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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!