Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meet George Stoneman

Gen. George Stoneman (right) at Fair Oaks, Virginia, during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
To see this picture in 3D, click here.
 
STRAWBERRY PLAINS, Tenn.
    When California Democrats nominated George Stoneman for governor in 1882, he made a revealing comment in his acceptance speech: "I have met defeat often. I hope I can say I have met with victory, and oftener."
    Was he being modest? Or painfully insecure?
    On the brink of his crowning achievement, was he worried about the prospect of defeat? 
    Did similar doubts haunt Gen. Stoneman on Wednesday, March 22, 1865, as he rode through East Tennessee on the second day of what would be his last cavalry raid?
    After all, what could go wrong?
    Well, in the past two years Stoneman had been scapegoated at Chancellorsville, captured in Georgia, and politically ambushed in the White House. If that wasn't ominous enough, his right-hand man, Gen. Alvan Gillem, had been outgunned on this very same road just six months earlier.
     In hindsight, we know that Stoneman would not face much of a fight as his 4,000 raiders marched through western North Carolina and Virginia, cut off Robert E. Lee's only avenue of escape, ruined hundreds of miles of railroad, and inflicted the miseries of war on tens of thousands of Southern civilians.
     But Stoneman didn't know then what we know now.
     He saw the last weeks of the Civil War as a do-or-die opportunity to redeem his military reputation and settle a personal grudge against the Confederacy 
Stoneman strikes a Napoleonic pose.
     We can admire or curse his tactics. We can debate his restraint or his results. But behind that faraway stare, there's a lot we don't know.
      Here's what we do know about George Stoneman in 1865. He was a career military officer, 19 years out of West Point, who commanded respect, pioneered cavalry tactics, trusted his own instincts, and rarely confided in others. He confounded his own commanders almost as much as he did the enemy. 
     The New York Herald Tribune described him in 1863 as a "lithe, severe, gristly, sanguine person whose eyes flashed even in repose."
     We misjudge him, though, if we see him just through the memories of Carolina families who knew him as the grim reaper. 
     General Stoneman Jr. had family, too. He was the oldest of eight children of George Stoneman Sr. (1799-1877) and Catherine Cheney Stoneman (1800-1874) and was raised in the village of Busti, Chautauqua County, New York.
     He was 39 when he married Mary Hardisty, a 23-year-old belle of Baltimore society, on November 22, 1861. They called each other Stony and Mollie. The first of their four children, Cornelius, was born in 1862 and celebrated his second birthday while his father was a Confederate prisoner. 
     His wife's family was sympathetic to the South. He does not seem to have been motivated by the emancipation of slaves or the welfare of blacks, though he could be obsessive about liberating prisoners of war.
Signature of George Stoneman
     Politically, Stoneman was a conservative Democrat, which put him in opposition to Lincoln, Grant, and the radical Republicans who led Reconstruction. He won his 1882 election as governor of California, but political clumsiness kept him from being nominated for a second term. As a governor as well as a general, he struggled to enforce chain of command. He didn't communicate very well, personally, professionally, or politically. 
     He had a great sense of geography and adventure. His first military assignment was escorting the odd "Mormon Battallion" on a 2,000-mile trek from Iowa to California. He also served at Army outposts in Utah and on the Mexican border of Texas. 
     I've found very little about his religion. A Presbyterian officiated at Stoneman's wedding and a Unitarian at his funeral. He may have had connections with the Mormon church, since he was raised in western New York at the same time Joseph Smith's movement began there, and he spent a year with the Mormon Battalion. His brother Richard Stoneman (1826-1850) was a gold prospector who died at age 24 in a California settlement called Mormon Gulch.  
     His family also may have been influenced by the Second Great Awakening, which was so intense in western New York that Charles Finney called it "the Burnt-Over District" because it had been over-evangelized. 
     Most of his adult life, his health was miserable because of hemorrhoids, which he attributed to a quarter-century of cavalry service. He was often temperamental, and in later years he became bitter toward the government (which contested his pension and his rank) and estranged from his family. An 1885 fire left him bankrupt and destroyed all his personal papers. Neither his wife nor his children attended his funeral in 1894.
     Unlike Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Lee, or Jackson, Stoneman left us no quotable pearls of wisdom. On his tombstone in his hometown of Busti, N.Y., there is no mention of his raids nor his rank.

     A friendly editor during his 1882 election campaign wrote, "He was not a keen, sharp man, but he was a man of noble purposes, true as steel, and steadfast in his determination to do the right thing according to his lights. His weaknesses were those of a loyal and unsuspicious nature."

Saddled with blame for Chancellorsville?

This 1862 portrait of Stoneman was in 
Harper's Weekly, which regarded him
 as a hero at Chancellorsville, even
though Gen. Joseph Hooker tried to 
blame him for the Union defeat. 
     The battle of Chancellorsville, Va., in May, 1863, was a devastating setback for the Union. 
     In the aftermath, Union commander Gen. Joseph Hooker blamed Gen. Stoneman for failing to carry out an attack on Lee's rear. In an 1864 congressional hearing, Hooker said, "No officer ever made a greater mistake in construing his orders, and no one accomplished less in doing so. Had Stoneman thrown his cavalry in the enemy's rear and on his communications, the effect could readily be estimated. But instead, that important arm of the army became crippled to an extent that seriously embarrassed me in subsequent operations."
     While Hooker condemned Stoneman, the media spun it differently. In the aftermath of Chancellorsville, the popular magazine Harper's Weekly put Stoneman on its cover, using the heroic horseback engraving I've posted on the sidebar of this blog. Harper's concluded, "He has just performed a feat which casts all the famous raids of the rebel Stuart into the shade. He has ridden round Lee's army, destroying their communications with Richmond, and some of his men have actually been within two miles of the rebel capital. The importance of this achievement will be discovered hereafter. Meanwhile it has raised Stoneman so high in public estimation that he has been mentioned for the supreme command of the Army of the Potomac."
      Stonewall Jackson vouched for Stoneman, his old West Point roommate, in the disagreement with Hooker. Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire at Chancellorsville, after seeing the battle turn in his favor. In the ambulance, he told an aide that Hooker's decision to send Stoneman behind Lee "enabled me to turn him (Hooker), without his being aware of it, and to take him by his rear. Had he kept his cavalry with him, his plan would have been a very good one."

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