between anti-slavery Republicans and the conservative prosecutors of the war. Sumner had sarcastically said that:
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.
If Sumner dragged Stone into the middle of the national spotlight, it was Stone who nailed himself to the ground so firmly there was no escaping. When a friend gave Stone a copy of Sumner's remarks, transcribed in the local papers, Stone sat down to angrily rebut the Senator's criticism. He argued that it was his orders and his responsibility to enforce the laws of the nation, including the fugitive slave law, and that only a strict respect for property rights of loyal civilians as understood before the war began would lead to a quick end and a reunion of the country (in fact, he had sent the commander of the expedition to Ball's Bluff with standing orders to shoot any soldier who plundered).

But if Stone's self-confidence was his greatest virtue, the arrogance it bred was his greatest vice. And his fury at Sumner's perceived mangling of his carefully considered position brought out the worst in Stone. The letter he wrote on December 23 was the first time since Ball's Bluff when he addressed anyone other than personal friends about the hot water he had found himself in outside of the official military channels, a major breach of personal decorum for Stone. Worse, he concluded his letter with words meant to insult:
Please accept my thanks for the speech in which you use my name... 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 public shot of the enemy in front he is at the same time receiving viterpuration [sic] of a well-known coward from a safe distance in the rear.
Never politically savvy, Stone probably did not realize he was making himself Enemy No. 1 of the group of Republicans that would come to be known as the Radical Republicans (a name full of baggage and not contemporary to 1861, so I'll avoid it for now). Sumner took the letter immediately to Lincoln, when he received it. Sumner and his allies believed that Stone's actions at Ball's Bluff had been either gross mismanagement or outright treason, and that Lincoln's good friend, Senator Edward Baker, had paid the price to either save Stone's debacle or thwart Stone's malfeasance. The letter's conclusion seemed to offer proof that Stone was malicious.

Lincoln, who had closely interviewed Stone about Baker's death, was deeply disturbed, but told Sumner that though he would not have written such cruel words himself, he believed Stone was probably within his rights after the harsh treatment Sumner had given him on the Floor. Not recorded is what Lincoln responded to Sumner's original speech, considering it was his Administration's policy that Sumner was following.

Whatever Lincoln's feelings, Sumner also took the letter to Senators Benjamin Wade (R-OH) and Zachariah Chandler (R-MI), the top two members of the newly formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The investigation into what happened at Ball's Bluff now had a principal subject of investigation.

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