As a student of the American Civil War, I have encountered Charles Pomeroy Stone on a couple of occasions, always in relation to the Union disaster at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff or the subsequent investigation (inquisition?) by The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Basically, he has always seemed a footnote, more a victim of circumstance than a maker of history. So, when I came across the new book The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone by Blaine Lamb, I was intrigued.
Not really knowing what to expect, I gave it a go, and I’m really glad I did. Charles Pomeroy Stone did indeed live an extraordinary life! A West Point graduate, he served in the Mexican-American War as an ordinance and artillery officer. He even led an expedition up a volcano during the long occupation of Mexico city (An expedition that the young Ulysses S. Grant would give up on). After the war, he returned to Mexico as the leader of a dangerous and controversial expedition to survey uncharted territory in Sonora. When that collapsed due to internal Mexican politics and external American meddling, Stone travelled to Washington D.C. on the eve of the Civil War. Meeting with his old army commander, Winfield S. Scott, Stone was placed in charge of the military security of the capital in the tumultuous period after Lincoln’s election, through his inauguration, and into the early days of the Civil War. This is a part of the Civil War that is rarely discussed, but it is chilling to think how easy it would have been for a lone assassin to kill Lincoln before he even became president and send history down a different path.
Unfortunately for Stone, that early success is nearly forgotten now. For only a short time later, he was the commanding officer at the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff, that witnessed the death of a close friend of Lincoln, the capture of some 700 Union Soldiers, and the deaths of many hundreds more (some of the bodies of those who died would drift down the Potomac to the capital city). Although it is debatable how much Stone is actually to blame for the defeat, he was vilified by the press and eventually called to testify before the newly formed Joint Committee for the Conduct of the War. There, abandoned by his commanding officer, George B. McClellan (just another reason to dislike that guy), and ridiculously accused of being a Southern sympathizer, he was thrown in prison without a proper trial or even formal charges. Eventually Stone would be freed, and even return to the war in time to join yet another Union disaster, this time the Red River Campaign.
After the war, the disgraced Stone accepted a job offer to reform the army of Egypt. Serving for 13 years as the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army, Stone oversaw many reforms, but eventually watched it all come undone in a series of bad offensives, political infighting, and the eventual invasion by the British. From there Stone returned home, and thanks to some old army connections (namely Grant and Sherman) was given the job of overseeing the construction of the foundation and pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Like everything in Stone’s life, this too was an up-and-down affair mired in controversy.
It is hard to believe all of that is revealed in just 225 pages of text (and 40 pages of notes and bibliography)! Despite the short length, Blaine Lamb does a great job of telling the story, almost always giving just as much detail as the reader could want, without getting bogged down in minutiae. (I wish he had dropped in more reminders of Stone’s age at various points, but this is a minor quibble.) His prose is clean, clear and easy to read, and I often found myself reading for longer than I meant to in a given sitting.
So, all and all, a fantastic work of history. Charles Pomeroy Stone may not be one of the great players of the 19th century, but his life is extraordinary and deserves to be remembered. Blaine Lamb has done an admirable job of bringing his story out of obscurity. Recommended!
TheExtraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone: Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineerby Blaine Lamb was published in 2016 by Westholme and retails for $29.95.