Monday, April 13, 2015

The awful burr in Stoneman's saddle

STATESVILLE, N.C.
     Today is for everyone who feels like Stoneman was a pain in the butt.
     Caution: This story may make you feel sorry for him.
     Let's go back 150 years to Thursday, April 13, 1865, the day Stoneman rode out of Salisbury, N.C., after disarming what was left of the Confederacy. As his cavalry marched triumphantly toward Statesville, you might have expected to see the 6-foot-4 general riding high in the saddle, maybe wearing his ceremonial sash or a feather in his hat. 
     Instead, George Stoneman rode in a carriage, no doubt pale and grimacing with every bump in the road.
     Years later, Stoneman would try to convince Presidents Grant and Garfield that he was suffering from "wounds received in battle." His rank and pension depended on it. 
     There's no discreet way to describe his "wounds." Doctors in his day called it "the piles." Soldiers called it the cavalry's affliction. We call it hemorrhoids.
     After more than 20 years in the saddle, Stoneman's case was severe. He had unsuccessful surgery in Texas in the 1850s and also sought treatment in Europe. A medical board that reviewed his case in 1871 decided, "Death itself is preferable to the injuries he has sustained."
     Did Stoneman's injuries affect his command? Union Gen. Joseph Hooker thought so. Attempting to blame Stoneman for his defeat at Chancellorsville in 1863, Hooker wrote to historian Samuel Bates, "Stoneman had married just before a Rebel wife and at the same time was terribly affected with piles, and between the two had become completely emasculated, and I might as well have had a wet shirt in command of my cavalry."
     A surgeon who examined Stoneman after Chancellorsville determined, "Since he has suffered from frequent and copious loss of blood, he is 'not fit for duty' for three months."
     Stoneman's men were well aware of his condition and respected him for how he soldiered through. In 1862, one of his officers said his infirmities "would have kept a man of lesser fortitude in the hospital." Of course, many cavalrymen suffered similarly. One of Stoneman's brigade commanders, Gen. Simeon Brown from Michigan, died of complications from bleeding piles in 1893.
     When Stoneman retired from the army in 1871 and settled in California, his private ordeal became public and political, as Ben Fuller Fordney details in his biography of Stoneman. 
     Stoneman had been a colonel before and after the Civil War but asked to be retired at his brevet rank of Major General, based on an act of Congress that said officers "entitled to be retired on account of a disability occasioned by wounds received in battle may be retired upon the full rank of command held by them."
     So the uncomfortable question had to be sorted out in public: Did Stoneman's hemorrhoids constitute a battle wound?
     A commission stacked with Stoneman's allies ruled in his favor. Doctors found that "the disability he now labors under was occasioned by a continuous series of contused wounds from the jolting in the saddle during his raids in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia."
     President Grant overruled the retirement commission. He and Stoneman had political differences, and Grant was still vexed that Stoneman's Raid came a month too late. (There was not much Grant could say about Stoneman's wounds, however; considering that his own war injury was just as dubioushe had been thrown by a horse in New Orleans as he celebrated his victory at Vicksburg. Neither of them ever took a bullet, though both had horses shot out from under them.) 
     The case dragged on for ten years. Finally, in 1881, Stoneman appealed to President James Garfield, who deferred to his attorney general, who ruled that cavalry service was not the cause of Stoneman's condition but only aggravated it.
     In 1882, Stoneman was elected governor of California, but he was defeated for re-election in 1886. Meanwhile, his ranch home near Los Angeles was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1885, leaving him broken financially and destroying all his personal papers.
     In 1888, at the age of 66, Stoneman traveled to New York to have yet another operation seeking relief from his hemorrhoids. Estranged from his wife and children, Stoneman spent his final years living with his sisters, thousands of miles from his beloved California. He suffered a stroke in April 1894 and died that September.
     He had a military funeral, but all his pallbearers were civilians. A Unitarian gave the eulogy, presumably not about the blessed hope of resurrection. Neither his wife nor his sons attended. His tombstone says nothing about his raids nor his rank. 
Stoneman was buried in the same town where he was born: Busti, N.Y.

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