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The observer

'Stone Pasha'

Wrongly jailed, Civil War colonel rises to greatness

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / January 25, 2009
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There has never been a better time for a good story to take our minds off the darkness at the edge of town. I've got a humdinger, thanks to the intrepid Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society, so listen up.

Meet Charles Pomeroy Stone, born in Greenfield, Mass., in 1824. He attended Deerfield Academy and West Point. He had a good war in the Mexican War (1846-48) and rose to colonel in the regular Army. Like Ulysses Grant, he was among the many who left the Army in the 1850s to try their luck in private enterprise; he resigned in 1856 and was eventually charged by the Mexican government with surveying its huge state of Sonora, of all things.

Stone returned to Washington in 1859, where he remained when the Civil War erupted. He had been in charge of Lincoln's security during his first inauguration and was soon brevetted to brigadier general in the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. He was to protect Washington's northern flank along the Potomac River.

Three months to the day after the shocking Union defeat at the first battle of Bull Run on July, 21, 1861 - First Manassas to my Southern friends - came the battle of Ball's Bluff, another disaster for the North. Stone was in command during the fight, and while the scale of Union dead was small by Civil War standards, it stood as another humiliating Union defeat.

McClellan had ordered Stone to probe Confederate positions on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Union scouts crossed the river and saw what they thought were Confederate tents. There were none, it turned out. But more troops were sent across to reconnoiter. Stone was apprised of this and instructed his subordinate officer in charge, Colonel Edward Baker, to use his discretion in either evacuating or sending more troops for possible fighting.

Eventually, the Confederates arrived at the scene and mangled the Union troops beneath them. Baker, who had kept his seat in the Senate after entering the war, was killed. (He remains the only sitting senator to die in battle.) Baker did not have enough boats to ferry his men to safety. Many drowned. The Union effort was a debacle.

Hard hit among other Massachusetts units was the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, known as "the Harvard Regiment," that included wellborn Harvard graduates like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and the grandson of Paul Revere. The 20th fought with great distinction throughout the war.

Here's where things get sticky. Baker had been a dear friend of Abraham Lincoln. They had practiced law together in Springfield, Ill. When Lincoln learned of the death of his great friend, he was literally staggered by the news.

Then the blame game began. McClellan cleared Stone of any responsibility and put the blame on Baker. Still, as commanding officer at the debacle, Stone could well have been demoted or put in a desk job for Baker's inept handling of the battle, but that didn't happen.

Instead, Stone was locked up in February 1862 for six months in a prison in New York Harbor. Lincoln had done away with habeas corpus by then, and Stone was never charged with a crime, despite his attempts to learn what he was alleged to have done. Then one day, he was simply let go. No explanation.

He returned to the Army, but his military career was over.

Stone had been done in largely by a Star Chamber-like panel called the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. To it, Bull's Run and Ball's Bluff, back to back, proved there must be something wrong with the Union command. It simply couldn't have performed so badly without an explanation. There was talk of a traitor in the midst.

Drummey, among other historians, believes Stone was made a scapegoat for the defeat. Lincoln, grieving over Baker's death, knew about his imprisonment and did nothing to stop it. Stone later wrote to the president asking him to return his good name. Lincoln conceded he had been arrested on his authority, but never explained what he had been arrested for. Lincoln was, at best, a passive party in the imprisonment of Stone.

There were political undertones as well. Stone was politically incorrect. Ardent abolitionists considered suspect anyone who was not an ardent foe of slavery, and Stone was accused of returning fugitive slaves. It was the law of the land at the time.

Then Stone's star finally rose.

After the war - I kid you not - he was appointed by the khedive of Egypt to run his army. Talk about comebacks.

Stone's charge was to modernize the khedive's forces. About 50 Civil War veterans, largely Confederates, served under Stone in this effort, apparently without intramural mayhem. Drummey believes that General William Tecumseh Sherman helped Stone obtain the appointment to make up for his outrageous imprisonment. (Sherman was also a pallbearer at Stone's funeral.)

Stone stayed in Egypt for 13 years, mapping areas of the interior. Hail Stone Pasha, as he was called in Egypt.

A few years after returning to the United States in 1883, Stone was appointed engineer in chief of the American Committee of the Statue of Liberty, the group charged with the erection of the statue. He oversaw the construction of its base and supervised the erection itself. He was even appointed grand marshal of the parade celebrating the completion of the statue.

Stone died in 1887. He was buried at West Point with full honors. When it comes to wild rides, Stone Pasha had a doozy.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com.

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