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Battle of Ball's Bluff

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Battle of Ball's Bluff
Part of the American Civil War
Cannonading on the Potomac by Alfred W Thompson, c1869.jpg

Depiction of Ball's Bluff by Alfred W. Thompson
DateOctober 21, 1861
Location
Result Confederate victory
Belligerents
United States (Union) Confederate States (Confederacy)
Commanders and leaders
Charles Pomeroy Stone
Edward Dickinson Baker
Nathan G. Evans
Strength
1,720 1,709
Casualties and losses
921–1,002 total[1] 155 (36 killed; 117 wounded; 2 captured)[2]

The Battle of Ball's Bluff in Loudoun County, Virginia on October 21, 1861, was one of the early battles of the American Civil War, where Union Army forces under Major General George B. McClellan, suffered a humiliating defeat.

The operation was planned as a minor reconnaissance across the Potomac to establish whether the Confederates were occupying the strategically important position of Leesburg. A false report of an unguarded Confederate camp encouraged Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone to order a raid, which clashed with enemy forces. A prominent U.S. Senator in uniform, Colonel Edward Baker, tried to reinforce the Union troops, but failed to ensure that there were enough boats for the river crossings, which were then delayed. Baker was killed, and a newly-arrived Confederate unit routed the rest of Stone’s expedition.

The Union losses, although modest by later standards, alarmed Congress, which set-up the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a body which would provoke years of bitter political infighting.

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  • ✪ Debacle at Balls Bluff: The Battle that Changed the War (Lecture)
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  • ✪ The Battle of Ball's Bluff Video
  • ✪ Book Talk- A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry
  • ✪ Video Extras: The Battle of Ball's Bluff, Leesburg, VA, Loudoun

Transcription

In the first line of the trilogy, a book called Mr. Lincoln’s Army, he described the seemingly quite but ultimately tremulous fall of 1861 as “an era of suspicion.” As I was preparing this lecture I thought a lot about that. He describes in Mr. Lincoln’s Army what he means by that. He says, “It was a Civil War, a war not between men of two nations but between men of two beliefs, two philosophies, and two ways of considering human society. The opposing beliefs were not sharply defined and clear so that no man could mistake which camp he belonged in. On the contrary, there were a dozen gradations of belief leading from one to the other, and a man might belong in one camp on one issue and in the other camp on the other issue and the very word “loyalty” might mean loyalty to a flag, to a cause, or to a belief in some particular social and political theory. Treason might mean disloyalty to any of these. As I am preparing this lecture I thought a lot about this quote, loyalty, and the word treason and what those might have meant in the year of 1861. They were particularly important to General Charles P. Stone. We will begin with him. In the middle of the night, 8th of February 1862, first winter of the American Civil War Charles Stone, 37 years old, a native of Massachusetts and a Brigadier general of volunteers is arrested in front of his headquarters in Washington, D.C. For Charles Stone that arrest was shocking and to a degree unanticipated and embarrassing because the man arresting him was a good friend of his. A man by the name of George Sikes, who will go on to command the 5th Corp. here at the Battle of Gettysburg. Neither Stone nor Sikes knew why the arrest was happening. Only that it had been ordered by George McCullum and that Stone was to be sent to Fort Lafayette in New York harbor. Which is this lonely stone and brick island fortress normally reserved for secessionists. The next morning before he is carted off to Fort Lafayette, Stone writes to the General of the Army of the Potomac. To find out why he has been arrested. He would write, “I had supposed there was some strange misunderstanding, which all connected with the government and army would be happy to have cleared up.” Yet, Stone received no answer. That night he is boarded on the night train, from Washington D.C to New York City. In Philadelphia there is a mix up with the train tickets and Stone ends up having to pay his own way to prison. Which is a further embarrassment to him. 24 hours after his is arrested he finds himself in solitary confinement at Fort Lafayette deprived of his money, his personal belongings, and his freedom. Denied the reason for his arrest and more importantly he was denied his honor and sense of being a loyal solider for the government. You could argue that no man in 1861 or very few anyways had been more loyal to the government than Stone. West Point graduate, he served in the Mexican War where he heard two brevets for gallantry. He resigned from the Army in 1856 but during the secession crises he is one of the first to rejoin the cause of the Union. He is commissioned to brigadier General on January 2, 1861 by Winfield Scott. It would be Charles Stone who oversaw the defense of the Capitol in 1861 when the nation is panicked over the safety of Washington D.C. It would be Charles Stone who oversaw the security of Lincoln’s Inauguration. Few soldiers had demonstrated their loyalty to the Union more than Charles Stone, the man in solitary confinement. Now, February of 1862 Stone is considered to be a trader and our question is the same one that Stone had. How did this come about? Why was this happening? Why was Stone’s loyalty to the government called to question? Our answer can be found in a small battle, 25 miles from D.C on the VA side of the Potomac near Leesburg and Loudon county VA. Named for the 150 foot high wooden bluff much of the fighting happened, the Battle of Balls Bluff, fought on the October 21, 1861. When compared to other battles from 1862 – 1865 this was a relatively small affair. Soldiers outside of Petersburg in 1864 probably wouldn’t have even commented on it, it was so small. It was an evenly matched battle. Both sides brought about 1,700 men each to the fight. It was like Gettysburg not a planned or intended. It was brought on by misinformation and waged without a clear purpose. It ended with a disaster for the Union that in least in the minds of the American people, Congress, the press, and Lincoln administration rivaled the disaster after Bull Run and the Union defeat there. The casualties at Ball’s Bluff are absurdly lopsided. Union suffered about 85% about 900 men wounded, killed, missing, injured, captured. The Confederates suffered about 150 casualties. While the battle was short in duration while it was overall small in size. When we look at the battle through the lens of 1861 the battle rivaled some of the human costs some of the biggest battles of the American Revolution. The of the War of 1812, the Mexican American War. So what is small to us today was big to the people in 1861. The real importance of the battle doesn’t have to do with the human costs rather how this one battle would reverberate. How it would change the way the Armies of the United States would wage the civil war. I think for Stone drew into a better definition what it meant to be a loyal General during the American Civil war. I think it told Stone and the other commanders of the Army of the Potomac that it was not enough to be loyal of the U.S you had to be the right kind of loyal. You had to be willing to prosecute the war in the right kind of way. The way that would ultimately be shaped and influenced by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff has it’s origin in the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run, fought July 21, 1861. Three months to the day before Balls Bluff. As we know Bull Run is a disaster for the Union Army that fought there. It was not long after that Major General George B. McClellan would take command of Union forces outside of Washington D.C. He had won a couple small battles in Western Virginia and rose to prominence very quickly. In the late summer early fall of 1861 he goes to work trying to transform the soldiers into the Union army. Ultimately he will create one of the greatest forces on the continent and would name it the Army of the Potomac. By 1861 McClellan had an army of about 100,000 men well organized but untried in the heat of battle. These men had been organized in 11 different divisions posted in front of Washington D.C and along the length of the Potomac River. The winding line in the center of the slide is the Potomac river everything North is MD and everything South is VA. McClellan and his army were opposed by 40,000 men commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. In typical McClellan fashion he thinks the army he is opposed is far larger than his own. Johnston had debated going on the offensive after Bull Run but his army is disorganized after the victory and he realizes he is outnumbered. He ends up settling near Centerville and by mid-October his command is debating going into winter quarters. To the northwest Johnston had positioned a single brigade near Leesburg, Louden County, commanded by Colonel Evans he had the responsibility of guarding not only the road network at Leesburg but also for the river crossings on the upper Potomac: Point of Rocks, Edwards Ferry, and a number of others. His men are mostly Mississippians 13th, 17th, 18th, and also the 8th Virginia commanded by Eppa Hunton. Small Calvary force a few pieces of artillery. All totaled about 3,000 men under his command. Evans was a South Carolinian a West Point graduate one of the hero of the battle of Bull Run as far as the Confederates are concerned. He was nicknamed Shanks because of his wirey knuck knee legs. He was what we would call today a high functioning alcoholic. He was fawn of whiskey but he could be a formidable adversary. Which was certainly the case in 1861. For McClellan the Confederate force at Leesburg was particularly problematic. As long as those forces on the Upper Potomac were contested theoretically the Confederates could use them to launch across the river. If that happens in front of Leesburg that is the right flank of McClellans line. McClellan is concerned if that happens his positioned could be unhinged. Likewise, if the Union army controlled those they could launch an offensive into norther VA. The point is those fordes are important to both sides. To guard that important sector of his line McClellan turned to Charles Stone. McClellan at the point had unbounded faith in Stone. McClellan would later write “he was a charming amutable man honest brave a good soldier though occasionally carried away by his chivalrous ideas.” McClellan made Stone a division commander and trusted him with about 6,500 men known as the Corps of Observation. They were stationed around Poolesville, MD and they would pick at the Potomac, keeping a watchful eye on Confederates on the other side of the river. His assignment was an unenviable one. All his men under him were new at battle. Virtually, every single Union Solider at Balls Bluff it will be their first time in combat. When they fire their weapon it will be the first time in anger. When they see a wounded soldier they are seeing blood for the first time. Another challenged for Stone was the fact his command was located entirely in the state of Maryland, a Union and slave state. A state with dividing conflicting sympathies. Runaway slaves would enter his lines occasionally seeking shelter and protection of Union Army. Stone was admit that by law the slaves had to be returned to their masters. Now a lot of the men under Stone's command were New Englander and while not all were abolitionist many didn’t like playing the role of slave catcher. This leads to a problematic relationship between Stone and some of the men under his command. When some of the Massachusetts soldiers continue to protect slaves he issued a general warning them to not encourage others to escape. He was strict displinary and ill-suited to work with volunteers. He prided himself that even though he was from Massachusetts he escaped untainted by abolitionists. He was kind of like McClellan conservative a war democrat but not interested in conducting hard war policy against the confederates. He is not about a war that would free slaves but about a war that would preserve the union. All of these things will come back to bite him. Through September and into October the opposing pickets occasionally exchanged fire but more likely than not they established an informal truces swapping tobacco and newspapers. For a time it was truly all quiet on the Potomac. That was in the opinion of many in Washington D.C the exact problem. McClellan created a huge army and was hesitant to use it. Lincoln, Congress, the American people demanded action. McClellan is now under immense political pressure to use the army he forged but he still believes they are outnumbered by 3 times. Conviction that is wrong but in McClellan that is what he is getting from his intelligence and is feeding into his preconceived notions about things. There are untested army that is very much true. By mid-October McClellan sense an opportunity he gets word that perhaps the Confederate force in Leesburg ,under Evans, has moved or been reduced. Perhaps these conderates are falling back all together. If this was true Union could take the city without firing a shot. That fits with McClellan’s warfare, a ware heavily focused on maneuver and seize. A kind of warfare not focused on pitch battles. McClellan will send one of his division, the division of George McCall of the Pennsylvania Reserves. Located essentially where the CIA building is today in Langley, VA. He orders them to head to Drainsville which is halfway from Washington, D.C and Leesburg. He is hoping this pressure will cause Evans to fall back aiding his way to take Leesburg or offer his topographical engineers to map that stretch of Northern VA that hadn't been well mapped yet. This is not ended to be an extended stay. His orders were to head to Drainsville, make his maps, get a feel of what is going on in Leesburg but then return to Langley the next day. This is again not an extended thing. In reality, Evans had moved for a brief period but rather than recall when McClellan started to move Evans was very much still in the city. Rather than retreating what Evans does is move his command to face McCall putting himself between McClellan and the town. The morning of October 20 the Union signal station at Sugarloaf Mountain not far outside of Fredrick. They report to McClellan that the Confederates abonded Leesburg they have pulled back they can’t see them anymore. Now the reason for that we know, Evans moved to confront McClellan but he doesn’t know that the fog of war has settled over the Potomac and now McClellan is in a position to do what happens all the time he has to make a decision based on a lack of information. That morning McClellan telegraphed Stone at Stone's headquarters in Poolesville. McClellan will tell Stone that McCall was at Drainesville and to keep a clear eye on Leesburg and perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them. What I want you to do for one second is put yourself in Stone's shoes both McClellan and Lee gave there subordinates, in this case Stone, an order lacking in specifics. What does this slight demonstration mean to Stone? He has to flush that out for himself. Ultimately he decides to make a move on Edwards Ferry. Very important river crossing that’s where he will make his slight demonstration he will bombard the other shore and send a couple companies across but other than that that’s all he is gong to do. Father up stream on an island, called Harrison's Island, is the 15th Massachutes and they are picketing the river. Stone will order Colonel Devens of the 15th Massachusetts to order a scouting operation. Have men cross river and check out what’s going on in Leesburg. There is Harrisons Island. That job falls to Chase Philbrick. He has 20 men in his Company H and is part of the 15th Massachusetts. He will be the one to conduct his scouting operation. The men under him will face what every union soldier that fights at Balls Bluff is going to face and that is to get across he river. That will take a long time the Potomac is high there, the current swift, and you can only cross by boat. By the time his men have gotten across its dark and night has settled over the battlefield. He is going to cross the river, go up a step wooden bluff that rises 150 feet through river, he is going to use a small cart path to do it. From there he is going to go into the woods. He going to get to a field that reaches to the edge of Leesburg. Now remember it is dark these men are rookies this is there first time into the Confederate country side. You can just image these men they're nervous, it's dark out, they are on the Confederate side of the river. Every sound and shadow must have must have just hung ominously over this group of 20 men as they pushed inwards. Philbrick is going to get to the edge of the woods pushes his way to the edge he looks across the field and he sees 30 Confederate tents through the darkness. Now he has to decide what to do and he falls back all the way to Harrison Island. By that evening Charles Stone hears word there is an unguarded Confederate camp at Balls Bluff. Stones demonstration at Edwards Ferry had achieved nothing. There was no real to do at Edwards Ferry. Here at this unguarded camp Stone see's an opportunity. He later writes, "This was precisely one of those pieces of carelessness on the part of the enemy that ought to be taken advantage of." Stone sends word to Charles Devens to cross the river with five companies go back up the bluff through the woods to the field and destroy the Rebel camp. That is essentially what happens Here is Charles Devens. He takes his five companies and he is going to be supported by two companies of the 20th of Massachusetts. He knows not far away are other Union regimens. The 1st California we know them better as 71st Pennsylvania and the 42nd NY. Once he has destroyed the camp he is to return to Maryland or if he finds a good position he can stay on the defensive but he is to use a bit of his own discretion. Again takes a long time to cross all the men over the river. By the time they reach the Virginia shore its 5am. It was a cold night the men in the 15th Massachuettes were told to leave their overcoats behind and were told it would be warm enough by morning. Devens goes up the bluff and through the woods. He gets to the edge of that wood line looks in the field where the camps should be but instead of tents he see a row of trees. The reconeses from Philbrick was mistaken there was no camp just trees. Again, these guys were all new, so maybe through the darkness they thought they saw Confederate tents. Charles Devens is in a bit of a conundrum. What is he going to do? He could fall back or stay there is no Confederate camp to destroy. With 150 odd years of hindsight the practical thing for Devens to have done is fall back to the bluff and cross back the Potomac river. He has no Confederate troops in front of him. He decides to stay and set up on ridge line and hold defensive position and send word to Stone. This all happens at about 7am. Devens tells Stone there is no camp and he will stay where he is. Now lets go back to the bluff for a minute. As I mentioned the 15th Massachusetts was going to be supported by two companies of the 20th Massachusetts. Sometimes called the Harvard regmime commanded by Col. William Lee. So they are on the bluff. Now this is the open field that I talked about that is right at the lip of the bluff and this is roughly were those two companies are positioned. As light illuminates the battle field men of 20 Massachusetts look around they have the Bluff to their backs open field to the fronts with trees and ravines surrounding them. Col. William Lee orders men to probe either side of open field. No sooner did they do that they run into Confederate pickets. These are men under William Duff, Mississippians, a brief fire fight happens and a Sargent of the 20th Massachusetts gets wounded, shot in the arm, and for the men of the 20th Massachusetts who hear the sound of gun fire who were kind of blissfully ignorant of what is going on well to their front, This sargent is the first wounded man they have ever seen. All the sudden a realization sweeps through the ranks of the 20th Massachusetts. The men they had incountered again were men of the 20th Mississippi led by that captain named Duff. Duff is going to be quick to communicate to his superiors and eventually all the way back to Nathan Evans that there are Union troops at Balls Bluff. There are Union troops in there front. Nathan Evans does a masterful job on October 21 of shuffling Confederate troops to this battle field so that not long after 7am in the morning the 15 Massachusetts is going to be subjected to mounting pressure as Confederates start to duel with his men. So Union troops have taken Balls Bluff, the 15th Massachusetts about a mile from the river. A little before 7am they hadn’t run into anyone but now after 7am they definitely have Confederates in their front. It isn’t until 830am that Charles Stone at Edwards Ferry will get Devens original note that there is no Confederate camp and no Confederates and he was staying put. Now Stone is two or three steps behind what is actually happening on Balls Bluff and makes a decision. He assumes theres no fighting at Balls Bluff so he reinforces Devens position and sends over all the 15 Massachusetts and all the 20th Massachusetts so about 1000 Union men will now be at Balls Bluff. He also makes one other decision. There is a Col. by the name of Edward Baker. This is the situation at Balls Bluff at about 11am when all of the 15th and all of the 20th of Massachusetts are across the river. Edward Baker is a name more closely associated with the battle of Balls Bluff more than anyone who fights there. Born in England comes to the United States at age 4, moved to Illinois, hes a lawyer passed the bar by the age of 30. He served briefly in the Mexican American war but beyond that he had no real military experience. He owes his position to two things he was a sitting United States Senator from Oregon and he had raised a lot of Union troops for the cause and that he was close friends with Abraham Lincoln. As a matter of fact Lincoln names his second son after Baker and they ride to the inauguration together. Stone sends Baker to Balls Bluff. To take over the situation and essentially be Stones eyes and ears be the acting commander on the field. Again Baker has a bit of discretion again both of these guys think there has been no fighting so Baker can throw more men across the river or pull everybody back. The biggest challenge that Union troops at Balls Bluff are going to face is really the defining feature of the battle field itself. For the Union Army it’s not the Bluff it’s the Potomac river. Crossing troops from MD to Harrisons Island and from the Island to Virginia takes a lot of time and for almost the entirety of the battle the Union high command is shuttling troops across the river and really only a handful of boats they have one big flat boat that holds 50 people and two smaller boats that can hold 10 men. So every time your trying to move from Maryland to Virginia you have to shuttle these guys across. By 11 o'clock or so Stone and Baker realize there is fighting going on at Balls Bluff. Stone telegraphs McClellan telling him. They think there is about 4,000 Confederates at the front but Stone will tell McClellan the biggest problem they have had so far is they were short of boats. What Baker does is dedicate himself and time to finding more boats. He spent four hours doing it. Actually, at one point he spends the bulk of his time supervising lifting the boat out of the canal to be put in the river which could have been done by a Sargent, Col., or Liuetent. Meanwhile, at Balls Bluff the 15th Massachusetts is under more pressure Charles Devens sends about three messages back to Baker back to Stone asking for reinforcements it’s not until 2 o'clock that Baker himself crosses the river, climbs the bluff, and surveys the situation. By this point more Confederates have arrived, a good portion of the 8th Virginia, essentially the entirety of the 17th, and 18th Mississippi you have Confederate cavalry now descending on what is becoming very crowded Balls Bluff for the Union army . Initially Baker is pretty optimistic about what he sees he climbs up the bluff and one of the first men he sees is Col. William Lee of the 20th Massachusetts and he says, "I congratulate you upon the prospect of the battle." A more experienced solider than Baker probably would have looked at not an optimistic situation but a very bleak situation and it doesn’t take Baker long to realize he isn’t going to be launching any kind of defensive from Balls Bluff if anything he has got to form a defensive position at the lip of the Bluff. That’s what he does. Meanwhile, the Confederates, primarily from the 8th Virginia and the two Mississippi regiments, are going to use the woods around that open field to literally just pepper these crowded Union soldiers at the Bluff with riffle fire. Not long after at about 2:30 more Union troops arrive at Balls Bluff. This is the 42nd New York or at least a part of them. Commanded by a guy named Milton Cogswell. By this point union troops have gotten artillery to the top of the Bluff. Major from the 20th Massachusetts named Paul Revere somehow gets two mountain howser the top and one riffled gun from the 1st Road Island. Cogswell and Baker are now going to survey the situation again one that is looking worse and worse. Again the Confederates are what I call very heavy skirmishing they are peppering the Union troops on the Bluff. The men of the 20th Massachusetts that day had crossed the river in very heavy over coats and as the day got warmer they hung those coats on the trees behind them and by this time most of the men of the 20th Massachusetts are lying down and a number of men would remember their jackets hanging from the trees were riddled with riffle fire from the Confederates in front of them. The problem is by 2:30 there is not room for Union troops at the Bluff and it is such a small contained area so some men of the 20th Massachusetts and 1st California and the 42nd New York can't fire because they have other Union troops in front of them. Meanwhile, the Confederates encircle their position. By 3 o'clock more Confederate troops arrive and causalities amongst the Union high command, the officers, really starts to take its toll. The gentlemen on the left Isaac Wister he is in the 1st California and 71st Pennsylvania is serverly wounded and taken off the Bluff. The gentlemen on the right, Oliver W. Holmes, is from the 20th Massachusetts and was hit twice by Confederate fire and taken off the Bluff. But the biggest lost happens a little latter between 4:30 and 5:00 when Edward Baker is killed. He is hit by 8 rounds was taken off the bluff, carried across the Potomac river, and now the Union defense is without a leader. There is some confusion on who should take over. It is a debate between Col. William Lee of the 20th Massachusetts and Milton Cogswell of the 42nd New York. These two men have drastically different ideas about what should be done next. Lee believes they should retreat and get across the river. Cogswell thinks that would be a disaster and the only way to get out is to cut there way out and get to Edwards Ferry three or four miles down the river on the Virginia side. Ultimately, Cogswell takes over and tries to organize this breakout operation but as he does that he throws the Union troops on the Bluff into disarray. There is a fair amount of contained panic going on. The Confederates can see this and seize upon it. Eppa Hunton from the 8th Virginia will charge across that open field and actually take those two mountain howitzers that Union troops have dragged to the top. There's that riffle gun and Union troops in a panic to try to get the gun keep it out of the hands of the Confederates by rolling it down the Bluff but it gets caught on some trees. This gentlemen Winfield Scott Featherson sees the Union line shaking and quivering and orders his men to charge shouting out “Charge MIssisippians Charge! Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity. At the point panic insues and the Union defensive line at Balls Bluff collapses and it turns into every man for themselves. Union troops slide, jump, run down the bluff and they discover at that point the same problem getting to Balls Bluff is the same problem leaving, there are not enough boats. Again, panic insues and it becomes every man for themselves the largest boat is over corwded it topples and sinks. The other boats are riddled with Confederate fire and sink. Dozens of men drown in the river at this point. Meanwhile, Confederates at the top of the bluff are raining fire down on the Union troops. Charles Devens ends up throwing his sword in the river and grabs onto a log floating down the Potomac and swims his way across. Some of the officers of the 20th Massachusetts, huddling under the bluff, tried to use sword belts and fence rails to make a raft and it falls apart in the river. Paul Revere is captured. Milton Cogswell is captured. William Lee is captured. It is turning into an absolute debacle getting across the river. Very typical in the aftermath of the cross is the name of a captain named Alois Babos a German immigrant and a friend of his Lt. Wesselhoff. Alois tried to swim across the river but by mid stream he was shot so Wesselhoff tries to swim to save him but drowns. Alois's body is never found. 13 days after the battle at Great Falls they find Wesselhoff's body lodged in the rocks by this point he is so decomposed he is only indentifiable by dental work and the shoes he was wearing that day. Both of those men share a common stone in a cemetery outside Washington D.C today. That is a typical scenario of what happens when Union troops try to cross the river. By 6:30 Charles Stone learns of the disaster at Balls Bluff and that Baker was dead. For the first time he leaves Edwards Ferry and get to Harrisons Island for himself. As he conducted this ride he must have been able to get a sense of the scope of the disaster by the refugees he encountered on the toe path, by the bodies floating down the river. It was a disaster, 900 Union casualites many drowned over 500 were captured by Confederate troops. The following day Union burial party crosses the river to return to the Bluff to burry the dead. By sudown 47 Union bodies have been buried 2/3 of the ones who were killed. Today there is a national cemetery at Balls Bluff it is one of the smallest in the United States but it marks the site of that battle field. For the Northern people there was particular whole in the Union defeat of Balls Bluff. For days and weeks people would find the dead bloated bodies along the Potomac. They would get caught near bridges in Georgetown. One body washed up on the front lawn of Mount Vernon. There were articles in the newspapers that spread across the North detailing the disaster. For Abraham Lincoln the defeat was intensely personal. Word of Bakers death reached D.C at 10pm on the day of the battle via telegraph. The note is delieverd to McCLean who is having a meeting with Lincoln in the White House. He unfolds it reads it and never tells Lincoln what it says. Folds it up and puts it back in his pocket. It wouldn't be until a few hours later that Lincoln travels travels to the telegraph office and finds the dispatch. He walked with head bowed and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, the correspondent wrote. His face pale and waying his heart heavening with emotion he almost fell as he stepped into the street. Only the day before Lincoln and Baker had walked the White House grounds together and now Lincoln had suffered what you could call the second of many deeply personal losses he would find himself in during the Civil War. Noah Brooks would write, "For Lincoln the death of his beloved Baker smote upon him like a world wind from a Desert. Lincoln wasn’t the only member of the first family to mourn Baker. Even Willy Lincoln was grief stricken over the death of an Uncle. Willy Lincoln was much like Abraham. He published a poem published in the national republican entitled Lines on the Death of Col. Edward Baker. Part of which reads “There was no patriot like Baker, So noble and so true; He fell as a soldier on the field, His face to the sky of blue.” Bakes death made him a hero made him a morter. His likeness become something like Elmer Elsworth a patriotic emble for the northern people. His death did something else though. It spared him from having to accept any responsibility for what happened at Balls Bluff something that very well would have happened had he lived. It was Baker who sent the Union troops to the overcrowded Bluff it was Baker who didn’t take into account the shorter of boats it was he who spent four hours trying to find more boats. But perhaps the biggest mistake made that day was Stone trusting Bakers command he was just too inexperienced. McClellan agreed in a letter to his wife he wrote “The man directly to blame for the affair was Col. Baker who was killed. He was in command, disregarded entirely the instructions he had received from Stone and violated all military rules and precautions. And it was also not his fault.” The whole thing took place 40 miles from here without my orders or knowledge it was unauthorized by me and I am not responsible. With hindsight we can give him some blame the entire operation were flawed. His orders to stone about a slight demonstration were a little vague. Furthermore at no point did McClellan tell Stone that George McCall was turning back to Langley. Every move Stone makes on Oct 21 it’s with the understanding theres a 11,000 man Union division not far away on the Virginia side of the river. Which simply wasn't the case. Like McClellan, Stone blames Baker in his official report in the New York Tribute he praises Baker for his gallantry but ultimately blames him for the disaster. Bakers many friends in the senate were outraged at Stone. It was what Roscoe Conkling called, “the most atrocious military murder ever committed in our history as a people. Stone was no solider but a martinet." Stone become the Senates public enemy. Not only were his actions at Balls Bluff suspect for not reinforcing Edwards Baker but men like Charles Sumner from Massachusetts started paying close attention to other things Stone did particularly interactions with fugitive slaves entering the Union line. Men like Charles Sumner will declare Stone is slave catcher painting him with a broad unflattering brush. A reporter will later write that Stone faced a lot of injustice but that he had a manner that provoked injustice. So he replied to Sumner’s letter with one that essentially challenged him to a dull. He doubled down on his official report and published a second one that was even more persisient because of the attacks made upon him from Baker. Stone hopes to have a military court of inquiry look into the matter to clear his name but the last thing McClellan wants is more heat on himself and sends Stone a message to keep quite and say that his military superiors are attacked. Had it been an active campaign season perhaps the attention of the nation would have shifted to that, but it’s the winter and the focus of the nation is still on that battle. Out of this is created an organization called The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It’s purpose was to look into waste and corruption inefficiencies in Union war efforts it is made of members of the House and Senate and dominated by radical Republicans. Senator Henry Wilson summed up the purpose of the organization bluntly and said it was to teach men in civil and military authority that the people expect they shall not make mistakes and that we should not be easy with their errors. Critics of the Committee would argue that the real intent was to push a radical republican agenda into the war effort. They intruded upon the war effort by supporting the genrals they liked and throping the ones they didn’t at the expense of again the generals and prosecution of the war itself. It was headed by Ben Wade a Senator from Ohio. One of his and the committees first takes would be to investigate Balls Bluff. Someone would have to held accountable. Wasn’t going to be Baker or McClellan and that really just left one other person. On the 5th of January 1852 Charles Stone testifies in a closed session before the Joint Committee. He was prohibited by McClellan to reveal any larger plans and so basically he just repeated what was in his official repoirt. Unbenounced Stone dozens of eliged witnesses were called in after him and testified against Stone. Many had never even fought at Balls Bluff and had previously been brought up on charges by Stone so they had a axe to grind and if you look very closely you can see this conspiracy bubbling up. They charged Stone with all kinds of things they said he was aiding the enemy that he was communicating with Confederate officials that Nathan Evan considered Stone to be gentlemen. Which was a damning thing apparently. That the secessionist people of Maryland thought that Stone was a good guy. Now you couldn’t prove any of this but it didn’t really matter it was all hearsay but I think it matched what the Committee on the Conduct of the War wanted to hear. Stone appeared in front the committee twice. Never would he be allowed to look at the accusations or to comment directly on the testimony everything is basically summarized to him by Ben Wade. Stone is still confused about the point of the Committee and what he is being accused of. Wade told Stone he was being accused of not reinforcing Baker and mismanaging the battle and certain claims that created skepticism to Stone’s loyalty to the government. When Stone heard that he replied that is one humiliation I have hoped never be subjected to. McClellan watching from affair commented to someone they want a victim and once they have tasted blood no one can tell who will be next. By February it is pretty clear that victim is Charles Stone. Wade Brings his evidence to Stanton and formed a kind of alliance with the committee and on the 8th of February at Stanton's orders McClellan dispatches Brigidaire Gen. George Sikes to arrest Charles Stone. The arrest occurs in the middle of the night in front of his quarters and 24 hours after that he is in Fort Lafayette. New York Diarist George Templton wrote that everyone was astounded by the news that Stone was arrested. He is now in Fort Lafayette charged with treasonable correspondence and if Stone is guilty I hope he may be speedily hanged. Stone repeatedly asked for the charges and according to the Articles of the War he had 8 days to file charges for Stone those 8 days come and go and hears nothing. So he writes to McClellan, Lincoln, and Stanton but to no avail he gets no word at all. Then I would begin to see that malice and injustice was occurring Stone would write. The fact of the matter is no one wanted to see him charged at all. The Committee on the Conduct of the War was it had guided the prosecution of the war. McClellan was only too happy to have the cross hairs on someone else so he isn’t going to help anybody. Stanton I think probably saw how flimsy that case was and didn’t want to see it brought to trial and was happy to jus have Stone out of the way for a while. Lincoln essential a non-entity during this. Stone would talk to him later and Stone wrote Lincoln told Stone if he should tell me all he knew about that matter he would not tell me very much. Fact of the matter is Stone never gets charged there is no official paper work filed. He is in prison for 189 days and never charged or given a reason for his arrest. He is released on the 16th day if August 1862. He would remain a kind of pariah a solider without a command. A man tainted by skepticism. McClellan requested to have Stone brought back during the Antietam campaign but Stanton refused. He gets a command out west during the red river campaign. Stone is basically removed from the volunteer service against his wishes and is made a Col. in the army. For no reason what-so-ever. He ultimately gets a bit of a command in 1864 outside of Petersburg but there is such a cloud over his head that he ends up resigning and that’s the end of his service in the American Civil War. Following the war he goes to Egypt and serves for 13 years as essentially the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army. He comes back and is involved in engineering projects in 1887 he supervises the construction of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The ironic thing is from Liberty Island you can see Fort Lafayette where he was in prison. He dies that same year and is buried at the West Point Cemetery. In time both North and South forget about the battle of Balls Bluff. In time larger battles …such as Battle of Fredericksburg, 2nd Manassas, and Chancellorsville would really consume the attention of the nation. In time battles like Antietam and Fredericksburg would dwarf the battle of Balls Bluff. Even Stone had said it himself that had the battle been fought in 1864 no one would had noticed it at all. Balls Bluff was a small engagement that had profound consequences. I think it serves as one of the best examples of the fact that what happens in the military and political world are linked. As Carl Von Clausewitz likes to remind us, "war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument." We see that in Balls Bluff we see that in its aftermath with the creation of the Committee of the Conduct of the War. That will have a profound influence on how the Union and Northern government wages this war. They will meet, the committee, 272 times they will published 8 volumes of the report they will investigate virtually every major disaster. They will investigate every single Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. So whether you agree with what they did or you don't they have a profound influence. Harry Truman who is responsible for a committee similar to that during the 2nd World War took time to model his committee not on the Committee on the Conduct of the War but have it be a little above the board. You can't deny its influence. We see that in the saga of Charles Stone. A man who as much a casualty at Balls Bluff as Edward Baker its just the means are different. In lighting of his arrest and imprisonment and to an early historian Stone will later say, "if you can make out the reason, it is more than I have been able to do." So even in his late years he couldn't understand why this happened to him. I think if you are George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker, and George Meade you are going to remember Charles Stone. And all those who are investigated by the committee. So loyalty and what that means I think takes on a new meaning after Balls Bluff for men like McClellan and Stone. It was no longer enough to be loyal to the government. You had to be the right kind. Willing to wage the war in the right kind of way. A way decided bu the Committee on the Conduct of the War. So again that word, loyalty, kind of takes on a new kind of meaning. I would be inclined to argue that Bruce Catton again really gets to the heart of the matter in that same book, Mr. Lincoln's Army. Catton goes on to describe this incident and I will conclude with this. He would write that, "Indeed the war was peculiarly and very bitterly a war of tragic modern kind, in which loyalties and disloyalties do not follow the old patterns even though those patterns may be the only ones men can use when they try to formulate their loyalty. And so that generation was deprived of the one element that is essential to the operation of free-society - the ability to assume, in the absence of good proof to the contrary that men in public life are generally decent, honorable and loyal. Because that element was lacking, the wisest man could be reasonable with only part of his mind.." I encourage you to go visit the Balls Bluffs battlefield. It is a regional part a beautiful place and highlights the good and bad aspects of preservation. The battlefield itself is very well preserved. It is a fascinating place with a river down below. When you go there you can really get an appreciation of the Bluff itself. If you would like to read further into this there a few good books. One being "A Little Short of Boats: The Battle of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry" by James A. Morgan. Stephen Sears also published a book, it is a collection of essays really called "Controversies and Commanders." One of the first essays is about Charles Stone.

Contents

Background

Three months after the First Battle of Bull Run, Major General George B. McClellan was building up the Army of the Potomac in preparation for an eventual advance into Virginia. On October 19, 1861, McClellan ordered Brigadier General George A. McCall to march his division to Dranesville, Virginia, twelve miles southeast of Leesburg, in order to discover the purpose of recent Confederate troop movements which indicated that Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans might have abandoned Leesburg. Evans had, in fact, left the town on October 16–17 but had done so on his own authority. When Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard expressed his displeasure at this move, Evans returned. By the evening of October 19, he had taken up a defensive position on the Alexandria-to-Winchester Turnpike (modern-day State Route 7) east of town.

McClellan came to Dranesville to consult with McCall that same evening and ordered McCall to return to his main camp at Langley, Virginia, the following morning. However, McCall requested additional time to complete some mapping of the roads in the area and, as a result, did not actually leave for Langley until the morning of October 21, just as the fighting at Ball's Bluff was heating up.

On October 20, while McCall was completing his mapping, McClellan ordered Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone to conduct what he called "a slight demonstration" in order to see how the Confederates might react. Stone moved troops to the river at Edwards Ferry, positioned other forces along the river, had his artillery fire into suspected Confederate positions, and briefly crossed about a hundred men of the 1st Minnesota to the Virginia shore just before dusk. Having gotten no reaction from Colonel Evans with all of this activity, Stone recalled his troops to their camps and the "slight demonstration" came to an end.

Stone then ordered Colonel Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, stationed on Harrison's Island, facing Ball's Bluff, to send a patrol across the river at that point to gather what information it could about enemy deployments. Devens sent Captain Chase Philbrick and approximately 20 men to carry out Stone's order. Advancing in the dark nearly a mile inland from the bluff, the inexperienced Philbrick mistook a row of trees for the tents of a Confederate camp and, without verifying what he saw, returned and reported the existence of a camp. Stone immediately ordered Devens to cross some 300 men and, as soon as it was light enough to see, attack the camp and, per his orders, "return to your present position."

This was the genesis of the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Contrary to the long-held traditional interpretation, it did not come from a plan by either McClellan or Stone to take Leesburg. The initial crossing of troops was a small reconnaissance. That was followed by what was intended to be a raiding party.[3] To make matters worse, Stone was not advised that McCall and his division had been ordered back to Washington.[4]

Opposing forces

Union

Confederate

Battle

A map of the battle
A map of the battle

On the morning of October 21, Colonel Devens' raiding party discovered the mistake made the previous evening by the patrol; There was no camp to raid. Opting not to recross the river immediately, Devens deployed his men in a tree line and sent a messenger back to report to Stone and get new instructions. On hearing the messenger's report, Stone sent him back to tell Devens that the remainder of the 15th Massachusetts (another 350 men) would cross the river and move to his position. When they arrived, Devens was to turn his raiding party back into a reconnaissance and move toward Leesburg.

While the messenger was going back to Col. Devens with this new information, Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker showed up at Stone's camp to find out about the morning's events. He had not been involved in any of the activities to that point. Stone told him of the mistake about the camp and about his new orders to reinforce Devens for reconnaissance purposes. He then instructed Baker to go to the crossing point, evaluate the situation, and either withdraw the troops already in Virginia or cross additional troops at his discretion.

On the way upriver to execute this order, Baker met Devens' messenger coming back a second time to report that Devens and his men had encountered and briefly engaged the enemy, one company (Co. K) of the 17th Mississippi Infantry. Baker immediately ordered as many troops as he could find to cross the river, but he did so without determining what boats were available to do this. A bottleneck quickly developed so that Union troops could only cross slowly and in small numbers, making the crossing last throughout the day.

Meanwhile, Devens's men (now about 650 strong) remained in its advanced position and engaged in two additional skirmishes with a growing force of Confederates, while other Union troops crossed the river but deployed near the bluff and did not advance from there. Devens finally withdrew around 2:00 p.m. and met Baker, who had finally crossed the river half an hour later. Beginning around 3:00 the fighting began in earnest and was almost continuous until just after dark.

Col. Baker was killed at about 4:30 p.m. and remains the only United States Senator ever killed in battle. Following an abortive attempt to break out of their constricted position around the bluff, the Federals began to recross the river in some disarray. Shortly before dark, a fresh Confederate regiment (the 17th Mississippi) arrived and formed the core of the climactic assault that finally broke and routed the Union troops.

Many of the Union soldiers were driven down the steep slope at the southern end of Ball's Bluff (behind the current location of the national cemetery) and into the river. Boats attempting to cross back to Harrison Island were soon swamped and capsized. Many Federals, included some of the wounded, were drowned. Bodies floated downriver to Washington and even as far as Mt. Vernon in the days following the battle. A total of 223 Federals were killed, 226 were wounded, and 553 were captured on the banks of the Potomac later that night. The official records incorrectly state that only 49 Federals were killed at this battle, an error probably resulting from a mistaken reading of the report of the Union burial detail which crossed over the next day under flag of truce.[5] Fifty-four Union dead—of whom only one is identified—are buried in Ball's Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery.[6]A Union howitzer captured by Confederate forces was recaptured May 29, 1863 from John S. Mosby raid at Greenwich, Virginia[7]


The engagement is also known as the Battle of Harrison’s Island or the Battle of Leesburg.

Aftermath

Death of Col. Edward D. Baker at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, by Currier and Ives
Death of Col. Edward D. Baker at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, by Currier and Ives

This Union defeat was relatively minor in comparison to the battles to come in the war, but it had an enormously wide impact in and out of military affairs. Due to the loss of a sitting senator, it led to severe political ramifications in Washington. Stone was treated as the scapegoat for the defeat, but members of Congress suspected that there was a conspiracy to betray the Union. The ensuing outcry, and a desire to learn why Federal forces had lost battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Wilson's Creek, and Ball's Bluff, led to the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would bedevil Union officers for the remainder of the war (particularly those who were Democrats) and contribute to nasty political infighting among the generals in the high command.

Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, survived a nearly fatal wound at Ball's Bluff to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1902. Herman Melville's poem "Ball's Bluff – A Reverie" (published in 1866) commemorates the battle. Holmes' great friend and role model, Lt. Henry Livermore Abbott also survived the battle but did not survive the war. In 1865, Abbott was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General. Another outstanding young officer named Edmund Rice also eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General, was awarded the Medal of Honor and was fortunate enough to survive the war by near a half century. 2nd Lt. John William Grout of the 15th Massachusetts was killed in the battle; his death inspired a poem (and later a song) titled "The Vacant Chair".

Battlefield preservation

Map of Ball's Bluff Battlefield core and study areas by the American Battlefield Protection Program.
Map of Ball's Bluff Battlefield core and study areas by the American Battlefield Protection Program.

The site of the battle is preserved as the Ball's Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1984.[8] The park is maintained by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.[9] The battlefield area has been restored over time to look much like it did in 1861. Interpretive tours are given by volunteer guides throughout the spring, summer and fall each weekend at 11 AM and 1 PM. The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 3 acres (0.012 km2) of the battlefield.[10]

In culture

Bernard Cornwell's Copperhead, the second installment of The Starbuck Chronicles, begins with the Battle of Ball's Bluff. The fictional Faulconer Legion is placed at the left flank of the Confederate position and led by Captain Starbuck's K Company, begins the rout of the Union forces.[11]

Geraldine Brooks' March, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, also opens with the Battle of Ball's Bluff.[12] Mr. March, the father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, is the chaplain serving with the Union army.

Along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on the Maryland side, it was rumored that ghosts of departed soldiers from that battle, particularly those who drowned in one of the boats that sank in the Potomac River, haunted that area, so canal workers did not stay in that area overnight, and tied up their boats for the night elsewhere.[13]

Notes

  1. ^ The number of Union casualties from this battle vary by source. The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War reports 223 Federals killed, 226 wounded, and 553 captured; Garrison (pp. 115–6.) gives 49 killed, 198 wounded, 529 missing, and 100+ drowned; Eicher (p. 127) gives 49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 captured/missing; Winkler (p. 46) gives 49 killed, 158 wounded, 553 captured, and 100+ drowned;
  2. ^ Winkler, p. 46.
  3. ^ Morgan, "A Little Short of Boats," Ironclad Publ.Co., 2004, pp. 73–6.
  4. ^ Sears, "Controversies & Commanders" Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999, pp 33–34.
  5. ^ The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Broadfoot Publ. Co., Wilmington, NC, 1992, Vol. 7 Table XXXVIII and various regimental records in National Archives, Washington, DC
  6. ^ Holien, p. 141.
  7. ^ The Rebellion Record 1863 pp.75-76
  8. ^ Edwin C. Bearss (February 8, 1984). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Ball's Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery". National Park Service. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) and Accompanying 1 aerial photograph, undated. (110 KB)
  9. ^ Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority Archived March 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine website
  10. ^ Saved Land, American Battlefield Trust. Accessed Dec. 26, 2018.
  11. ^ "Copperhead". Outpost Library. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  12. ^ Geraldine Brooks, March. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-14-303666-1. p. 277.
  13. ^ Hahn, Thomas F. Swiftwater (1993). Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal: Georgetown Tidelock to Cumberland, Revised Combined Edition. Shepherdstown, WV: American Canal and Transportation Center. ISBN 0-933788-66-5. p. 68-69

References

This page was last edited on 13 September 2019, at 19:33
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