Father Fidelis Kent Stone and the Civil War
by Morgan P. Hanlon, C.P.
In the late Spring of 1861, young James Kent Stone (the future Father Fidelis Kent Stone) returned to the United States after a year spent studying at the University of Gottingen in Germany. He already had three years of Harvard College under his belt; and Harvard would honor the academic credits he had earned at Gottingen making him eligible, in a few weeks, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree.
The country to which he returned was disintegrating with frightening rapidity. The Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union and fired upon the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter. In April before Kent Stone had even reached American shores, Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteers and the following month for 42,000 more. James (his family called him Jim) was probably looking forward at this point to getting settled at home and beginning a career. He was not overly eager to answer the call to arms, although there could be no question of his physical courage. In the summer of 1860, he had risked his neck and his life time and again in the Swiss Alps creating for himself an international reputation among mountaineers.
Once back in Brookline he accepted a teaching position in Dixwell’s Private Latin School which he himself had once attended. He also renewed a friendship with the charming Cornelia Fay, a young parishioner of his father’s at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Brookline Massachusetts—a friendship which very soon became a courtship.
A year went by in which things went from bad to worse for the North. Wounded veterans began to appear on Boston’s streets; casualty lists were displayed to anxious throngs outside newspaper offices. On August 4, 1862 Lincoln called for 300,000 nine-month volunteers. Jim Stone could not hold back any longer. It was on that day that Jim and his 18 year old brother Henry (“Hal” to the family) enlisted together in the 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. They were given a week’s grace to wind up their affairs and ordered to report to Camp Cameron, Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Cameron they were subjected, for only one week, to the Civil War equivalent of today’s seven-week long Basic Infantry Training. Also, it was probably during this time that he became engaged to Cornelia Fay.
At the end of the week, Jim was made an acting-sergeant and ordered to deliver a draft of 90 other recruits to the Regiment which was then in Virginia resting after the Battle of Cedar Mountain. The brothers were assigned to Company “C” of the 2nd. Their arrival on August 19th was noted by the Chaplain of the Regiment, Rev. Alonzo Quint. In 1918 Fr. Fidelis would remember the event in a letter to his niece Sybil Stone: “Hal and I joined the Regiment just as it was going into bivouac after Cedar Mountain, & then we had a nice time of it for two weeks dodging the Confederates…” The 2nd Massachusetts did not dodge hard enough for on August 29th and 30th it fought at Second Bull Run where the Army of the Potomac once again took a beating from Stonewall Jackson.
Originally, the Confederacy believed that it could make secession a reality by simply defending its own borders. Eventually, it came to realize that a purely defensive policy could never succeed. At some point the war had to be taken to Northern soil. On September 5th the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet’s Corps leading, crossed the Potomac into Maryland en route to the North. Meanwhile Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah Valley attacked and seized Harper’s Ferry, its arsenal and supply depots. Both armies were then to concentrate at the little town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, near Antietam Creek, and continue the march to the North. At this juncture a copy of the Confederate battle plan fell into the hands of Gen. George McClellan, the Union commander, who immediately moved to attack the two Confederate armies separately before they could reunite. At Antietam McClellan repeatedly attacked Lee all day on September 17th but was unable finally to drive him from the field. During the evening of the following day, the Confederate army began its retreat back into Virginia. McClellan did not win the battle, but Lee had not accomplished his purpose. Both Stone brothers fought at Antietam, a battle which has been called “the bloodiest single day of the war”, bloodier even than Gettysburg.
Both Jim and Hal were promoted after Antietam; Jim to Corporal in October 1862 and Hal to the same rank on November 21st. Shortly after this Jim was again promoted, this time to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Hal was made Sergeant on January 1, 1863 and commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in “H” Company on March 20, 1863. At some point during this time, Jim Stone ruptured himself severely. Because of this injury he was deemed unfit for active service and on January 9, 1863 was given an Honorable Discharge for Medical Reasons. We can only imagine how poignant the parting of the brothers must have been. Their mother’s last words to Jim had been, “Look after Hal and bring him home safe!” Now the older brother would no longer be there to protect the younger one. Jim returned to Boston and resumed teaching Latin at Dixwell’s.
While Hal rejoiced in his new Lieutenants’ shoulder straps, the Army of the Potomac continued to campaign. On May 2nd, the 2nd Massachusetts fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville. (This was the battle in which Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men.) On June 3rd General Lee once more commenced a march to invade the North. His Cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, is sent out to screen Lee’s army and gather intelligence about the movement of the Yankee army. Instead, the glory-hunting Stuart rode his whole Cavalry Corps around the Union army leaving Lee groping blindly in enemy territory. The Federal forces belatedly learn of Lee’s move and begin trailing him on parallel roads, carefully keeping between the Confederate army and the capital city, Washington. On June 28th York, Pennsylvannia is captured, and Lee learns that the Federal army has also moved north of the Potomac. He directs the various wings of his army to concentrate near the obscure little town of Gettysburg where, on July 1st, Federals and Confederates finally collide head-on.
The fighting was savage for the next three days and for once the Union Army had the advantage of the defensive; it also possessed superior military terrain, the “high ground” so beloved of tacticians. This time it will be the Confederates who must do the attacking, and uphill at that, except on Culp’ s Hill where the 12th Corps’ First Division, including the 2nd Massachusetts, struggles to hold the hill.
Here early in the morning of July 3rd, a Union General desired information about the number and deployment of the Confederate forces facing him lower down the slope. He ordered scouts sent out to reconnoiter. The order was garbled in transmission; and by the time it reached the commander of the 3rd Brigade, it had become an order for a suicidal charge down the hill and across an open field towards a stone wall behind which the Southerners lay waiting. The sacrificial units were the 27th Indiana and the 2nd Massachusetts which was under the command of Lt. Col. Charley Mudge, a friend of both Jim and Hal Stone. When Mudge received the order, he queried the messenger, “Are you sure that is the order?” The aide replied that it was. “Well it’s murder, but that’s the order” said Mudge; and raising his voice in a great shout, he gave the command to advance. For the next several minutes, three Confederate Brigades conducted target practise on the 27th Indiana and 2nd Massachusetts from the safety of the stone wall at their front. The Union attack fell apart in the face of that murderous fire, and the survivors straggled back to the tree line up the hill. The 2nd Massachusetts lost 250 men including four color-bearers. It was in this futile action that 2nd Lt. Henry Van Dyke Stone was killed—in the words of the official history of the Regiment, “A modest and brave officer.”
The Stones received the word of their loss within a day or two. It fell to James to travel to Gettysburg and find his brother’s body. What emotions he must have experienced when he came once more into the bivouac of the 2nd Massachusetts and was hailed sorrowfully by officers and men with whom he had lately soldiered. His erstwhile comrades would have described the day’s action for him and told him where he might begin to look for Hal’s body. The ground of that open field, on the slope of Culp’s Hill, was still littered with the bodies of the Union dead when he arrived there. He searched while the light lasted and then searched on by lantern light. Finally, he found what he was seeking—Hal’s body—lying side by side with the body of his friend Charley Mudge.
That night, after making arrangements with one of the embalmers (who followed the Army) to perform his offices on Hal’s body, Kent wrote, in profound sorrow and exhaustion, a letter describing the day’s events to his parents back home in Brookline. The next day a grief-stricken Jim accompanied his younger brother’s body on the long train journey home to Brookline. For James Kent Stone the Civil War was over.