U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

<< Previous TOC Next >>

Portrait of a General: General Roy Stone

Part 3 of 8

The Wilderness

Stone's military records indicate he was "Badly wounded" and that he had been "Captured at Gettysburg Pa. & Paroled July 4." Evidence suggests that Stone and his wounded men had received little, if any, medical attention in McPherson's barn after it fell behind Confederate lines. On August 1, Dr. John Dickson operated on Stone:

I operated on Col. Roy Stone for the removal of a minie ball from the Iliac Gassae. In conducting the operation it became necessary to seperate [sic] the origin of the iliacus internus from the bone. From this he recovered sufficiently to resume his duties.(85)

Stone was absent for medical treatment through October 1863. On October 31, he was assigned to Washington as President of Court Martial. He remained in this position until March 23, 1864, when he returned to command. Stone's Third Brigade, which included the 143rd, 149th and 150th regiments, was part of Major General James S. Wadsworth's 4th Division of the 5th Army Corps.

Colonel Stone joined his regiments near Culpeper, Virginia, on March 24. James Barnes of Company A described how the men felt about the return of the Colonel who had led them to glory on July 1, 1863:

The boys gave him three hearty cheers and throwed their hats in the air. He undertook to speak to them but it was of no use for you could not hear yourself think for the cheers. We fairly worship him. When I saw him coming I felt as though I wanted to put my arms around his neck and kiss him. And that is the sentiment of the regiment.(86)

The first action Stone participated in following his return to command was the Battle of the Wilderness, which began on May 5, 1864. The Wilderness, in Orange County west of Fredericksburg, was crossed by the Orange Turnpike, the Orange Plank Road, and other roads and trails. It also was an area of swamps and dense vegetation. The swamps would prove to be at the heart of Stone's only military failure and the single most controversial action of his career.

General Wadsworth's 4th Division began moving at 6 a.m. in the direction of Parker's Store Road. When a report was received that Confederate forces were coming to the scene along Orange Turnpike, the 4th Division halted around 8 a.m. to await further instructions. Orders were received around 10:30 a.m.: "Push forward a heavy line of skirmishers, followed by your line of battle, and attack the enemy at once and push him." Matthews described how this order was followed:

In Stone's brigade, the 150th set out as skirmishers through dense undergrowth and low-limbed, stunted trees; branches caught hold of accouterments and vines locked the legs. Company B. 149th, under command of Lieutenant William Holden, went out to support the skirmishers and the combined force reported moving one to one and one-half miles to the west. This movement was well-timed. It occurred when the forces of Griffin and Cutler on the Orange Turnpike and just south of it were driving the Confederate brigade of John M. Jones out of its defensive position and the Turnpike and pressing back Doles' brigade holding the woods south of it.(87)

With the appearance of an easy victory over a retreating, outnumbered foe, General Wadsworth moved his men into position for the major thrust. His line of battle was anchored by General James Rice on the left, Colonel Stone in the center, and General Lysander Cutler on the right. As Stone's brigade moved toward their position, they crossed Higgerson Farm. Company D of the 149th removed a picket fence and trampled through a garden. An account in Blue and Gray Magazine described the incident:

A woman, presumably Mrs. Permelia Higgerson, came to the door of her house and to the Pennsylvanians expressed "her views on matters in strong language." The woman pronounced them "a pack of cowardly Yankees" and predicted that they would soon be retreating back.(88)

Once in position, Rice, Stone, and Cutler moved their men toward Orange Turnpike, intending to keep their units in line. The terrain made that impossible. Stone's men had the toughest route, taking them into the Wilderness Run valley of dense undergrowth and swampy ground. They moved forward with axes and hatchets to cut through the underbrush. Soon, the regiments were intermixed and confused, while Stone had become separated from Rice and Cutler. Just as General Daniel's men were beginning their attack, General John B. Gordon's Georgia brigade appeared unexpectedly, shouted the Rebel yell, and attacked Stone's men head on. His brigade, hopelessly bogged down in a swamp without support on either side, managed to pull themselves out and retreat. As one participant later wrote:

The engagement at this point was of short duration, but quite lively while it lasted, and not at all satisfactory to our men, who could not do much execution while floundering about in the mud and water up to their middle . . . . It was evident before long that this locality was altogether too unhealthy; and when the order to retire was given, the scrambling to get out of the mud hole was amusing as well as ridiculous.(89)

All accounts describe Stone's men as unnerved, bewildered, and otherwise disorganized during the retreat. Private Harris recalled that the men "ran to the rear pell mell like a flock of scared sheep" and that the 149th had fired on the 143rd by mistake.(90) And as they crossing Heggerson Farm, Mrs. Higgerson was waiting for them with taunts and derision. Blue and Gray Magazine quotes a soldier in the 149th who acknowledged that "we were whipped for that time and she knew it."

Matthews, reviewing accounts of participants, summarized the common threads:

. . . the terrain was swampy in places and composed of knolls and swales; the undergrowth was difficult to penetrate and obscured the view of adjoining units; the musketry was brief but intense; the troops were confused and had no idea of the position of the battle line or where the enemy was located; a tremendous volley, described as a "sheet of flame," hit them as they were moving in swamp and vine entanglements and most units panicked and left the field in a rout while a few effected a more orderly retreat.(91)

The whole episode had taken about 20 minutes. But the retreat of Stone's men exposed the remainder of General Wadsworth's brigades and led to a disastrous general rout. The Confederates, equally confused by the terrain, did not pursue the retreating Union forces.

By 2 p.m., the Bucktails, minus those killed, wounded, captured, or missing in action, had regrouped, but their attitude had changed in just a few hours. Matthews described them as "the badly frightened, once proud Bucktails [who were] emotionally and physically spent, trembling from fatigue and fear."(92) This assessment would be validated just a few hours later.

They had little time to regroup. General Wadsworth, although upset by the 4th Division's performance, wanted an opportunity for his battle-tested troops to prove themselves. At about 6 p.m., his brigades again moved out from their position on the Lacy farm, headed through the woods toward the extreme left of General A. P. Hill's battle line. Matthews quoted Private Harris of the 143rd recalling the moment when Colonel Stone reformed his troops: "Colonel Stone rode along our lines and in the must insulting, exasperating manner, laid the blame for the forenoon rout on the 143rd."(93)

Stone's brigade was one of the two in the lead of the battle formation, the other being Brigadier General Henry Baxter's. As described by historian Edward Steere, they came upon the enemy's rear while the enemy was engaged from the front.

Destitute of reserves, [Confederate General] Hill could not withdraw a single formation from his extended front. The only available force for immediate use was a small detachment, 125 men in all, of the 5th Alabama Battalion, which had been detailed to guard prisoners. These Alabamians were hurriedly sent to develop [sic] the menacing Federal advance.

Wisely employing the most effective tactic of forest warfare, surprise, the small detachment deployed on a wide front and crept stealthily forward. At a given signal, the Alabamians let forth a demoniacal yell and opened fire. The shout and the volley were magnified tenfold in the weird, woodland twilight. Baxter's skirmishers returned the fire. Unnerved by the flashing burst of musketry in their front, Stone's men, who had been first to quit the line in the fight with Ewell's Corps, now broke and ran in disgraceful panic. The [Colonel's] horse reared in fright; Stone fell to the ground and was carried from the field, never to return to the Army of the Potomac.(94)

The account of this moment by Matthews described the impact of Baxter's attack on Stone's men:

The effect on Stone's brigade was immediate. They were in another trap! It was a repeat of the morning horror. They reacted with shouts and curses, became terror-stricken, and began to fire wildly.

Matthews described Stone's actions when confronted with yet another rout of his Bucktails:

Pandemonium ensued. It was Stone who shouted for his men to fire. His bellowed orders only caused more confusion within the brigade and soon its wild fire was sent in on the rear of its own skirmishers. Other brigades, bewildered by the shouting and the roar of muskets, and uncertain of the situation, began to add their fire to an unseen enemy. The heretofore quiet advance became a "howling wilderness."

While the confusion spread, Wadsworth ordered his men to cease firing:

Stone apparently received the command but refused to obey. He and the men of his brigade continued to shout and fire. In response to Wadsworth's order for quiet he had his troops deliver a roaring cheer for Pennsylvania. The 4th Division commander sent off a direct order for Stone to report to him regarding the incident but Stone never complied. Perhaps he was incapable of reporting, for sometime during the bedlam, Stone was thrown from his horse and left the field never to return to active field command again.

Stone's leaderless brigade "panicked, broke, and ran for the rear."

Just what prompted Stone's "bizarre action," as Matthews put it, remains open to debate. Matthews offered the theory that Stone was influenced by the appearance of the small force from the 5th Alabama Battalion. In a footnote, the historian again quoted Private Harris of the 143rd about the incident:

As soon as the rebels fired on us, one would have thought that old Stone had gone crazy. Hat off, and his coat thrown back on his shoulders, he rode down behind his line of "tails," which a line of western troops had stopped. Cursing and swinging his sword he drove them back to our line again. No excuse this time for the 149th to run and Stone knew it.

Matthews also offered the alternative theory voiced by Private Harris, namely that Stone's actions, including his fall from his horse, resulted from an overdose of "bust head" or commissary whiskey. Harris, in his well-known dislike for Colonel Stone and the Bucktails, placed the blame on the officers for leaning on "our weak-kneed new men" of the Bucktails:

Stone had recruited the 149th Bucktails as a crack regiment from the lumber camps of Pennsylvania. This was his own model of a brave regiment and they had brains enough in this instance to run away so that they might fight another day. And if, in my opinion, they were not good fighters it was all from a lack of confidence in their leaders for they knew a drunken leader was worse than none.(95)

Matthews agreed with this assessment. He asked, "how can one predict the course of events if Roy Stone had been sober when he led his brigade through the woods toward A. P. Hill's line on the evening of May 5 in the Wilderness."(96)

General Wadsworth's second line of brigades stopped the panic-stricken retreat. The brigades slowly reformed, with Stone's remaining officers being credited for their efforts to restore order and inspire their men.(97) However, darkness prevented further attack that night.

According to Dr. Dickson, Stone's fall from his horse broke the union of the iliacus internus with the bone, which had healed following the injury at Gettysburg. Recovery took several months, during which, on July 7, 1864, Stone was breveted Brigadier General of volunteers, effective September 7, 1864, "for gallant services during the war and especially at Gettysburg."

Discharge for General Stone

The injury was sufficiently bothersome to prompt Stone to seek a discharge. On July 28, 1864, Stone submitted the following letter to Brigadier General Seth Williams:

I beg leave respectfully to tender my resignation of the commission of Colonel of the 149th Reg't Penna Volunteers on the ground of continued disability resulting from a wound received at the battle of Gettysburg and aggravated by subsequent injuries in the battle of the Wilderness.(98)

Stone enclosed a medical statement indicating that he "will not be able to resume his duties and undergo the fatigue and exposure of a Campaign." The request was not approved although it was kept on file. Stone, having recovered sufficiently by August, was assigned to command Camp Curtin in Harrisburg.

In January 1865, he was appointed Commander of the Military Prison at Alton, Illinois. On January 21, 1865, while in Alton, he submitted the following letter, again requesting that his resignation be accepted:

I have been indebted to you for a great many acts of kindness, but I am going to ask you for one more.

Perhaps this will be the last. Certainly it is the most important to my interests and I will be grateful in proportion.

I am extremely anxious to have my Resignation accepted. My business affairs have been neglected now for four years at great sacrifice--and now an opportunity offers for making up the losses and more if I can give my personal attention to it.

My family have about 7000 acres of land on the Teonesta Creek in Penna, which has never been of much value--but which might now be brought into market as oil territory at immense profit if it were rightly managed--but my Father is old and feeble and I am the only son--so there is no one to attend to the business.

The duty I am doing here could be as well done by the Col. of the Regiment stationed here--144th Illinois--or by Genl Copeland whom I relieved and who is still here awaiting orders--

My terms of service will expire in August next. My Resignation with Surgeons Certificates is on file in the War Dept.

May I ask you General to explain these circumstances to the Secretary of War as soon as it is convenient--(if I wrote directly to him he might never see the letter)--Please give him my earnest thanks for his personal kindness to me--and the flattering opinion he has expressed of my services--and ask whether it is not possible now for me to be spared from the Service--I do not mean to be selfish, but if I am not doing any important service to the country I don't want to miss the golden opportunity of making some provision for my family that will place them above want and enable me to enter the service in the "next war" if my strength is restored without feeling that my death would leave them in poverty. My dear General I will not try to thank you by letter, but hope to see you soon.

Will you be good enough to telegraph me at Alton, Ill. the earliest news you have for me--if the resignation cannot be accepted a long leave of absence would be valuable just at this time.

I remain, General, under many obligations. Faithfully Yours,(99)

General Stone's resignation was accepted on January 25 and he was discharged 2 days later.

Summing Up

In discussing the role of Roy Stone, Matthews cited the observation of General William T. Sherman that an effective regiment is like a family, with the Colonel as the father. The Colonel should have a personal acquaintance with the men and instill in them a feeling of pride in and affection for himself. With this analogy, Matthews commented:

Roy Stone unquestionably fit the father image emphasized by General Sherman . . . . The six-month tour of duty in Washington, immediately following regimental organization, was certainly detrimental to the training and spirit of the new regiment. But in a large sense, due to his charisma, he was able to maintain a feeling of pride in the military family and the military father which held the unit together until it was ordered into the field. Serving under Colonel Roy Stone, the colorful, daring, heroic figure, engendered a sense of superiority and inner pride in the men which never waned until his eccentric performance in the Wilderness. And the belief that they were his Bucktails, the same as those that served so bravely with Stone in the Peninsula, elevated their self-esteem to a height of fancied superiority. This, of course, was a myth; a myth which stayed with the unit until the end of the war but diminished substantially after the May 5, 1864, debacle in the Wilderness.

By the Wilderness, Matthews noted, "the war had changed and the change required a different kind of commander." Stone was one of "the early war commanders full of dash and heroics, men who were not suited to the needs of the grinding and grueling tactics of 1864-65. By contrast, Matthews cited Lt. Colonel John Irvin, who took over command of the 149th:

His temperament and outlook was different. War was a job to be done day by day-no quick victory at the expense of his men. His regiment was part of the military machine. He had no need for personal acclaim.

As for Stone's actions on May 5, 1864, Matthews had this to say:

And regardless of the charge of drunkenness brought against Stone in that battle (it was probably true), he had suffered a most painful and disabling pelvic wound at Gettysburg. The history of that war has shown that officers who received grievous wounds and returned to command never recovered their elan. Many took to commissary whiskey to bolster their courage and dull the pain.

Whatever the truth about the Wilderness, the men who served under Major, Colonel, General Roy Stone looked back with pride. Colonel Irvin, who returned after the war to Curwensville, Pennsylvania, would maintain contact with his 149th comrades, periodically holding reunions in August, the month of the regiment's founding. "Roy Stone," Matthews commented, "was busy with other concerns and possibly uninterested in maintaining his role as first colonel of the regiment." He continued:

In 1893, 31 years after their enlistment date, they held their sixth reunion, this one at Curwensville, the hometown of John Irvin. More than 90 veterans attended. The average age-approximately 55.

They paraded through the town passing "magnificent and splendid decorations." On the bank building was a picture of a deer in its native wild with the words "Welcome, Bucktails, thrice Welcome." Following the parade they were escorted to John Irvin's private grove where they were feted and addressed by some of their comrades. Here Irvin's leadership was extolled and a silver smoking set presented to him as a tribute of their regard for his service. The minutes of the reunion noted that General Roy Stone sent his regrets . . . .(100)

The veterans of Roy Stone's Bucktails would look back with pride at the battles they survived under Stone and, in his absence, under Irvin at Richmond and Petersburg as the Civil War came to an end. But one battle on one day always stood out. Matthews closed his book on this note:

But all of the original men who enlisted in Roy Stone's Bucktail Brigade remembered with pride that day when they marched onto the field at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg and offered up their lives for their country.(101)

Recalling the Bucktails

Today, several reminders of General Stone's service can be found at Gettysburg National Military Park. A bronze statue of a Bucktail of the 149th Regiment identifies the spot where Stone and his brigade delayed the Confederates on July 1, 1863. The plaque highlights Colonel Stone, Colonel Wister, and Colonel Dana and summarizes the action over the 3 days of the battle. For July 1, the inscription reads:

July 1 Arrived and went into position at the McPherson Buildings between Reynolds's Woods and the Railroad Cut and was subjected to a heavy front and enfilading artillery fire from the right. Repulsed repeated attacks of Brig. Gen. Daniel's Brigade, Major Gen. Rodes's Division, from the right as well as front attacks until pressed on both flanks and in front by superior numbers it retired to Seminary Ridge and held temporary breastworks there until the Corps retired before overwhelming numbers to Cemetery Hill when the Brigade with the Division took position at the left of the Cemetery on and near the Taneytown Road.

The military park's Pennsylvania State Memorial on Hancock Avenue, dedicated in 1910, has four archways, each with a granite monolith containing a battle scene honoring one of the four branches of the service. Each monolith is 9 feet high and 18 feet long, consisting of granite weighing 25 tons. The scene honoring Pennsylvania's infantrymen depicts the fight of the Bucktail Brigade around McPherson's barn on the morning of July 1.(102)

In addition, the road along McPherson's Ridge was named in 1904 to honor the leader whose men held the key point during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is called Stone Avenue.


Following the war, Stone practiced the profession of civil and mechanical engineer.

He experimented with forms of mass transit, including a form of elevated railway that he invented. It was displayed in Philadelphia during the 1876 Centennial Exposition. His railway linked the Agricultural Hall and Horticultural Hall. A description of the railway appeared in J. S. Ingram's contemporary description of the exposition:

The question of rapid transit has become one of the problems of this driving age, and the projectors of this railway claim that the desired object is attained. The track of the Centennial grounds was built under the auspices of the West End Passenger Railway Company, who also controlled the narrow-gauge railway encompassing the entire enclosure. The road was the invention of General Roy Stone, of Elmira, N.Y. The track was supported by a single row of iron columns, resting on foundations of timber. The length of the road was 500 feet, and the greatest height above the bottom of ravine thirty feet. The car ran on three rails. One of these occupied the centre of the track, and was laid along the top of a triangular truss. At the base of this truss, and on either side of it, were laid two rails. The car thus moved on three rails-one in the centre and two on the sides. The bottom of the car was concave, and fitted over the central rail, while the sides extended several feet below the line of the centre of the car, and had wheels attached to them, which ran on the side tracks horizontally, instead of perpendicularly, as is the case on ordinary rails. Thus the wheels on the central rail were the bearing wheels, while those on the sides were the guiding wheels. The wheels had rubber tires, which caused them to run smoothly, and deep flanges, which prevented them from running off the track. The locomotive was also constructed in a curious manner. The engine was placed above the tender, and was fed with water and fuel from below. The arrangement of the tender was the same as that of the car, so far as the running gear was concerned.

The car seated sixty passengers, and contained a saloon and two compartments-one each side. The fare was three cents, and it made the trip across the valley and back in two minutes.(103)

Stone's interest in mass transit led to work with prominent Long Island businessmen who planned to construct a tunnel from Ravenswood to Manhattan to link the Long Island Rail Road and the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.. On July 22, 1887, the New York and Long Island Railroad Company was incorporated. Stone was on the Board of Directors. Stone eventually became President of the corporation before stepping down in 1890. Because of numerous problems, the tunnel would not open until June 1915. The tunnels would eventually become part of the Queensboro Subway.

He also was connected with a number of large engineering enterprises, including the blowing up of the Hell Gate rocks and the removal of the bars from the harbor of New York. In a passage about the mid-1880's, A Maritime History of New York states:

The increasing use of steel made possible still bigger ships, thus necessitating further harbor improvements. The first contract for work on the Gedney Channel was awarded to Roy Stone of New York on February 7, 1885. He guaranteed to provide a channel two hundred feet wide and twenty-eight feet deep, extending from the sea to the Narrows. Before the initial dredging of Gedney Channel was completed recommendations had been made for a thirty-foot channel one thousand feet wide. The Rivers and Harbors Act of August 5, 1886, appropriated several hundred and fifty thousand dollars for this purpose. The revised project included the Gedney and Main Channels.(104)

Among his inventions during the period was a suction dredge for harbor work.(105)

By 1890, General Stone's interests had shifted from mass transit to roads. Years later, an article in Washington's The Evening Star suggested that his interest in good roads stemmed from his experiences in the Civil War:

General Stone, coming as he did from western New York, a country of good roads even in that early day, readily saw the evil of bad roads during the civil war, and by the close of the struggle he never lost an opportunity of doing all that lay in his power toward improving the highways of this country. This task was much harder than it may seem to the present generation. The ideal road of the American of the period from 1820 to 1890 was a mud canal, and his initial efforts along the line of improvement were not greeted with the enthusiasm they deserved.(106)

Previous Section | TOC | Next Section

Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000