The Ordeal of Charles P. Stone

Brigadier General Charles P. Stone commanded the division within the Federal Army of the Potomac that had sustained the humiliating defeat at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, the previous October. The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Present War investigated the debacle and, based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay, had portrayed Stone as disloyal to the Union and thereby responsible for the defeat. Stone had angrily defended his loyalty before the Committee in late January, but the political tide was still against him.

General-in-Chief George B. McClellan had publicly asserted that Stone had not been responsible for the Ball’s Bluff disaster. He also resisted efforts by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to arrest Stone for disloyalty. But it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Committee wanted a scapegoat, and if Stone was not sacrificed, then it would only be a matter of time before the target became McClellan. Stone’s fate was sealed.

In the first week of February, McClellan’s chief intelligence agent Allan Pinkerton reported a claim by a resident of Leesburg, Virginia (near Ball’s Bluff), that Stone was “very popular with the Rebel officers at Leesburg and with all secessionists in that vicinity.” The resident recalled Confederate officers referring to Stone as “a brave man and a gentleman.” McClellan described the report:

“There were in it statements which the refugee said he had heard made by the Rebel officers, showing that a great deal of personal intercourse existed between them and General Stone. I think it was also stated that General (Nathan) Evans, then the Rebel commander there, had received letters from General Stone; and there was a general expression on the part of those Rebel officers of great cordiality towards Stone–confidence in him.”

McClellan did not think that this report should be enough to warrant Stone’s arrest, but he did believe that the witness was credible, and the allegations “tended to corroborate some of the charges made against General Stone.” McClellan submitted the report to Stanton. Stanton was once a Democrat like McClellan, but now he was aligned with the Radical Republicans who dominated the Joint Committee, and he wanted to make an example of Stone. Stanton issued an order for Stone’s arrest. McClellan had protested Stanton’s first order in January, but this time he complied.

Brig Gen Charles P. Stone | Image Credit:

McClellan had the provost marshal verbally order Brigadier General George Sykes, Stone’s West Point classmate and friend, to arrest him. Sykes was not informed why this needed to be done, but he was instructed, “See that he has no communication with any one from the time of his arrest.” Around midnight on the early morning of February 9, Sykes and 18 soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry met Stone as he returned to his room at Willard’s Hotel in Washington.

Sykes told his friend, “I have now the most disagreeable duty to perform that I ever had–it is to arrest you.” When Stone angrily demanded why, Sykes said he did not know, but he added, “I may as well tell you that you are to be sent to Fort Lafayette” in New York Harbor. Stone replied, “Why, Fort Lafayette is where they send secessionists!” Stone was allowed to say goodbye to his wife before the troops escorted him to a nearby facility for detainment. Later that morning, the Federals took Stone by railroad to New York, and he arrived at the fort two days later. No charges were ever brought against Stone, which violated the Articles of War.

Stone’s fellow commanders within the Army of the Potomac were stunned by the news of his imprisonment. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman wrote, “I don’t believe he is disloyal. I don’t think that he (McClellan) took a sufficiently decided stand under the circumstances. It is the greatest outrage…” Brigadier General Patrick Kearny fumed against McClellan: “He has sacrificed Stone, either under undue political pressure, or to cover a threatened inquiry as to Balls Bluff.”

Legendary former General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who had chosen Stone to defend Washington against the secessionist threat before the war, declared, “If he is a traitor I am a traitor, and we are all traitors.” Attorney General Edward Bates feared that this would set a precedent “for congressional interference with the command of the army, which might lead to the terrible results seen in France, in the days of the revolution.”

Stone spent 189 days in confinement at Lafayette and then Fort Hamilton without formal charges filed against him or the right to a trial. Although he eventually returned to service, his career was effectively destroyed. Many considered this an unjust, unconstitutional, and even tyrannical persecution by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Stone’s plight served as a notice to all that the politicians, especially the Radicals, would be keeping a close eye on how the generals fought the war.


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