The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone
Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer
Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2015, 276 pages
Book Review published on: March 1, 2019
In The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer, Blaine Lamb examines the life of Charles Pomeroy Stone, a man who Gen. Ulysses S. Grant regarded as one of the Union’s top generals and “the most unfortunate man he had ever known.” Lamb’s extensive research comes largely from manuscript collections and accounts of people who knew Stone, as most of his personal documents are lost. Lamb explores significant events in Stone’s life, each one reflecting an extremely high or extremely low point. This biography offers the reader lessons in leadership, including the value of critical professional and personal relationships and effective communications, and the importance of being aware not only of subordinates’ abilities but also one’s own. Stone’s Civil War experiences serve as an extremely negative example of when civil control over the military resembled twentieth-century McCarthyism.
Stone was seventh in his graduating West Point class and commissioned in the Ordnance Corps. A decorated Mexican War veteran and celebrated defender of the District of Columbia (DC), Stone later became the scapegoat for a disastrous Union battlefield defeat. Imprisoned without trial as a Confederate sympathizer, Stone became a “forgotten Soldier,” ostracized by Edwin Stanton’s War Department until Grant’s campaign victories earned him sufficient influence to return Stone to a troop command. The book documents how Stone’s relationships with Grant, William T. Sherman, and other uniformed associates afforded him future opportunities outside the Army.
In 1860, General of the Army Winfield Scott, commissioned Stone to organize loyal forces and defend DC, against “internal sedition and threats from surrounding slaveholding regions … and hold off a confederate attack until troops from the northern states could come to their aid.” Stone successfully drew up detailed city defense plans, organized and drilled the DC militia, secured critical food and munitions, and established measures to protect key public buildings and deny approaches to the city. After Fort Sumter surrendered, Stone worked endlessly to maintain his forces’ morale and supervise the execution of security measures he planned until Union reinforcements arrived seven days later.
Scott had also directed Stone to “infiltrate and gather intelligence on potential traitors and weed out district militia companies with rebel sympathies.” With Allan Pinkerton’s assistance, Stone thwarted an assassination plot against president-elect Abraham Lincoln to occur while Lincoln traveled through Baltimore to his inauguration in DC. For Lincoln’s inauguration, Stone positioned armed guards along the parade route and beneath the presidential platform. Stone rode on horseback alongside Lincoln’s carriage throughout the parade as added security.
Scott promoted Stone to brigadier general and assigned him to a command in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Observers characterized Stone as the “model general,” admiring his military bearing, organizational skills, and impeccable manners. However, Stone was not popular with troops as he lacked “congeniality and comradery—was stiff and standoffish—not someone they could warm up to.” Stone was also not a political favorite. His critics observed “his sympathy for slavery,” and his description of Confederate generals “as gentlemen with good manners and who conducted war in a gentlemanly manner.” These observations were used later against Stone to damage his reputation.
McClellan expected Confederate forces to invade Maryland, ordering Stone’s Corps of Observation to “patrol the Potomac above Washington … to keep an eye on Confederate activities … and to engage only as required.” McClellan believed a small Confederate force defended Leesburg and might retreat if Stone’s forces offered “a slight demonstration.” Stone ordered two brigades to cross the Potomac at night—one from Edward’s and Conrad’s Ferry and the other from Harrison’s Island. The Harrison Island brigade was instructed to cross the river and proceed to Leesburg via the heights known as Ball’s Bluff. However, the Potomac River’s swift current, a severe shortage of boats, troopers’ inexperience, misunderstood instructions, and brigade-level commanders’ indecision, resulted in Confederate forces surprising and overwhelming Union forces at Ball’s Bluff—“a thousand Union men are killed, wounded, and captured.” Among the dead was Col. Edward D. Baker, the popular and powerful Republican senator from Oregon, and President Lincoln's closest personal friend.
Congress formed the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate causes for multiple Union defeats, to include Ball’s Bluff. Committee Republicans held Stone (a Democrat) responsible for both the disastrous defeat at Ball’s Bluff and for Senator Baker’s death. They attacked Stone’s military credibility, loyalty, and reputation accusing him of incompetency and of being a rebel sympathizer and traitor. McClellan argued in Stone’s defense—poor intelligence, the element of surprise, and Baker’s poor decisions caused the defeat. While they may not have thought him a rebel sympathizer or traitor, committee Republicans, Stanton, and Lincoln all determined Stone was responsible for the defeat and for their respected colleague and friend’s death.
Although the Articles of War required that “no officer could be held for more than eight days before a court martial is assembled,” Stanton denied Stone’s multiple requests for a court of inquiry. Instead, Stanton ordered Stone arrested and imprisoned at the Fort Lafayette military prison in New York harbor, where Stone remained until his release six months later—without official charges, without trial, and without explanation or apology. Discredited and ostracized by the War Department, Stone received no military assignment until Grant assigned him to Nathaniel Banks’ Department of the Gulf, where he served as Banks’ chief of staff and was cited for gallantry at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Disagreements between Banks and Stone resulted in Stone’s relief after one year. Grant reassigned Stone to one of his Petersburg-engaged brigades. Unfortunately, Stone was unable to perform his duties and resigned—the result of emotional and physical illness associated with a long campaign to restore his reputation.
In 1870, Grant and Sherman got Stone appointed as the Egyptian army’s chief of staff, serving Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt. In this capacity, Stone hired fifty former Union and Confederate officers to assist him reorganize, train, and modernize the eighteen thousand-man army. Stone established officer and noncommissioned officer academies, various military functional schools, and a basic education course. He also equipped the army with modern weapons, constructed a weapons’ range, an arsenal, and coastal forts supported by new harbors and canals. The general staff operated a printing office and an extensive library of military maps, books, and manuscripts.
By 1875, Stone’s Egyptian army grew to 120,000 active and reserve troops, “75% of whom could read, write, and do basic math.” The army conquered and restored for the Khedive, “nearly all the African territory anciently ruled by the pharaohs,” until it was twice decisively defeated by the Abyssinian army, embarrassing both Stone and the Khedive. With his empire in debt, the Khedive succumbed to political pressures allowing European intervention and investment in Egypt. The Europeans immediately discharged the American advisors (except Stone) and removed most of the initiatives Stone had implemented. As “Stone Pasha,” Stone enjoyed escorting his former bosses Grant, Sherman, and McClellan during their Egypt visits.
In 1883, Stone returned to the United States with his reputation repaired. Recommended by Grant and Sherman, Stone was hired as the engineer in chief for managing the construction of the foundation and pedestal for the Statue of Liberty—“the largest single concrete block pour in history.” When funding constraints delayed construction, critics sought a scapegoat and charged Stone with “overspending and incompetence.” Eventually, funding was secured and Stone was named grand marshal for the parade preceding the inaugural unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Multiple protocol errors occurred on the reviewing stand and with the actual unveiling—critics again placed blame on Stone.
Months later, Stone died of pneumonia at the age of sixty-two. Stone’s estate settlement paid off his many debts but left his family financially strained. For a final time, Grant and Sherman, along with former Civil War associates Fitz-John Porter, Charles Devens, and John Schofield, intervened as pall bearers at Stone’s funeral and to secure financial support for Stone’s widow.
Lamb describes Charles Pomeroy Stone’s tumultuous military career as “fate synonymous with military justice and politics gone awry.” Stone’s adversities are painful reminders of the value of developing strong, lasting associations and how misplaced trust in others and deceitful accusation can quickly damage a good reputation, and once lost, the difficulty of repairing it. Lamb concludes it is Stone’s “steadfastness and resilience in meeting and overcoming personal challenges and professional defeats that lift his life well above the ordinary,” and makes this biography worth adding to your library. Buried at West Point, Charles Pomeroy Stone’s marker reads, “A Soldier Without Fear and Without Reproach.”
Book Review written by: James D. Sharpe, Fort Gordon, Georgia