Monday, April 14, 2008

New Biography on George Stoneman

Ben Fordney writes in his preface for his new book:
"There is no lack of Civil War biographies on our nation’s bookshelves celebrating those ‘larger than life’ actors of the great stage of the nation’s most traumatic, yet cathartic, event. Perhaps historical accounts of the most famous Civil War heroes have reached the saturation point. Lee, Grant, and Jackson, for example, have been examined so thoroughly than one wonders if any more can be written to enlarge the places in history of these great commanders.
"Historians are now moving down to the second echelon of Civil War figures..."

Fordney has presented to us the first biography on one of these "second echelon" figures: George Stoneman. Stoneman, of all figures during the Civil War, had a far-reaching influence. He was in Texas at the start of the war, and escaped when Twiggs surrendered the Federals in the state to Southern authorities. On May 24, 1861, Stoneman led a cavalry detachment across the Potomac River, capturing a bridge that led into Alexandria, Virginia, and later the town itself. He then joined the staff of McClellan, who was in command of the Department of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. He then followed McClellan to Washington, and was promoted brigadier general of Volunteers on August 13, 1861, and the following day, Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Stoneman went on to fight on the Peninsula, including a flight in Professor Lowe’s balloon. In September 1862, he was placed in command of the First Division, III Corps, an infantry assignment, with some cavalry elements. Stoneman chased Stuart that September, but failed to capture the Confederate cavalry.

Stoneman was promoted to Major General of Volunteers at the end of November 1862, and commanded the entire III Corps. His Corps fought bravely at Fredericksburg, but they were not really under his command, his three divisions being used to support other Federal Corps. Finally, in February 1863, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized into a solid unit, and Stoneman was placed in command. He led a raid during the battle of Chancellorsville that was later criticized as being ineffectual. In May 1863, Stoneman went on a leave of absence (sickness) and in July 1863, was named Chief of the Cavalry Bureau. His stint in Washington ended in April 1864 when he took command of the cavalry in the Department of the Ohio. He later served in Georgia, and led a raid on Macon in late July 1864, resulting in Stoneman’s capture at Sunshine Church. Released in late 1864, Stoneman was placed second in command of Department of Ohio. Stoneman led a successful raid into southwestern Virginia in December 1864, destroying the lead mines in Wythville, and the Salt works in Saltville.

In March 1865, Stoneman led another raid, this one into western North Carolina. The Raid, the only large-scale military action in the western part of the state during the war, resulted in numerous skirmishes with the home guard and state forces. Stoneman captured numerous local men, destroyed state and government property, but failed to release the Federal prisoners at Salisbury. They had already been moved prior to the raid.

Fordney’s book covers much more than Stoneman’s activities during the war. The author looks at Stoneman’s early life in New York, his admission to West Point, his service with the Mormon battalion, and in Texas. After the war, Stoneman continued serving in the army, being named commander of the Department of Tennessee during reconstruction. Stoneman then served in Virginia, and later in Arizona and California. He retired from the army in 1871. Stoneman served as governor of California, and died in New York in April 1894.

Fordney’s biography of Stoneman is well written, with the usual notes in a clear prose. I do wish there had been more maps detailing the movement of Stoneman’s men during their battles, like Fredericksburg. There are plenty of photographs of Stoneman and his cohorts. I did notice that Fordney writes on page 48: "As Stoneman recuperated from the Peninsula campaign, he courted Mary Oliver Hardisty... The two were married... on November 22, 1861..." Well, if they were married on November 22, 1861, Stoneman was not recovering from the Peninsula campaign, the latter having been fought May through July 1862.

It is not easy writing a biography on a person whose personal letters and papers have not survived. Stoneman’s papers were lost twice: once in a train accident, and the second time in a house fire in California. Fordney has a done a masterful job weaving together from a variety of sources the life of Stoneman. It is unlikely that a better biography could be written.

Ben Fuller Fordney. George Stoneman : A Biography of a Union General. McFarland & Company, 2008. $49.95
ISBN 978-0-7864-3225-7

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