Monday, January 18, 2016


[The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone: Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer by Blaine Lamb (Westholme, 2015). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:237/287. ISBN:978-1-59416-232-9.  $29.95]

Union general Charles P. Stone is best known for being the imprisoned scapegoat of the Ball's Bluff disaster and high profile victim of the newly established Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. But his public life was much more than that, encompassing a solid antebellum army career, a foreign military post in the army of the khedive of Egypt, and chief engineer of the massive concrete base of the Statue of Liberty. Historian Blaine Lamb's The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone is a first full biography of Stone. The lack of any great body of Stone papers made Lamb's task difficult but this isn't unique in Civil War biography and the author's thorough research in other sources negotiates in fine fashion the obstacles this void places in the way of modern scholarship.

Young Charles Stone was a good student, graduating seventh out of forty-one in his West Point Class of 1845 (one place ahead of Fitz-John Porter, who would also run afoul of army politics). Missing out on the Corps of Engineers, he was assigned to the Ordnance Department. During the US-Mexican War, Stone accompanied the army siege train to Vera Cruz. Though he spent most of his time managing munitions and armaments, policing the battlefield, cataloging captured equipment and repairing damaged ordnance, he did personally direct artillery operations at times during the campaign, earning two brevets.

After the war, Stone returned to his arsenal work, charged with setting up army ordnance facilities for the West Coast in the Bay Area of California. Because of the high cost of living and low pay, army officers were not discouraged from supplementing their incomes. So Stone, in addition to fulfilling his professional duties at the Benicia Arsenal, engaged in railroad company work and gold bullion brokering. The former venture failed but Stone was successful in the gold and banking business, at least until a senior partner mismanaged several loans and an office clerk absconded with a large sum of money. Stone was financially ruined and, according to Lamb, the misfortune foreshadowed other career ventures sabotaged by misplaced trust in colleagues and subordinates. Ashamed at losing the investments of army acquaintances and family members, Stone resigned his commission in 1856 and sought civilian employment, eventually raising enough cash to pay off most of his debts.

Stone's next job was heading a potentially lucrative surveying expedition in northern Mexico but local interference, bad faith on the part of the Mexican central government and Stone's own indelicate belligerence torpedoed the project. Stone and his family relocated to Washington D.C. where his lobbying for redress from Mexico went nowhere. However, his own country's exploding crisis provided another opportunity.

In Washington, Stone was the right man in the right place and Winfield Scott appointed him colonel and inspector general of the D.C. militia. As Lamb describes in the book, Stone performed brilliantly at this new task, organizing the city defenses while his effective system of detectives and spies rooted out disloyal elements. 3,500 militia were armed, drilled and some put to work reopening land communications with the North. During Union offensive operations into northern Virginia in 1861, Stone competently led the Rockville Expedition along the Upper Potomac but didn't see action after joining Robert Patterson's command in the Shenandoah Valley.

The October 21, 1861 Ball's Bluff debacle has received excellent coverage in the literature and Lamb does not relate the particulars of the battle itself but rather concentrates on Stone's specific role as commander of the division-sized Corps of Observation. There aren't any significant new discoveries from Lamb's sources that would alter the case for or against Stone's conduct but the book's summary of the circumstances surrounding Ball's Bluff, before, during, and after the defeat (and Stone's place in it), is very well outlined for the reader. Of President Lincoln, General McClellan, the Joint Committee members, and the Secretary of War, none displayed a surfeit of integrity in the matter and it would take legislative intervention (led by Senator James A. McDougall of California) to end Stone's six month imprisonment without charge or trial.

Two generals later requested Stone's services but both were rebuffed by Secretary Stanton. Finally, he was allowed to join General Banks in the Department of the Gulf. After acting in an advisory capacity during the Port Hudson siege, Stone was appointed Chief of Staff. Stone's specific role during the 1864 Red River Campaign isn't discussed much in the campaign histories and Lamb's book also doesn't extensively detail that part of his military career. Apparently Stone and Banks did not get along and Stone was removed from his post after the campaign ended. Stone was also shocked to find that Stanton had struck him from the volunteer general officer rolls, reverting Stone back to his Regular Army rank of colonel. After a short stint with the Army of the Potomac, he resigned from the army.

After the war, Stone's private business ventures failed yet again but he was recommended to the khedive of Egypt, who was seeking experienced non-European officers for staff positions within his army (at different points in time, nearly two dozen former US and Confederate officers were contracted). In 1870, Khedive Ismail appointed Stone army chief of staff and the American became his most trusted military adviser (Stone also served Ismail's son, Tewfik). The transformation of the army had mixed results and the two Abyssinian campaigns that tested its mettle both ended in disaster. A variety of internal and external factors finally ended Stone's Egyptian tenure in 1883.

Stone's final job was chief engineer for the construction of the Statue of Liberty base and pedestal (this was later expanded to embrace other aspects of the statue's construction). Funding was intermittent and progress slow and Stone once again found himself under negative scrutiny, though perhaps it's inevitable that anyone in charge of a massive public project would be the target of politicians, journalists, jealous colleagues and disgruntled contractors. Regardless, the project was (obviously) successfully completed in 1886. Unfortunately, Stone wasn't to live much longer, dying on January 24, 1887 after a brief respiratory illness.

It's impossible to know what heights Charles Pomeroy Stone's military career might have reached. U.S. Grant's comment about Stone that he "had been the most unfortunate man he had ever known" is surely an exaggeration given the totality of the man's life accomplishments but there's certainly a grain of truth in it.  Among the panoply of Union generals, Stone's is one of the most compelling cases of lost potential and Blaine Lamb's sympathetic yet evenhanded overall treatment of the general's life offers readers a learned assessment of how and why he should be remembered.

No comments:

Post a Comment

***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.