They Want a Victim

When it became evident that the southern states would secede from the Union in early 1861, Charles P. Stone had been assigned to protect Washington from secessionists, thus becoming “the first man mustered into the service for the defense of the Capital.” Since then, Stone had been promoted to brigadier general and given command of a division in General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. A portion of Stone’s division had endured a humiliating defeat at Ball’s Bluff the past October, and now the politicians in Washington looked to blame somebody for it.

Brig Gen Charles P. Stone | Image Credit:

Though Stone suspected that the blame might fall on his shoulders, McClellan had given assurances that he did not hold Stone responsible for the debacle. However, members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Present War, particularly the Radical Republicans who sought to destroy slavery as a means to win the war, were determined to use Stone’s anti-abolitionist political views against him.

Stone was called to testify before the committee on January 5. Following McClellan’s advice, he refused to divulge any information about upcoming army operations. Some construed this vague testimony as evidence of hiding wrongdoing. Stone was asked about orders he had issued in September directing his troops “not to incite and encourage insubordination among the colored servants in the neighborhood of the camps,” as well as rumors that he had returned fugitive slaves to their masters.

Stone answered that if he had issued such orders or returned fugitives, he had done so in Maryland, a Unionist state exempt from the Confiscation Act. Stone then recounted his official report on the Ball’s Bluff disaster, which included mistakes made by Colonel Edward D. Baker, a former senator with no real military experience, who had been killed. Stone returned to his command after testifying, unaware of the committee’s intention to levy charges against him.

Two days later, Stone learned that a congressman had accused him of treason in the House of Representatives. Stone wrote to McClellan on whether he “ought to ask for a Court of Inquiry.” McClellan advised against it, showing Stone the dispatch that McClellan had sent to President Abraham Lincoln absolving him of blame in the Ball’s Bluff defeat.

Meanwhile, Joint Committee members continued questioning witnesses in secret sessions, often in confusing and misleading ways, to fit the conclusion they had already come to that Stone was unfit for command. Of the 36 witnesses, 10 were from the 2nd New York, a regiment that had performed poorly at Bull Run. Its colonel had been charged with “misbehavior before the enemy,” yet he testified that Stone traded with the enemy, and his men lacked confidence in him. When asked, “No confidence in his skill as a general, or in his loyalty?” the colonel gave a rehearsed answer: “Both.”

Other testimony revealed that Stone’s “trade” with the enemy involved exchanging letters and packages for Ball’s Bluff prisoners, but the committee did not seem to consider that this was perfectly proper under military law. All evidence against Stone was hearsay that could not be substantiated. But many of the casualties at Ball’s Bluff had been Massachusetts men, and Governor John Andrew and Senator Charles Sumner, both influential abolitionists from that state, had loudly condemned Stone for not only this but for his refusal to shelter fugitive slaves. It seemed that the committee, unable to implicate McClellan in the disaster due to his close relationship with Lincoln, was determined to persecute someone and therefore focused on Stone instead.

Without allowing Stone the opportunity to examine the evidence against him or defend himself against the allegations, the committee issued a report blaming Stone for sending Baker across the Potomac and getting him and his men killed. These highly dubious conclusions were sent to the War Department with strong political overtones. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical ally well aware of those overtones, issued orders for McClellan to arrest Stone on the 28th. Stanton had not even reviewed the evidence beforehand.

McClellan hesitated to arrest Stone. Instead, he asked committee chairman Benjamin F. Wade to allow Stone to defend himself against the charges made. On the 31st, Stone appeared before the committee for a second time. He was not allowed to read any of the testimony against him; he was only told that the evidence “tends to prove that you have had undue communication with the enemy.” Stone was incredulous that anyone would ever question his loyalty, having been the first soldier to guard Washington against disloyalty. Since he could not address the specific charges, he only issued a general statement:

“This is a humiliation I had hoped I should never be subjected to. I thought there was one calumny that could not be brought against me… This government has not a more faithful soldier; of poor capacity, it is true, but a more faithful soldier this government has not had…. If you want more faithful soldiers you must find them elsewhere. I have been as faithful as I can be.”

McClellan discussed the case with one of Stone’s officers. “They want a victim,” McClellan said of the committee members. The officer replied, “Yes–and when they have once tasted blood, got one victim, no one can tell who will be the next victim!” The committee would issue its final conclusion on Stone’s fate in early February.


  • Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.

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