American Civil War: Major General George Stoneman

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Major General George Stoneman. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Stoneman - Early Life & Career:

Born at Busti, NY on August 8, 1822, George Stoneman, Jr. was the son of George and Katharine Stoneman.  The first of ten children, he received his early education at the Jamestown Academy where he excelled in mathematics.  Completing his time at the school at age eighteen, Stoneman sought an appointment to West Point.  As his family lacked political ties, he appealed directly to the Secretary of War.

  This resulted in Stoneman being connected with his Congressman who, lacking other applicants, provided him with admission to the academy.  Arriving at West Point, he became a member of the famed Class of 1846 which included George B. McClellan, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Darius Couch, A.P. Hill, John Gibbon, and George Pickett.  Rooming with Jackson, the two became friends and shared similar quiet, reflective personalities. 

George Stoneman - Life on the Frontier:

A middling student at West Point, Stoneman graduated in 1846 ranked 33rd in a class of 59. Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant, he briefly served with the 1st US Dragoons before being assigned to the Mormon Battalion as a quartermaster.  Overseeing this unit's wagon train, he traveled from Iowa to California with the battalion during the winter of 1846-1847.  Reaching the West Coast, Stoneman quickly came to love California and vowed to make it home later in his life.

  Remaining in the region, he took part in campaigns against the Native Americans at Clear Lake and Russian River in 1850. Stoneman also saw action as a cavalry leader during the Yuma War in 1853.

Promoted to first lieutenant on July 25, 1854, Stoneman compiled a record of admirable service on the frontier.

  As a reward, he was elevated to captain on March 3, 1855 and transferred to the prestigious new 2nd US Cavalry whose officers included Colonel Albert S. Johnston, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, and Majors George H. Thomas and William J. Hardee.  Assigned to Camp Cooper on the Texas frontier, Stoneman found the post lonely and depressing.  Operating against the Native Americans and Mexican bandits, he spent the next six years in Texas.  In 1861, following the election of President Abraham Lincoln and secession of Texas, Stoneman found himself in command of Fort Brown at Brownsville.  Directed to surrender his garrison to Southern forces by Major General David Twiggs, he instead ignored this order and evacuated his men north by water.     

George Stoneman - The Civil War Begins:   

Returning east after the start of the Civil War, Stoneman received a promotion to major and a posting to the 1st US Cavalry on May 9.  This assignment proved brief as he soon joined McClellan's (now a major general) staff in western Virginia.  Serving as assistant inspector general, he following his commander to Washington later that summer when McClellan took command of the newly-created Army of the Potomac.

  Elevated to brigadier general on August 13, Stoneman assumed the position of Chief of Cavalry for the army.  This post proved largely symbolic as McClellan divided his cavalry forces among his infantry corps which prevented it from operating in a unified fashion.  Moving south to the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, the folly of this policy was shown when Major General J.E.B. Stuart's centralized Confederate cavalry badly outperformed Stoneman's dispersed command during the advance towards Richmond and the Seven Days Battles.

George Stoneman - Infantry and Back to Cavalry:

With the failure of the Peninsula Campaign, Stoneman was transferred to lead infantry divisions in II Corps and, later, III Corps.  Success in these roles led him to receive command of III Corps on October 30.  Marching south, III Corps served in Major General Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division during the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13.

  Seeing action towards the south end of the battlefield, Stoneman's men performed well in a supporting role.  In the spring of 1863, having taken command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker moved to centralize his cavalry into a single Cavalry Corps.  Promoted to major general in March, Stoneman was tapped to lead this new formation.

In devising his campaign plan for May, Hooker intended for Stoneman to take his corps on a sweeping raid to the west and south of the Confederate position at Fredericksburg.  The intent of this effort was to cut General Robert E. Lee's supply lines south towards Richmond and destroy Confederate property.  While Stoneman moved through the enemy's rear, Hooker would strike directly against Lee.  Departing at the end of April, Stoneman's men moved through the enemy rear and though they destroyed a large amount of enemy goods and property they had little impact on Hooker's campaign.  Badly defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker deflected part of the blame for the loss on Stoneman.  Relieving him from command for medical reasons (he suffered from chronic hemorrhoids), Stoneman was replaced by Major General Alfred Pleasonton.  

George Stoneman - Washington & the West:

Appointed Chief of the US Cavalry Bureau in Washington, DC, Stoneman oversaw the training and supply of Union cavalry units for the remainder of 1863.  Increasingly unhappy in an administrative position, he requested a return to field service in early 1864.  This was granted by his friend Major General John Schofield who oversaw the Department of the Ohio.

  Though initially slated to lead XXIII Corps, Stoneman later assumed command of the department's cavalry forces.  Taking part in Major General William T. Sherman's campaign against Atlanta, his cavalry met with disaster during a raid on July 31.  Tasked with destroying the railroad between Atlanta and Macon as well as liberating Union prisoners at Andersonville, Stoneman was instead defeated and captured at the Battle of Sunshine Church.

The highest ranking Union officer captured during the war, Stoneman was exchanged three months later for Brigadier General Daniel C. Govan.  Returned to active duty, he salvaged his reputation that December when he led a successful expedition into southwest Virginia.  This saw him win victories at Marion and Saltville as well as destroy ironworks near Wytheville.  The following March, Stoneman mounted a raid from Knoxville, TN which penetrated deep into North Carolina and southern Virginia.  Laying waste to the country, his troops also burned the famed Salisbury Prison.  As the war neared an end, Stoneman's men nearly captured a fleeing President Jefferson Davis.

George Stoneman - Later Life & Career:

Made commander of the Department of the Tennessee in June 1865 after the war's end, Stoneman was criticized the following year for not moving quickly enough to quell racially-fueled riots that erupted in Memphis.  Though opposed to the harsher reconstruction policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress, he received command of the 1st Military District (Virginia) where he was noted for his moderate policies.

  Mustered out of the volunteer service on September 1, 1886, Stoneman reverted to his Regular Army rank of lieutenant colonel.  Promoted to colonel, he received orders to oversee the Department of Arizona in 1870.  While in this post, Stoneman invited controversy due to his manner of dealing with Native American uprisings.

Replaced by Major General George Crook in May 1871, Stoneman retired from the service and fulfilled his dream of returning to California.  Settling in the San Gabriel Valley, he built a vineyard and later served as the state's railroad commissioner (1876-1878).  Increasingly active in state politics, Stoneman was elected governor in 1882.  While in office, his home burned to the ground with many believing it the work of his political enemies.  In increasingly poor health, Stoneman returned to New York for medical treatment.  While in Buffalo, he died of a stroke on September 5, 1894.  Stoneman's remains were interred at Bentley Cemetery in Lakewood, NY.    

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