Tim Blagg

Source of great mistrust

The Civil War and the case of Gen. Stone

One of the things the recent movie “Lincoln” shows quite well is the depth of the divisions that existed during the Civil War — not just between the Union and Confederate sides, but also between factions in the North.

For example, diehard Abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) were reviled by Southerners, but also by many in the Union ranks. There were many who were willing to fight to keep the South in the Union, but who were adamantly opposed to freeing the slaves or to considering equality for Blacks.

And, because of the nature of a civil war, in which families were sometimes split by ideology, there was deep mistrust.

Mary Todd Lincoln, for example, was distrusted by many because most of her family had sided with the Confederacy ... a situation which caused both her and her husband many sleepless nights during the war.

Because many graduates of West Point were southerners who chose to fight for the Confederacy, some in the north were quick to believe that all U.S. Military Academy officers were suspect.

Take the case of one of Greenfield’s own, Gen. Charles P. Stone. He was the son of a popular Greenfield physician, Alpheus Stone. He attended West Point, became an officer, and fought with bravery in the Mexican War. Afterwards, bored with peacetime service, he resigned and worked for the Mexican government as a surveyor.

When the Civil War began to loom, he volunteered and was made a general. In one of the first actions of the war, at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, Stone was in command of the Union army units that crossed the Potomac River and engaged the Confederates on a small island. When the Rebels were reinforced, the Union troops found themselves outnumbered, without a way to retreat. U.S. Sen. Edward D. Baker, an officer who had contributed to the unwise decision to cross the river, was killed.

Stone was blamed, not by the army, but by Congress. His leadership, and criticism of Baker in a private report on the battle, made him a scapegoat for the disaster. He was then imprisoned, without trial, for six months in Fort Lafayette prison in New York harbor.

He was eventually released, but could not be given another official post for political reasons. Later, he was cleared, and the New York Times editorialized: “General Stone has sustained a most flagrant wrong — a wrong which will probably stand as the very worst blot on the National side in the history of the war.”

After the war, he left the country and served as a general in the Egyptian Army.

Ironically, he was eventually hired as the chief engineer for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and concrete foundation, building the iconic octagonal star base for this great monument to freedom and liberty ... while working within sight of his former prison.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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