Thought I’d throw out another biography – this one of George Stoneman, my favorite Itchy-bum (read on to see). As I’m working on an article about the Federal cavalry depots during the war, I thought this would be timely.
George Stoneman was born in Busti (later incorporated as the village of Lakewood) NY on August 8, 1822, the son of George (1-9-1799 to 8-6-1877) and Katharine Cheney Aldrich (9-11-1800 to 11-10-1874). His grandfather, Richard Stoneman, had settled in New Berlin in western New York from Exeter, England in the early 1800’s. There Richard had met and married Mary Perkins, whose family had come to New York from Rhode Island. Richard and Mary’s eldest son was named George after Richard’s uncle, who was killed while serving with the British army at the Battle of the Nile. George was a prominent lumberman and for many years the Justice of the Peace.
George and Katherine (whose family was from Baltimore MD) eventually had ten children, eight of whom reached adulthood. The eldest son, George Jr., was educated at the Jamestown Academy in Jamestown NY until age 18. His headmaster, E. A. Dickinson, wrote that young George was a pupil “in good standing as a scholar and had made exceedingly good proficiency in those branches to which he has directed his attention.” George studied arithmetic, algebra, and higher math at the Academy. His headmaster also reported George to be “a correct moral man.”
Considering his family’s pioneer, average status, George made the surprising decision to seek an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point. His chances for such an appointment seemed rather remote, as his family had no influential connections. In spite of this, George wrote a letter, seeking the appointment, directly to the Secretary of War, Abe Bell, saying, “It is with the greatest diffidence that I approach you feeling as I do the vast difference in our situations… A military life has ever comported with my inclination. But to make a military man he wants a proper education. I have therefore concluded to apply for the privilege of becoming a Cadet at West Point.” As fate happened, George’s congressman, Staly N. Clark, did not have a sufficient number of candidates for appointments for the year 1842, so he offered Stoneman a slot, which he eagerly accepted on May 9. Young George became a plebe of the West Point Class of 1846. The naturally sad-eyed, quiet Stoneman would graduate with such future military notables as George McClellan, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (his roommate), Ambrose P. Hill, Darius Couch, Jesse Reno, and George Pickett. Stoneman and Jackson seemed to be perfect roommates; the reclusive, unsociable Jackson was a match for the quiet, demure 6’4″ New Yorker. He, like Stoneman, also came from a modest family background. Stoneman graduated 33rd out of his class of 59. In 1895, Couch wrote that Stoneman was “esteemed by his personal associates as a generous-hearted, whole-souled companion.” He also noted that Stoneman, like Jackson, was more of a “thinker” than a “talker.”
After graduation, Stoneman was commissioned a brevet 2nd lieutenant in the Mormon Battalion. The battalion had been established by President James K. Polk to enlist the Mormons in the U.S. army and support the U.S. occupation of California. The unit was recruited to march from Iowa to California to assist the army in taking that territory from the Mexicans.
The march was made during the winter of 1846-47. Stoneman was assistant quartermaster for the train of 25 mule-drawn wagons. The epic march, plagued by extreme heat, devastating cold, hunger and exhaustion, opened new roads to be used by settlers, railroads, and gold seekers in the future. Drawn to the beauty of the area, Stoneman vowed to return to California one day and make his home in the San Gabriel Valley. On July 25, 1854, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
Stoneman served on the frontier during those years leading up to the Civil War as he slowly made his way up in the ranks of the peacetime army. He became a proficient Indian fighter with serving under Major General Persifor Smith, commander of the Pacific Division, at the battles of Clear Lake and Russian River in California, and at Fort Orford in Oregon. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, ordered railroad surveys to be done in order to find the best routes to the frontier West. Stoneman was assigned to conduct surveys in the Sierra Nevadas and the Coast Range to look for feasible mountain passes in which to lay track that would connect the far territory with Oregon and Washington..
With a solid reputation for courage under fire and concern for men in his command, Stoneman was assigned to the newly-formed 2nd U.S. Dragoons, organized in St. Louis MO. Jefferson Davis himself selected its officers, a prime collection of military talent: Albert Sidney Johnston as colonel in command, Robert E. Lee as lieutenant colonel, and William J. Hardee and George Thomas as majors. Stoneman was named one of the 2nd’s captains on March 3, 1855. The unit was assigned to frontier duty in Texas where it chased Mexican insurgents who were stealing cattle and threatening American settlers from across the border. Stoneman found life at Camp Cooper, a remote post in the Comanche Reserve, to be intolerable. Writing to a friend back in California, Stoneman was blunt: “This is god forsaken country and the lord only knows when I will get out of it again. I will embrace the first opportunity to get to California and it is altogether probable that when once there I shall never again leave it.” During the Mexican War, he would serve as quartermaster of the Iowa Volunteer battalion.
Stoneman eventually reached position as the third senior captain of the 5th US Cavalry, until the outbreak of the Civil War. In command of Fort Brown TX, in February 1861, Stoneman refused to surrender the fort to Texas authorities, instead evacuating and sailing north with part of his command. On May 9, 1861, he was promoted to major of the 1st United States Cavalry and served on George McClellan’s staff in West Virginia as assistant inspector general. When McClellan was promoted to command of the Army of the Potomac, Stoneman was appointed Chief of Cavalry and was then promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers on August 13. However, McClellan’s lack of appreciation for the abilities and use of the cavalry severely limited Stoneman’s effectiveness as its leader. The most glaring mistake was McClellan’s method of assigning cavalry regiments to duty amongst the infantry. In effect, then, Stoneman and his officers were symbolic officers under the control of the infantry commanders. The error of this policy became painfully evident during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, where the poor coordination of cavalry with infantry led to disastrous results. The cavalry simply didn’t have a clearly-defined role in operations. At the battle of Williamsburg, however, Stoneman held his own well against JEB Stuart’s Confederate horsemen.
On November 22, 1861, Stoneman married the vivacious Mary Oliver Hardisty, who, like his mother, came from Baltimore. They eventually had four children: Cornelius, the oldest son; George Jr. (who later became a prominent lawyer in Los Angeles and Arizona); and two daughters – Katherine Cheney and Adele.
After the Peninsula Campaign, he commanded a division of infantry, and at the battle of Fredericksburg, Stoneman commanded the Third Corps. Although Robert E. Lee inflicted disaster on the Army of the Potomac, Stoneman performed with distinction in a supporting role. Stoneman’s division commanders, brigadier generals David B. Birney and Daniel Sickles, saw active combat as they saved the Federal position during a disorderly retreat of other divisions early in the battle.
In March of 1863, he was promoted to major general to date to the previous November. When Joseph Hooker was appointed to command the army, the Cavalry Corps was reorganized into a cohesive unit and Hooker placed Stoneman in command. Now back to commanding cavalry, Stoneman had long suffered from an intolerable case of hemorrhoids, and always seemed to be uncomfortable in the saddle. The condition would plague him throughout his life as attempts at surgery were unsuccessful.
During the Union disaster at the battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker characteristically searched for scapegoats among his commanders to blame for his own failures. Hooker had designed a cavalry raid behind Confederate lines, with Stoneman in the lead. It would soon be known as “Stoneman’s Raid.” It was a daring, risky maneuver that failed. However, it boosted the morale of the troopers and ranks as one of the significant precursors to the turning of the war in the East. The troopers were long proud of their participation in “Stoneman’s Raid,” and it effectively diverted much Confederate infantry from the Chancellorsville battle. But Hooker, reeling from his own loss, blamed Stoneman and unofficially relieved him from command of the Cavalry Corps by packing him off to Washington to seek “medical treatment” for his hemorrhoids. Stoneman became chief of the newly-formed Cavalry Bureau there, while Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton rose to command of the Cavalry Corps by default, a position he had long coveted and which he knew would finally bring him his own promotion to major general. As head of the bureau, Stoneman established a large purchasing and organizational depot at Giesboro Point DC, near the Potomac River. It was quickly name “Camp Stoneman,” and accommodated up to 12,000 horses for drilling and training.
Stoneman and his old friend, John Bufordd, had long respected each other’s abilities and were close friends. Buford was disappointed when Stoneman was relieved of command of the Corps. When Buford became increasingly ill in November 1863, he left the field for Washington DC to stay at Stoneman’s home. Under Stoneman’s watchful eye, Buford’s health rapidly deteriorated in early December and he died there on December 16. Early that morning, knowing that Buford’s end was near, Stoneman requested a major general’s commission for his old friend. President Lincoln approved the promotion, which arrived just a few short hours before Buford died. At Buford’s subsequent Washington funeral, Stoneman directed the procession’s military escort.
During the winter of early 1864, Stoneman wearied of his administrative duties at Washington and longed to get back to the field. He was anxious to redeem his reputation in the wake of the Chancellorsville raid. When Major General John Schofield, a fellow New Yorker and friend, was given command of the Department of the Ohio in January, he arranged for Stoneman to take command of the XXIII Corps of infantry in the Western Theater. However, on April 4, Schofield took his place while retaining command of the Department. Stoneman was assigned to command a special cavalry force, but Schofield instead placed him in command of the Department’s entire Cavalry Corps. Buford’s closest aide, Myles Keogh, distraught at Buford’s death, requested a transfer to be appointed to Stoneman’s staff. Keogh became Stoneman’s aide-de-camp. During a raid planned for Macon GA and the Andersonville Confederate prison camp designed by Stoneman to free captives there, he was captured on July 31, 1864, along with Keogh. Stoneman suffered the distinction of being the highest-ranking officer that the Confederates captured during the war. Both were specially exchanged at General William T. Sherman’s request that fall, Stoneman being exchanged for Confederate Brigadier General Daniel C. Govan. After his return to the army, in late 1864, Stoneman finally salvaged his reputation by leading a raid into southwestern Virginia to destroy the salt works there, one of Lee’s army’s major resources, and the ironworks near Wytheville. He then led 6,000 men on another raid into North Carolina and Virginia in March 1865. His command nearly captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As Davis moved his government into North Carolina, Stoneman’s horsemen closed in. Davis was finally captured by the 4th Michigan Cavalry, of Major General James Wilson’s command, in Georgia on May 10. In June 1865, Stoneman was appointed commander of the Department of the Tennessee and headquartered in Memphis, a city torn by racial tension since Black troops comprised a part of the occupying Union army. After a riot broke out on May 1 between the black soldiers and black citizens, it led to charges that Stoneman had not intervened quickly enough to restore order. White Irish-born immigrants, competing with the blacks for manual labor jobs, had killed 46 blacks. Making matters worse was the fact that the Memphis police force was predominately Irish. Later, a Congressional committee investigated the riots and both thanked Stoneman for his assistance as well as rebuking him for not acting as quickly as he perhaps could have.
During the Congressional campaigns of 1866, Stoneman became a Democrat since he was opposed to the radical policies of Reconstruction. Republicans, however, won a sweeping victory and began establishing military districts in the south, placing some ten states under military rule. Stoneman was first tapped to head the sub-district in Petersburg VA and then the district of the state itself. Stoneman, like his predecessor and old friend John Schofield, supported more moderate policies that eased the state through the process. For his services, Stoneman received a brevet to major general in the Regular Army and was mustered out of volunteer service on September 1, 1866.
Upon mustering out, Stoneman reverted to his Regular Army rank of lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Cavalry. Effective back to July 28, 1866, he was appointed colonel of the XXI Infantry, and commanded the Department of Arizona, 1st Military District. On May 3, 1870, Stoneman took command of the Arizona Military Department with headquarters at Drum Barracks. A controversial commander in his dealings with Indian uprisings, Stoneman was relieved of his command in May 1871, retiring with the rank of major general and replaced by George Crook. He had sought retirement due to “injuries” suffered during the Civil War, but President Ulysses Grant discovered that Stoneman’s “disability” was due to the hemorrhoid condition and revoked Stoneman’s rank, reverting him to colonel.
Moving to California, and realizing his life-long dream since first seeing it as a young 2nd lieutenant over 30 years before, Stoneman and wife Mary settled on a 400-acre estate in San Gabriel Valley which he called “Los Robles (The Oaks).” Stoneman cultivated a lush vineyard on the property. The home no longer stands, but the area is today a state historical landmark.
In 1882, he was elected Governor of California and served a four-year term after serving as a Railroad Commissioner from 1876-78. Stoneman had several influential supporters in his nomination, three being Judge David S. Terry, Stephen M. White, and James T. Ayers, the latter the editor of the Evening Express. Stoneman’s principal opponent for nomination was the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, George Hearst (millionaire father of William Randolph Hearst), who led in the early balloting. However, Stoneman’s rural-based supporters rallied and Stoneman was finally nominated on the 14th ballot. In the election, Stoneman faced the Republican Morris M. Estee, an experienced California politician and Speaker of the Assembly. Stoneman campaigned hard throughout the state, hampered by his poor speech-making. His wife Mary (picture at left), who called her husband “Stony,” hated the rigors of campaigning. She once even wrote that seeing her husband in the political arena made her “sick.”
Stoneman won the race handily, capturing 40% of the total vote among four candidates. His administration was early on marked by the controversial issues of the state railroads, but he nevertheless established progressive programs in several arenas. Two new state hospitals were established in 1885, as well as a home for the blind. A Forestry Board, sorely needed, was established.
On July 17, 1885, a fire destroyed Stoneman’s ranch home. The family wasn’t home at the time, but Stoneman’s papers, his Civil War mementos, and most personal possessions were lost. Stoneman’s political supporters, as well as many newspapers, proclaimed the fire to have been set by the Governor’s political enemies. Mary was devastated by the fire, and more so upon learning that her husband had let the insurance lapse so there was no recovery available.
His party did not nominate Stoneman for re-election, as he faced strong opposition within his own party. Without the necessary political skill to build support, Stoneman was not even considered for a second term. In fact, at the convention, his record as governor was hardly even mentioned.
In 1887 he asked for restoration to the military retirement list upon leaving office, which elicited negative comments since there was a perception that his ranch had made him a wealthy man, irrespective of losing his home. He became estranged from his wife over an alleged affair, which she vigorously denied. Broken financially and in poor health, he traveled to New York City and there had surgery to alleviate his hemorrhoids, described by his sister as a “severe operation.” He stayed at her home in Albany to recuperate. On November 28, 1888, Stoneman left Albany and traveled to Buffalo NY, to visit another sister, Charlotte Williams. After more traveling to visit his children and other family, he died at Charlotte’s home in Buffalo on September 5, 1894, as a result of a stoke suffered in April. His final years had been anything but the happy ones he had expected to spend at his home in the beloved California valley.
At the military funeral, all of his pallbearers were civilians, and neither of his sons attended. He is buried in the very small Bentley Cemetery in Lakewood NY, not far from his Busti childhood home, in the Stoneman family plot. A simple family monument in the center briefly tells of Stoneman’s accomplishments, and he is surrounded by his parents and other members of his family. Stoneman’s family home in Busti disappeared long ago, and a new home, built in the 1990’s, now stands on the spot.
In 1970, songwriter J. R. Robertson immortalized Stoneman’s 1865 raid into southwest Virginia in his popular song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Recounting the feeling of the coming end of the war, the song begins:
“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…”
©1970 Canaan Music, Inc.
(My thanks to ol’ buddy Ben Fordney, who assisted with many of the details).