George Stoneman was born on August 8, 1822, on his family’s farm in Chautauqua County, near Busti (later incorporated as the village of Lakewood), New York. Stoneman was the first of ten children (eight of whom reached adulthood) of George and Catherine Rebecca (Cheney) Stoneman. Stoneman’s father was a locally prominent lumberman who also served as a justice of the peace.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Young Stoneman attended the Jamestown Academy, in Jamestown, New York, until the age of 18. In 1842, he entered the United States Military Academy where he roomed with future Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Among Stoneman’s other classmates were future Union General George B. McClellan, and future Confederate General George E. Pickett. Stoneman graduated from the Academy in 1846, ranked 33rd out of his class of 59 cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, army officials brevetted Stoneman as a second lieutenant with the 1st Dragoons, on July 1, 1846. He served with the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), although he did not see any combat action against Mexican soldiers. Established in 1846, the battalion of over 500 Mormon volunteers helped the United States secure much of the Southwest and California.
The army promoted Stoneman to the full rank of second lieutenant on July 12, 1847, as he continued to serve in the far west. From 1850 to 1853, he took part in the Yuma War as he helped with mapping the Sierra Nevada mountain range for railroad construction. On July 25, 1854, Stoneman received a promotion to first lieutenant. Less than a year later, on March 3, 1855, officials promoted Stoneman to captain and reassigned him to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry in Texas. In 1858, Stoneman took a leave of absence to travel in Europe. Returning to duty in 1859, the army again stationed Stoneman in Texas, where he campaigned against Juan Cortina’s Mexican marauders who were engaged in guerrilla warfare against the United States Army.
When the Civil War began, Stoneman was in charge of Fort Brown, Texas, serving under Major General David E. Twiggs, commander of the Department of Texas. When Twiggs, who was a southern sympathizer, ordered Stoneman to surrender his command to the Confederacy, Stoneman refused. Instead, he escaped with most of his troops via the Gulf of Mexico.
Army of the Potomac Chief of Cavalry
Stoneman returned east and received an assignment to the defenses of Washington, D.C. in May 1861. On May 9, the army promoted Stoneman to major and assigned him to the 1st Cavalry. On June 20, George B. McClellan selected Stoneman to serve as his adjutant in Western Virginia. A few weeks later, on August 13, the War Department commissioned Stoneman as a brigadier general in the volunteer army and appointed him as Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.
On November 22, 1861, Stoneman married Mary Oliver Hardisty of Baltimore. Their marriage produced four children.
Stoneman continued in his position as Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac throughout McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862). After the failed campaign, McClellan placed Stoneman in charge of the 1st division of the army’s 3rd infantry corps on September 10, 1862, replacing Major General Philip Kearny who perished on September 1 during the Battle of Chantilly.
The Peninsula Campaign and the Northern Virginia Campaign had decimated the 3rd corps so much that officials ordered it to the defenses of Washington, causing Stoneman to miss the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
On November 15, 1862, the army promoted Stoneman to command the 3rd corps, replacing Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman who they had relieved of duty with the Army of the Potomac on October 30. The War Department commissioned Stoneman as a major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862.
Battle of Fredericksburg
Stoneman commanded the 3rd corps during the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), but the unit was not heavily engaged. Still, he received a brevet promotion to the rank of colonel in the regular army effective December 13, 1862, for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Fredericksburg.”
Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps Commander
Following the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Major General Joseph Hooker succeeded Major General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. February 5, 1863, Hooker reorganized the army, centralizing his horsemen and creating a cavalry corps comprising three divisions. Hooker chose Stoneman to command the new corps.
When Hooker began his 1863 spring offensive, which culminated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6), he sent Stoneman on a major raid behind enemy lines near Fredericksburg.
Stoneman’s Raid of 1863 began on April 13 when the cavalry commander led 10,000 federal troopers out of the main camp of the Army of the Potomac near Falmouth, Virginia. Hooker ordered Stoneman to cut the Army of Northern Virginia’s supply lines, forcing them to abandon their defenses at Fredericksburg. Two days later, torrential rains began falling, making the Rappahannock River impassable. Stoneman could not begin his crossing of the Rappahannock until April 27, placing Hooker’s plan far behind schedule. Once across the river, Stoneman destroyed some railroad lines between Richmond and Fredericksburg, but he could not completely sever the Rebel supply lines. Losing contact with Hooker on April 30, he did not rejoin the army until May 7, after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Eager to find a scapegoat for the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville and deflect criticism from himself, Hooker placed much of the blame on Stoneman. On June 7, 1863, Hooker sacked Stoneman and placed Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton in charge of the cavalry corps. Army officials sent Stoneman back to Washington, where he went on sick leave from June 10 to July 20, to receive medical treatment for a severe case of hemorrhoids, aggravated by his prolonged service on horseback. On July 28, officials assigned Stoneman to a desk job in the nation’s capital as Chief of the Cavalry Bureau.
Army of the Ohio Cavalry Corps Commander
On January 29, 1864, Stoneman secured another field assignment as commander of the cavalry corps of the 23rd Army Corps. Army officials promoted Stoneman to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on March 30, 1864, and assigned him to command the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Ohio.
Captured during Atlanta Campaign
While taking part in Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign (May 7-September 2, 1864), Rebels captured Stoneman on July 31 at Clinton, Georgia while leading an unsuccessful raid to free federal soldiers from the infamous Andersonville prison. Stoneman was the highest-ranking Union officer captured during the war. The Confederacy exchanged him after three months of captivity, on October 27, for Brigadier General Daniel C. Govan.
After his release, Stoneman served temporarily as commander of the Department of the Ohio during November 1864. In December, he led a raid into Southwestern Virginia, during which his troopers captured and destroyed the vital Rebel saltworks at Saltville, Virginia. Upon his return, Stoneman served briefly as commander of the District of East Tennessee, from February 14 to March 20, 1865. On March 13, army officials brevetted Stoneman to major general in the regular army “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.”
Stoneman’s Raid of 1865
On March 20, 1865, Stoneman led roughly 4,000 troopers out of Knoxville on an expedition into western North Carolina and Virginia. Known as Stoneman’s Raid of 1865, the foray coincided with Sherman’s more-publicized march through the eastern Carolinas. Like Sherman, Stoneman’s aim was to demoralize Southern sympathizers by implementing the slash-and-burn practices of “total war.” Traveling over 2,000 miles in thirty-eight days, Stoneman’s troopers destroyed hundreds of miles of railroad and sacked the towns of Statesville, Lincolnton, Taylorsville, and Asheville, North Carolina. The controversial invasion did not end until Stoneman’s return to Tennessee on April 26, the same day Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
Post-war Violence in Memphis
Upon his return, Stoneman held several administrative assignments. From June 27, 1865, to June 5, 1866, he served as commander of the Department of Tennessee. During his tenure, racial riots erupted in Memphis on May 1–3, 1866, resulting in the death of forty-six blacks and two whites, besides multiple occurrences of rape, robbery, and arson in predominantly black neighborhoods. Congress later investigated (and exonerated) Stoneman for failing to deploy federal troops to quell the violence until the third day. On July 28, 1866, officials promoted Stoneman to the full rank of colonel in the regular army.
After the Civil War ended, Stoneman commanded the District of Petersburg from December 17, 1866, to June 1, 1868. Although he became a member of the Democratic Party and opposed Radical Reconstruction policies, Stoneman commanded the First Military District from June 2, 1868 to March 31, 1869.
In 1869, the army transferred Stoneman to the West where he commanded the District of Arizona, (August 16, 1869–May 2, 1870) and the Department of Arizona, (May 3, 1870–June 4, 1871). His controversial handling of Indian uprisings resulted in his dismissal on June 4. On August 16, 1871, the Board to Retire Disabled Officers granted Stoneman a disability retirement, at his brevetted rank of major general, because of the severe case of hemorrhoids from which he still suffered. Three days later, President Grant revoked the disability allowance, forcing Stoneman to retire at his regular army grade of colonel.
Governor of California
Stoneman moved to California, where he became a rancher on a 400-acre estate in the San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles. He also served as a state railroad commissioner from 1876 to 1878. In 1882, voters elected Stoneman as Governor of California for one four-year term from January 10, 1883 to January 10, 1887. Under terms of the California state constitution, Stoneman had to waive his military pension to serve as governor, an action he would later regret. At the conclusion of his term, the Democratic Party did not renominate Stoneman because of political tensions over railroad and water issues.
Stoneman’s last years were not happy ones. On July 17, 1885, his uninsured house burned to the ground with all of his possessions, leaving him impoverished. On February 9, 1891, after much political maneuvering, Congress passed special legislation reinstating Stoneman’s retirement benefits. Stoneman moved his family to Los Angeles, where his wife allegedly engaged in an extra-marital affair. Possibly to escape the resulting notoriety, Stoneman traveled to Buffalo, New York to visit his sister, Charlotte S. Williams, wife of New York Senator Benjamin H. Williams, in 1891. As his health deteriorated, he remained in New York, never returning to his family in California.
Stoneman suffered a stroke in April 1894, from which he never recovered. He died on the morning of September 5, 1894. Mourners buried Stoneman at Bentley Cemetery, Lakewood, New York, following funeral services in Buffalo.