Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Disloyal Man

Wherein the Joint Committee checks every Stone

Fort Corcoran [Rosslyn] (Harper's Weekly)
January 5, 1862 was a Sunday, and in the town of Hancock, Maryland, a small force of Union troops under Brig. General Frederick Lander was receiving an ultimatum from Stonewall Jackson. Lander's men had been chased out of Bath the day before [today, in West Virginia, and primarily known by its unofficial name, Berkeley Springs]. Lander arrived during the day on January 5 and was told by Jackson that the town would be shelled if the Northerners didn't abandon it. With characteristic bravado, Lander told his envoy (Colonel Turner Ashby) to "bombard and be damned!... He will injure more of his friends than he will of the enemy, for this is a damned secesh place anyhow!" Lander then scribbled a more professional note for Ashby, and sent a message back to Washington for reinforcements. But the environment it would find in Washington was one that pointedly illustrates the differences between 1861 and 1862.

Lander was in charge of the Department of Harper's Ferry and Cumberland, located on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, between, not surprisingly, Cumberland and Harper's Ferry, but including a 30 mile patch of land on the southern side of the river (which, modified based on later military organizations, became the basis for that strange nub in the West Virginia panhandle, established in 1863). This little department had been established by Winfield Scott months earlier, because Lander pledged to be more aggressive than the Army of the Potomac's George McClellan and reopen the B&O Railroad to freight traffic, but he had been delayed in reaching his command. In the meantime, McClellan had succeeded Scott as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army and Lander's department had been added to the Army of the Potomac as a division (despite McClellan not countermanding the order that it was an independent command).

So Lander sent his request down the line to the next division commander, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, in Frederick, Maryland. Banks, who heartily shared Lander's belief that an immediate offensive was needed to gain Winchester and control of the lower Shenandoah Valley as well as reopen the B&O, would have sent the request on down the line. Next in line was the division of Brig. General Charles P. Stone, headquartered in Poolesville (though the request probably would have taken the direct route from Frederick, through Gaithersburg and Rockville). Next were the divisions of Brig. Generals George McCall (the Pennsylvania Reserves) and W.F. "Baldy" Smith, placed on the Virginia side of the Potomac (in Langley and Lewinsville, respectively), completing the right-wing of the Army of the Potomac.

What the request for reinforcements found when it reached Washington was a headquarters unprepared to act on it. McClellan had been out of action for approximately two weeks after a bout of malaria, a disease he had picked up during the Mexican War. The President and his Cabinet had just concluded an intense diplomatic crisis (the Trent Affair) and had turned their thoughts back to the war, but were only beginning to become concerned that their top general had given them no plans and no indication of plans.

Congress, on the other hand, was very deeply concerned. Specifically, it was Republicans from a group known as the "Radicals", politicians whose common political motivation was that the United States had been under the control of a Slave Power of Southern aristocratic planters, that the Slave Power had engaged in active rebellion, and that only a harsh and complete subjugation of the Slave Power, followed by a complete reorganization of its institutions, could save the Union. This group, which included newspaper editor Horace Greeley, Senators Charles Sumner (R-MA), Benjamin Wade (R-OH), and Zachariah Chandler (R-MI), and Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA9), was furious that over a year had passed since secession and the South was still in rebellion.

When their fellow Radical Republican Senator Edward Baker (R-OR) was killed at a battle at Ball's Bluff, Virginia, Chandler initiated a new committee to be formed with members of both houses to investigate the ongoing failures of the war. Chandler and his fellow Radicals believed that the answer was widespread, systematic sabotage by the conservative officer corps of the U.S. Army, most of whom were Democrats and most of whom made little secret of their dislike of abolition, free labor, infrastructure investment, and tariffs that were part of their political agenda.

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had Wade as chair, with Chandler and three House Republicans on the majority side, and Senator Andrew Johnson (D-TN) with one other Senate Democrat and one House Democrat as the minority. They were tasked specifically with investigating Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, but immediately began to look into the failings of the U.S. Army's officer corps as a whole. They started with summoning McClellan himself, who they identified as the head of the problem, since Little Mac was already being courted by the Democratic Party. But he was sick with malaria and couldn't come (he actually promised to on December 22, and then didn't show), so they next tried to get Maj. General John C. Fremont to testify, the first Republican presidential candidate in history and the former military commander of the Department of the West, relieved because he issued a unilateral decree freeing Missouri's slaves in areas in rebellion. But he was unavailable as well.

So instead they turned to McClellan's division commanders. The Committee met in secret, but according to a journal published in 1863, their first witness was Brig. General Samuel P. Heintzelman, a career U.S. Army officer, but one who had been slighted again and again by McClellan, when he was passed over to command a division repeatedly before the commanding general ran out of excuses. On December 26, three more division commanders -- Irvin McDowell, James Wadsworth, and McClellan favorite William B. Franklin -- were interviewed.

The following week saw a parade of McClellan's subordinates before the committee, and the witnesses were beginning to take on a more partisan tone, partially based on the clear bias of the questions by the Radical Republicans (the Democrats were non-entities) and partially based on the clear prejudice developing among the military officers as more and more of them reported back on their questioning. On one side that week were the friends of the Radical Republicans, such as Frederick Lander, who delivered a scathing testimony about the need for an offensive on Winchester. On the other were the members of the new clique of commanding officers, promoted personally by McClellan, like Fitz John Porter.

While Lander's request for reinforcements was processed towards rejection by the War Department, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue the Joint Committee was meeting for a Sunday session to interview one of their top suspects for the Slave Power conspiracy within the officer corps, Charles P. Stone. Stone had been Baker's commanding officer at Ball's Bluff, and had managed to immerse himself in controversy by overreacting to insinuations in the press that he had left Baker to die by criticizing the martyred Senator. Then he had gotten into a tiff with the Governor of Massachusetts over accusations from troops in his division who didn't like him, which had resulted in a denunciation by Sumner on the Senate floor. Stone responded poorly to that as well, and suddenly he was target number two (after McClellan) for the Radicals.

The testimony of the secret session released in 1863 was almost certainly scrubbed by members of the Committee, but what survives of the transcript reveal an interview spiraling out of control. Senator Wade began the questioning himself, trying immediately to establish that McClellan ought to be attacking by asking Stone based on his army training, "what is your opinion with regard to making an advance movement--an aggressive movement--upon the enemy this season?" Stone, perhaps warned ahead of time, refused to answer, saying it was dependent on too many factors that he did not know. Wade, perhaps having heard that non-answer too many times, insisted that his military responsibilities as division commander required him to know all the details of troop numbers and positions that were required to answer.

Stone bit back:
I try to study the maps of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Louisiana as much as I can. But I find if I do my own duty, in my own division, I have almost as much as I can do for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four. I am not able to keep up a knowledge of the different positions of the corps of the army. I have not even the opportunity that you gentlemen have for that.
Trying again, Wade returned to the question of whether there was any obvious obstacle to a forward movement, to which Stone petulantly asked "A movement where?", and wherever he might recommend making it. "I would ask you your own plan," Wade explained, just like he had asked the other division commanders of the right-wing of the army, all of whom had testified already, except for Nathaniel Banks.

"If I had any plans," Stone answered (one imagines triumphantly, when reading the transcript), "I should not wish to tell them, even to my aide-de-camp." Wade acknowledged he'd been outmaneuvered with a "that might be so," but Stone didn't drop it, instead adding "or to anybody else, certainly to no one outside of him. If I had plans of operation, I would not confide them to my own staff, to have them discussed by them, until the moment came to put them in action."

Wade turned the topic to Ball's Bluff. Wild stories had spread since the battle, and even today it's hard to reconstruct the precise order of events. The Committee members in particular had latched on to a story that Stone had ordered Baker without adequate preparation, which Baker had protested. But the arrogant West Pointer had told the volunteer commander to go anyway, and left him to die. Stone was ready for this, since various versions of the story had been spreading wildly in the press, and had prepared extensively to explain to the Committee exactly what had happened at Ball's Bluff. Unfortunately, it came off as a lecture by an arrogant West Pointer that confirmed all the suspicions of the Radicals about his character.

Worse, he gave them his unvarnished opinion about their beloved Baker in even greater detail than before.
I said [to Colonel Devens' messenger] I had given the control of that movement [at Ball's Bluff] to Colonel Baker, and whatever he deemed right about that he would do; that I could not interfere there. The next message I received was from Colonel Baker; that he was engaged in throwing over his whole force; that Colonel Devens had been engaged in front. But I should say here that I had carefully instructed him in the morning that he was not to fight a superior force there; that if, in this observation of Colonel Devens, the advance should come upon a strong force, he was to retire suddenly into intrenchments that I had prepared on Harrison's Island... The whole story after that is that Colonel Baker chose to bring on a battle. He brought it on, and I am sorry to say handled his troops unskillfully in it, and a disaster occurred which ought not to have.
Stone then proceeded to criticize Baker's supervision of the crossing of men over boats to the Virginia side of the river (he should have delegated the task), his placement of artillery (it should have been behind cover, or, better yet, left in Maryland), and his positioning during the unfolding battle (he should have been on the Virginia side, near the action, a borderline accusation of cowardice). Incredulous at Stone's offensive, Wade asked directly: "You did not give Colonel Baker an order to cross?"

"No, sir, I did not," Stone answered. Then, referring to the key to his defense, a piece of evidence which proved Baker had made his own decision to fight: "Fortunately, there was a written order found in his hat, in which I gave him discretionary orders."

More confident, Stone replied flippantly (at least in the transcript, which Stone never disputed) to Congressman Daniel Gooch (he had actually replaced Nathaniel Banks in Congress) almost flippantly when the Massachusetts Republican asked him how many of the 6,000 men that Baker had under his command could have been taken across the river to Ball's Bluff to avert being outnumbered.
Your question takes a wide scope. Had 3,000 men been over before two o'clock in the afternoon, he could have had the next six months to have brought over the rest. He could have brought over enough before two o'clock in the afternoon, with the facilities he had, if properly managed, to have crushed out the force there.
Wade shifted gears again, returning to McClellan, but this time in the context of Ball's Bluff. Stone had been asked to make a slight demonstration in order to scare the Confederates out of Leesburg, in conjunction with a large reconnaissance by McCall's Division at Dranesville. So how had that turned into the smaller reconnaissance by Stone that resulted in a battle and Baker's death? Stone replied that he had made the demonstration (again, devolving into West Point professor mode as he explained) and also later made a reconnaissance based on a scouting report that had returned false information.

Then he and Wade got into an existential confrontation about McClellan's order to McCall to carry out the larger reconnaissance of Leesburg was even important:
Wade: We want to Know whether, in a military point of view, it is important for our troops to hold Leesburg.
Stone: It may be very important, or not at all so, to occupy Leesburg; the importance depending upon the relations of the enemy and the balance of our army to it.
Wade: If it had not been by you deemed important, you would not have ordered the reconnaissance, I suppose.
Stone: Not necessarily that, because I ought to know the strength and position of my enemy in front of me at all times, no matter what the importance of his position is.
Angering, Wade wanted to know if Stone even knew about the current enemy position at Leesburg position. "I ride over the hills and look over that way, and I examine the ground over there by balloon as often as whether permits," Stone told him, adding that he reported it all to McClellan. "I do not feel at liberty to state these matters myself, because that is direct military information."

"I do not care particularly about it," Wade snapped.

He turned to the charge of slave-catching, and Stone gave a reply very similar to the one he had given Sumner, denying that he returned any slaves to slave-owners in rebellion, and blasting the accusation as "slander that has been circulated very freely, and, I am sorry to say, by men in official position." Wade protested that he was not slandering Stone by asking, "but I have seen that statement in the papers."

"It has been uttered on the floor of the Senate," Stone needlessly reminded him, then went on to outline his legal responsibilities and complain about "the governor of a State", which everyone knew to be Massachusetts, for spreading insubordination by ordering a lieutenant colonel to disobey his general.

"Suppose you know the claimant [of a runaway slave] is a rebel slaveholder, although he has a civil process and a [Maryland] constable there," George Julian (R-IN5) asked. "Would you feel it to be your duty to give up the fugitive?"

Stone played legalistic: "Let me understand you. You say a 'rebel slaveholder'?"

"I mean a disloyal man," Julian explained. "I am supposing that you know him to be a disloyal man."

Instead of simply saying he would not return the slave, as contraband, Stone split hairs: "In arms against the United States?"

The exchange continued before Stone got to the concluding point, but underscored his belief that only a few Southerners were leading the rebellion and most people would welcome reunion with the North, so long as their lives and property were not threatened by suppression of the rebellion. Of all the tumultuous testimony, it is the moment that most clearly exposes the difference between Stone and Julian, and thereby between McClellan and Wade, Democrats and Radical Republicans.

For Stone, McClellan, and Democrats, the war must be prosecuted surgically, harming only those who were in arms against the United States. For Wade and the Radical Republicans, the Slave Power was supported by legions of Southerners and Northerners, Democrats specifically, such as Baker's old nemesis Senator John C. Breckinridge, who had actually fled to the Confederacy. Their acquiescence allowed a system of oppression not just of black slaves, but of all non-planter whites. Only by breaking the passive support of the Slave Power, could those who took up arms be defeated. And that included passive support in the North.

Politically tone-deaf and confident in his own decision-making process, Stone left the Committee convinced that he had shown them the correctness of his actions. Mistrustful of military elite and wary of agents of the Slave Power undermining the war effort, Wade and his allies became more convinced than ever that Stone had effectively murdered Baker.


It's a long post, I know, but I was interested. The sagas of Stone and the Joint Committee will continue, so two items from Stone's January 5 testimony not addressed here (Patterson at Bull Run and division of the army) will show up in future posts. 

I also wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the intellectual debt I owe to Bruce Tap, author of Over Lincoln's Shoulder, a spectacular account of the Joint Committee that has been influential in my own understanding of the politics of the Radical Republicans and their oversight of the Army of the Potomac.

Print Sources:
  • Tap, 38-80.
  • Cozzens, 80-81.

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