“Very few men suffered so much for their country”: How Private Cornelius Stone Beat the Odds at Cold Harbor

Cornelius Stone later in life. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

Imagine being shot four times and wounded by artillery fire twice in an hour of ferocious combat. Imagine spending the next six days out in the open without even the most elementary medical attention. Imagine barely being able to crawl thirty feet with a broken arm and a shattered knee to safety. And then imagine spending a year recovering from this terrible collection of wounds. Cornelius Hathaway Stone of the 5th New Hampshire did not have to imagine these things; he lived them.

Stone was born in 1844 in Cornish, NH to a family of very modest means. After a stint in Weathersfield, VT, Stone’s father moved the family to Claremont, NH, where the Census of 1860 found him a “Laborer” with $800 in real estate and $100 in personal estate.[i]

Stone enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire in Manchester, NH, on February 12, 1862. Why he enlisted there instead of at home is puzzling; 1st Lieutenant Jacob Keller was then recruiting for the regiment in Claremont. Perhaps Stone, who was underage, sought to avoid detection by someone who knew him. Or maybe his father had tried to stop him from enlisting. Whatever the case, Stone was mustered in on February 28, 1862. A muster roll describes him as a “Laborer” with black eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion. He measured a mere 5’ 4”.[ii]

Stone’s first 18 months in the 5th New Hampshire proved uneventful. He passed through the fights at Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg unscathed—something of a feat when so many of his fellow soldiers were killed or wounded in these battles. Stone’s odyssey only began when he was captured on July 26, 1863 at White Plains, Virginia.

Most of what follows comes from Otis Waite’s Claremont War History (1868).[iii] When the Civil War started, Waite, a wealthy local worthy involved in the insurance business, was designated Claremont’s semi-official “historiographer” to “keep a record of events” in town during the war. This task he faithfully pursued, writing a book that not only described what transpired in town but also included short biographies of every man from Claremont who served in the Union forces during the war. In a number of cases—including Stone’s—it’s clear that Waite spoke to the subjects of these biographies; the detail is such that one can almost hear these men talking.

Although Stone went into much detail about other events, he had nothing to say about the circumstances of his capture, and one wonders if these did not reflect well on him. He proved particularly unlucky in his timing; the 5th New Hampshire was shipped off to Concord, NH, to rest and recruit only a week after his capture. Stone was initially sent to Libby Prison before being taken to Belle Isle where he “was kept one hundred and fourteen days.” He was obviously proud of having survived this infamous camp, but he provided no details about his incarceration. Is it possible that he might not have been so proud of what he needed to do to survive? According to a number of accounts, starving, sick, ill-clad Union prisoners at Belle Isle frequently brawled over scarce food, blankets and clothing. The losers often perished. This experience must have been traumatic for young Stone.

Belle Isle (ca. 1863). This image was taken by photographer Charles R. Rees. (See Valentine Museum).

Although he may not have realized it, Stone was lucky in one regard. In February 1864, Confederate authorities sought to mitigate overcrowding at Belle Isle by sending Union POWs to Andersonville, Salisbury, and Danville—all of which were notorious for high mortality rates.[iv] Stone, however, was paroled and then exchanged on May 28, 1864—just in time to rejoin the 5th New Hampshire for the Overland Campaign.[v] Less than a week later, on June 3, 1864, he participated in the Army of the Potomac’s massive three-corps assault at Cold Harbor.

For the 5th New Hampshire, the early-morning attack began well. Although the regiments on either side of this unit had gone to ground seeking the shelter of the Dispatch Station Road, the 5th New Hampshire pressed on. Halfway through the assault, Colonel Charles Hapgood, then commander of the regiment, noticed that fire from the Confederate salient west of the McGhee House had slackened, largely because the 7th New York Heavy Artillery had overrun the Southern works in that area. Hapgood changed the axis of his attack by ordering the regiment to wheel right (northward) at the double-quick so that he, too, could push his men into the salient. The soldiers from New Hampshire punched right through a Virginia regiment, collected large numbers of prisoners, and without hesitation pressed westward till they had seized the McGhee House and its outbuildings. Here the 5th New Hampshire was met by the 2nd Maryland and Finnegan’s Florida Brigade who, by force of numbers, drove the Northerners back into the salient. A vicious melee ensued that included hand-to-hand fighting and the discharge of canister at extremely short range as the 5th New Hampshire along with the 7th New York Heavy Artillery clung to their dearly bought position inside Confederate lines.[vi] The outnumbered Northerners, “fired upon from front and both flanks, and failing of any support” (to quote Major James Larkin of the 5th New Hampshire), were eventually compelled to flee in disorder. In all, the 5th New Hampshire lost over 200 casualties.[vii]

Alfred Waud, “7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864” (1864): This sketch is often represented as depicting the 7th New York Heavy Artillery leaving its trenches to start its assault on the Confederate fortifications. The presence of Confederate prisoners in the foreground of the image, though, indicates that Waud sought to show the regiment fighting on or near the Confederate entrenchments. In attempting to maintain a toehold inside the rebel position, the New Yorkers were assisted by the 5th New Hampshire which was the only other Union regiment that breached the Confederate line. Both units suffered stiff losses from the intense close-quarters fighting that took place near the McGhee House. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery suffered 420 casualties while the soldiers from the Granite State lost over 200 men. (See Library of Congress.)

One of them was Stone. A bullet had broken his right arm. Two more bullets had struck him in the leg below the knee. A fourth bullet had pierced his side. He had taken some grapeshot in the knee while some shrapnel had struck him in the back. For the next six days, he lay in a Confederate-occupied rifle pit. During that time, according to Stone, the rebels took from him $50, his tobacco, and all his valuables (which is entirely believable). Also, during that time, Stone claimed he had “nothing to eat or drink” (which is less believable). Over those six days, he had plenty of time to contemplate what surely must have seemed like his impending death. On June 9, the rebels retreated, and Union forces had advanced to within “two rods” of Stone’s rifle pit. That night, Stone, who was “so weak from his sufferings and the loss of blood that he could hardly speak or move,” “crawled with the utmost difficulty” toward the Northern breastworks and fell into the hands of the 2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry. His ordeal had just begun.

Gilbert Gaul, “Between the Lines during a Truce” from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, volume 3 (1888): After the failure of Grant’s June 3, 1864 assault on Lee’s position at Cold Harbor, the two commanders bickered over the terms of a truce that would have permitted the two armies to collect their wounded and bury their dead. It was not until June 7 that Grant and Lee finally concluded an agreement. This delay spelled the doom of many Union soldiers who had been wounded in the June 3 attack and stuck between the two armies. It was nothing short of miraculous that Stone, who lay inside the Confederate position for six days, survived his ordeal.

Stone’s wounds were tended to on the morning of June 10, and he was taken to White House Landing, “riding fourteen miles over corduroy roads in an army wagon” (ugh!). From White House Landing, he traveled to Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, VA (by steamer, I presume), where his leg was amputated above the knee. Over five months later, the stump nearly healed, he was forwarded to Boston, MA, for a stay at Pemberton Square Hospital (now the site of Government Center). While hobbling to the hospital, his crutch slipped on the sidewalk, and he injured his leg badly. Gangrene set in, and four more inches of his leg had to be amputated. The surgeon “told Stone and his friends that he probably could not live through the operation, though he could not possibly live without it.” Stone survived the 90-minute procedure and, after six weeks, was sent on to a military hospital in Manchester, NH. Eventually, he traveled to Central Park Hospital in New York City to be fitted with an artificial leg, and it was here that he was eventually discharged from the army on June 8, 1865. Waite concluded this tale by rightfully stating “very few men suffered so much for their country as did young Stone.”

Stone now faced the rest of his life minus a leg. How did he fare?

At this great remove in time with only the barest of documentation, it’s hard to say. Stone took a step in the right direction when he obtained a much-deserved pension in July 1865.[viii] In September 1865, he was back in Claremont where he married 15-year-old Harriet N. Chase.[ix] That he was married so soon after returning to Claremont suggests that Stone had known Chase before his enlistment (he had not been back to Claremont since then)—that is, when she had been 11 or 12.[x] Although marrying a girl of this age was legal and not unheard of, it was also a bit unusual and somewhat skeevy. In 1866, the newlyweds had a son—their only child—named Charles.

We next find Stone in 1880, living in Goodwin Township in the Dakota Territory, not far from the Minnesota border. While his wife “kept house” and his 14-year-old son worked as a “farmhand,” Stone plied his occupation as a machinist [xi] The township had just been incorporated a couple of years before and numbered only about 600 souls (four times larger than its current population of 140). What could bring a machinist to this end of the world?

Stone, however, was not done traveling. The 1890 Veterans Census placed him in Shelton, WA. Even had the form not indicated his regiment, it would be impossible to mistake him. Under “Disability Incurred,” we find the following laconic comment: “Six wounds; one leg amputated.” Under “Remarks,” there appears, “Prisoner on Belle Isle.”[xii] One can almost imagine Stone telling the census-taker the same story he told Waite—with perhaps a few embellishments that had sprouted up over time. What brought Stone to Washington is unknown. Since all we have from that year is the Veterans Census, we know nothing of his family situation.

What we can surmise, though, is that by the early 1890s, Harriet was out of the picture—whether through death or divorce, it is impossible to say. The reason we can make this surmise is because Stone married Gertrude Slade in 1894.[xiii] This marriage did not take, for by the 1900 Census, Stone was divorced. By this point, he was still working as a machinist. He lived in Hadlock, WA, with Charles who was now married and had two daughters and a son.[xiv]

Cornelius Stone after the war sporting some sort of fraternal regalia. (See FindAGrave.) 

Stone died in March 1901 in Shelton, WA.[xv] What are we to make of Stone’s post-war experiences? If we so wished, we could stress the signs of a life where all was not well—the young teenage bride, a marriage that produced only one child, the restless movement westward, the divorce, and the early death. Literature about Civil War veterans often tends to emphasize the lingering effects of trauma on men who suffered much during the conflict. While I certainly do not wish to minimize his pain, I’d like to point to evidence of ways in which Stone may have compensated for this suffering by finding meaning in his life. His headstone, which appears on FindAGrave, bears two important symbols. One, located above his name, appears to be associated with a fraternal order. Indeed, in one of the few photos I’ve seen of Stone, he is outfitted in the regalia of such an order (which one, I cannot tell). The other symbol carved into the side of his stone represents a Grand Army of the Republic badge.[xvi] Perhaps I’m reading too much into Stone’s headstone, but it appears that he found comfort in masculine associations of likeminded men with similar experiences. These may have substituted for the camaraderie he had experienced in the 5th New Hampshire and helped support him psychologically during difficult times for the rest of his life.

Stone’s marker in Shelton Memorial Park in Shelton, WA. The fraternal symbol appears above his name. On the other face of the stone visible to viewer, one can detect a representation of the GAR badge. Click to enlarge. (See FindAGrave.)

[i] “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WG-PF3 : 11 November 2020), Cornelius Stone in entry for Geo D Stone, 1860.

[ii] “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q27M-MB52 : 16 March 2018), Cornelius H Stone, 12 Feb 1862; citing Manchester, Manchester, Hillsborough, New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,257,887.

[iii] Otis F. R. Waite, Claremont War History; April, 1861, to April 1865 (Concord, NH: McFarland & Jenks, Printers, 1868), 138-141.

[iv] https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/belle_isle_prison#start_entry

[v] Ayling’s Revised Register has Stone re-enlisting on March 29, 1864 while Waite has the date as April 1, 1864. How Stone could have re-enlisted while he was still in prison remains unclear to me.

[vi] Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee May 26-June 3, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 324-327.

[vii] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 270.

[viii] “United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QJDP-JNNG : 13 March 2018), Cornelius H Stone, 1865.

[ix] “New Hampshire Marriage Records, 1637-1947,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FLFH-P2N : 2 April 2020), Cornelieus H. Stone and Harriett N. Chase, 09 Sep 1865; citing Claremont, Sullivan, New Hampshire, Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, Concord; FHL microfilm 1,001,307.

[x] The marriage record claims she was born in Claremont and resided there, but I have not been able to find her in the Census of 1860, when she was presumably ten years old.

[xi] “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MCVQ-QJ7 : 12 November 2020), Cornelius Stone, Goodwin, Deuel, Dakota Territory, United States; citing enumeration district ED 46, sheet 500A, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,254,112.

[xii] “United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K8S4-F1V : 11 March 2018), Cornelius H Stone, 1890; citing NARA microfilm publication M123 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 338,267.

[xiii] “Washington, County Marriages, 1855-2008,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QPMK-B914 : 28 November 2018), Cornelius H Stone and Gertrude Slade, 1 Dec 1894, Shelton, Mason, Washington, United States, Washington State Archives, Olympia; FamilySearch digital folder 102115024.

[xiv] “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MMP6-6W9 : accessed 23 November 2020), Cornelius H Stone in household of Charles Stone, Chimacum and Hadlock Precincts, Jefferson, Washington, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 46, sheet 4B, family 108, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,241,743.

[xv] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/28474828/_

[xvi] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/28474828/_