sfcdan: Ball’s Bluff w/ CW3O

by Brett Schulte on April 9, 2009 · 0 comments

Back to sfcdan’s History Forum Civil War Campaign Sketches

Battle of Ball’s Bluff

sfcdan has posted quite a few multi-post sketches of campaigns and units at the History Forums.  This page contains the entire series since the History Forums are no longer in existence.  Also included are two fully formatted Word Documents containing the final version of the campaign sketch.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff by sfcdan (Formatted Word Document)

Battle of Leesburg by sfcdan (Formatted Word Document)

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Battle of Ball’s Bluff: The Battle from the Northern Perspective

On 19 October 1861 BG Charles P. Stone’s division, christened by Stone himself as the “Corps of Observation”, was headquartered at Poolesville, Maryland.  The mission of the “Corps of Observation”, dictated by Gen McClellan was as follows:

 “You will keep the main body of your force united in a strong position near Poolesville, and observe the dangerous fords with strong pickets that can dispute the passage until reinforced…  Should you see the opportunity of capturing or dispersing any small party by crossing the river, you are at liberty to do so, though great discretion is recommended in making such a movement.  The general objective of your command is to observe and dispute the passage of the river and the advance of the enemy… I leave your operations much to your discretion, in which I have the fullest confidence.”

Stone’s area of responsibility was a ten-mile stretch from Edward’s Ferry in the south to Point of Rocks in the north.  A regiment under the command of Col John W. Geary was on Stone’s right flank and covered the area from Point of Rocks to Harpers Ferry; to the south, closer to Washington, were much larger forces consisting of one division under Major General Nathaniel Banks guarding the river from Edwards Ferry to Washington D.C. and two divisions under Generals McCall and Smith who were guarding the approached to Washington from the Virginia side of the river.

Charles P. Stone

BG Charles P. Stone

To accomplish it’s given task Stone’s division consisted of three infantry brigades under the command of BG Willis A. Gorman, Col Edward D. Baker, and Colonel Frederick W. Lander.  Gorman’s Brigade was made up of the 1st Minnesota, 15th Massachusetts, 34th New York, 42nd New York and the 2nd New York Militia.  Landers Brigade included the 19th Massachusetts, 20th Massachusetts, 7th Michigan and I Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters.  Baker’s Brigade was the oddly named California Brigade, mostly recruited from the Philadelphia area, consisting of the 1st, 2nd 3rd and 5th California Regiments.   The 3rd New York Cavalry, also known as Van Allen’s Cavalry, provided the division cavalry support.  Division Artillery was comprised of the 1st U.S. Artillery, Vaughn’s Artillery, the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, and the 6th New York Militia Battery.  Among these units the15th and 20th Massachusetts, 42nd New York and the 1st California Regiment, would see the bulk of the action atop the bluff and will, therefore, be the focus of this introduction.  As a general comment the division could be described as green and inexperienced, with few exceptions.  Least experienced among them was the 20th Massachusetts, mustered into service less than two months prior to their baptism of fire. During their brief existence, the 20th had spent much of its time recruiting to get up to strength (something it never achieved, it entered the battle with approximately 650 men rather than the full compliment of 1,000), equipping and moving from Massachusetts to Washington and then to Poolesville.  The 15th Massachusetts, 42nd New York and California Brigade had each been mustered in between three and four months prior to the battle. Combat experience was extremely limited, with only the California Brigade having seen action at Manassas.  This experience was a limited engagement at Munson’s Hill and the resulting casualties mostly the result of an unfortunate friendly fire incident with another Union regiment.

Training deficiencies among these newly minted regiments were recognized and efforts were made at correction.  When not on picket duty the men engaged in regular drill, which was by supplemented by skirmishing drills, platoon firing drills and individual marksmanship.  It was recognized that the enlisted men of the 20th Massachusetts were so unfamiliar with their muskets the many “shut their eyes when pulling the trigger.”   Schools were started to teach battle tactics to NCOs.  Regimental bands were required, in the case of the Massachusetts regiments under the threat of courts martial, to conduct ambulance and litter carrying drills and individual first aid was also instructed.  Otherwise well equipped, many in the Massachusetts regiments, particularly the 15th, were still carrying old smooth bore muskets which upon issue were deemed “so badly worn that many were unfit for service.”   The only cure for the training deficiencies was time and experience, the former was rapidly running out and the latter was soon to be provided in spades by Confederate forces under the command of Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans.

Charles P. Devens

BG Charles P. Devens

The officers of these regiments were just as green as the troops.  Only Cogswell (West Point ’49), leading the 42nd New York was a professional soldier. Col Edward D. Baker, sitting US Senator from Oregon, in command of the California Brigade, had a brief period of service during the Mexican War but no formal military training.  LTC Isaac J. Wistar, commander of the 1st California Infantry, was Baker’s law partner, and had no military training or experience.  The 15th Massachusetts was led by Charles P. Devens, a Harvard graduate, with limited military experience as an officer of the state militia and the 3rd Battalion of Massachusetts Rifles, a ninety day regiment.  The 20th Massachusetts Regiment was commanded by William R. Lee, a classmate of Robert E. Lee at West Point.  William Lee dropped out off West Point prior to graduation as a result of a family emergency and had accumulated no further military experience.  Junior officers were even more wanting of military experience.  Captain Ferdinand Dreher, Commander, C Company, 20th Massachusetts and a former officer in the German Army, was compelled to write the governor of Massachusetts about the state of officers in that regiment.  Dreher informed the governor that he, “…could take all the military science of these gentleman and put it them into a private and it would not make the best sergeant we have.”   Despite Dreher’s concern’s 11 officers of the 20th Massachusetts would end the war with the rank of Brevet Brigadier General or higher, but that was well in the future.

Duty on the Potomac was a mixture of drill, training and picket duty.  The adversaries would occasionally exchange a few artillery rounds and errant musket shots but for the most part it was a monotonous routine.  Interaction between the opposing pickets was more common than gunfire.  In a letter to the Fitchburg Massachusetts newspaper a soldier of the 15th Massachusetts wrote. “We have agreed with the pickets on the opposite shore, who are Mississippians, not to fire at each other.  …an exchange of newspapers the Boston Herald for the Mobile Tribune…, and one of the Mississippians is coming over by boat to take dinner with the Leominster boys.”  This prelude to the latter day sitzkrieg was about to come to and end.

George B. McClellan

MG George B. McClellan

In late September Union intelligence sources reported a Confederate force withdrawal from their most forward positions in Northern Virginia. At Poolesville, Gen Stone received word from a deserter from the 13th Mississippi Regiment that Evan’s Confederates across the river were also preparing for a withdrawal.  Union commanders, from General McClellan down, saw the possibility of further securing the Virginia banks of the Potomac and the approaches to Washington D.C. and do so with out a fight!  On 19 Oct, McClellan wrote his wife of the opportunity to make the enemy  “abandon Leesburg tomorrow.”    McClellan did not confine himself to spousal correspondence, he also wrote orders for forces under his command to go on the march and accomplish the task.  McClellan ordered a division under General George McCall to conduct a reconnaissance in force towards Dranesville and beyond in the hope of hastening the perceived Confederate withdrawal from Leesburg.  To assist McCall’s effort McClellan dispatched the following message to Stone, which was delivered by a McClellan staff member in the late morning of the 20th:

General McClellan desires me to inform you that General McCall occupied Drainesville(sic) yesterday, and is still there.  Will send out heavy reconnaissance to-day in all directions from that point. The general desires that you keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away.  Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”

General Stone, realizing that a suggestion from a military superior is akin to an order, immediately organized the suggested “slight demonstration.”  Within a few hours Stone orchestrated a series of intricate movements designed to simulate a support operation to McCall’s movement from Dranesville.  At approximately one o’clock in the afternoon Stone accompanied Gorman’s Brigade, the 7th Michigan Regiment, two troops of Van Allen’s Cavalry and Battery I, 1st U.S. Artillery to Edwards Ferry.  At the same time, four companies of the 15th Massachusetts were marched from Conrad’s Ferry, upriver to Harrison’s Island where they were joined by the bulk of the 20th Massachusetts who were marched from camp at Poolesville.  To replace the 15th Massachusetts at Conrad’s Ferry the 42nd New York and the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery were marched from Poolesville.  All these movements were accomplished in the most obvious manner possible, hopefully “demonstrating” to any watchful Confederate eyes that something was afoot.  Upon arrival at Edwards Ferry, Battery I begin a deliberate shelling of the Virginia shore.  Late in the day, to complete the ruse, Stone ordered two companies of the 1st Minnesota to cross the river.  Companies E and K crossed to Virginia utilizing three flat boats lifted from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which ran parallel to the river on the Maryland side. The Minnesotans stay in Virginia was brief, maybe as little as fifteen minutes.  Having completed the demonstration, the Edwards Ferry contingent was back in camp by nightfall.  Unbeknownst to Stone or any of the participants, while they were “demonstrating” McCall and his troops were already on the march back to their camps in McClean, Virginia.

The demonstration being complete Stone still had the requirement to “keep a good lookout upon Leesburg” to determine the success of the efforts to force a withdrawal by the enemy forces in the area.  In mid-afternoon Stone ordered Devens’ 15th Massachusetts to conduct a reconnaissance across the river from Harrison’s Island, as no pickets had been seen in the area during the past two days.  Unfortunately there was a long delay in delivering the order to Devens and it was early evening before Devens chose Captain Chase Philbrick and twenty volunteers from the Company H for the job. Devens instructed them to, “cross from the island and explore by a path through the woods, little used, in the direction of Leesburg, to see if he could find anything concerning the enemy’s position in that direction.” 

Additionally, Devens moved Companies A, C, G and I to Harrison’s Island in support of the pickets already on duty there and to cover the reconnaissance element return.  As dark set in, Philbrick, a 38 year old, New Hampshire born, stonecutter from Northbridge, Massachusetts and his intrepid band of twenty landed in Virginia under the imposing heights of Balls Bluff.  Phibrick and his men found the path to the top of the bluff and according to Lt Church Howe, a volunteer participant in the reconnaissance; “We proceeded…three quarters of a mile or a mile from the edge of the river.  We saw what we supposed to be an encampment………………  We were well satisfied it was a camp.”

Despite having encountered no enemy, or seeing any for that matter, Philbrick returned to Harrison’s Island and reported the unguarded enemy camp to Devens.  Devens immediately ordered Lieutenant Howe to report the intelligence to Gen Stone at Edwards Ferry.  Howe made his report to Stone at approximately 10pm.  Stone viewed this as a opportunity to take advantage of McClellan’s order of August; “Should you see the opportunity of capturing or dispersing any small party by crossing the river, you are at liberty to do so………”

By midnight Stone had prepared and delivered the following order to Devens:  “ Colonel Devens will land opposite Harrison’s Island with five companies of his regiment, and proceed to surprise the camp of the enemy discovered by Captain Philbrick in the direction of Leesburg…..

Colonel Devens will attack the camp of the enemy at daybreak, and, having routed them, pursue them as far as he deems prudent, and will destroy the camp, if practicable, before returning…

Having accomplished this duty, Colonel Devens will return to his present position, unless he shall see one on the Virginia side, near the river, which he can undoubtedly hold until reinforced, and one which can be successfully held against largely superior numbers.  In such a case he will hold on and report.”

The unhappy drama known, by Union forces as the Battle of Balls Bluff and by Confederate forces as the Battle of Leesburg, had entered its first act.  This drama would be played out as a tragedy. For the Union forces involved.

The post midnight darkness of 21 October 19861, found Colonel Charles P. Devens, commander of the 15th Massachusetts with a problem.  How to transport 300 men of Companies A, C, G, H and I from Harrison’s Island to the Virginia Shore?  Initially only two boats, capable of carrying approximately 25 men, were available, but another small boat was located to increase the lift to 35 men per trip.  It was 5 o’clock in the morning before the men of the 15th were all ashore in Virginia.  The 15th was followed across the river by companies D and I, 20th Massachusetts, accompanied by regimental commander Colonel William R. Lee. The mission of the 20th Massachusetts contingent was to secure the top of the bluff, the boat landing area and cover the expected Devens withdrawal.  The remainder of the 20th Massachusetts was ordered onto Harrison’s Island.  To further support Devens’ raid Stone ordered artillery in the form of two 12 pound mountain howitzers, under the command Lieutenant Frank S, French, Battery 1, 1st U.S. Artillery and four 12 pound rifled guns from Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Artillery moved to the canal tow path near Harrison’s Island.  From these locations the artillery pieces could fire onto Ball’s Bluff in support of a withdrawal.  The 1st California Infantry and 42 New York were placed on stand-by for support as necessary.  As a further distraction Stone ordered General Gorman to cross two companies of the 1st Minnesota and a detachment of thirty cavalrymen at Edwards Ferry.  This crossing would be accomplished under the cover of artillery fire.

Modern picture of Harrison's Island taken from the Virginia shore.

Modern picture of Harrison's Island taken from the Virginia shore.

At first light Devens and his men marched inland from the river to the disappointing conclusion that the “enemy camp” that the “well satisfied” Philbrick and Howe had spotted the previous evening, was nothing more than a line of trees, which illuminated by night sky gave the impression of a line of tents.  Leaving his men in the woods, Devens, Philbrick, and Howe scouted, without success, for a sign of the enemy further inland towards Leesburg.  Had the elaborate ruse of the 19th worked?  Had the rebels abandoned Leesburg?  Devens, uncertain as to the next move, decided to stay put and dispatched Lt Howe on his second trip to report the situation to Gen Stone and obtain new orders. On his way to Edwards Ferry Howe briefed Lee on the situation, Lee told Howe to tell Stone “that if he wished to open a campaign in Virginia, now was the time.  Gorman’s simultaneous adventure at Edward’s Ferry found the enemy quickly when the detachment of Van Allen’s cavalry had a brief skirmish with elements of the 13th Mississippi while scouting in the vicinity of the Leesburg Turnpike.  The cavalry put up little fight and returned to the safety of the bridgehead then secured by the two companies of Minnesota infantry.

Willis Gorman

BG Willis Gorman

At approximately 0730hrs, Col Lee dispatched pickets to the wooded areas to his north and south.  Pickets from Company I, 20th Massachusetts also succeeded at finding the enemy.  As they scouted in the direction of a rugged ravine to the north the Massachusetts’s men were fired upon by confederate pickets stationed on the northern slope of the ravine.  Sgt   Riddle was wounded in the elbow and Lee’s men scurried back up the slope to the top of the to report the encounter to Col Lee.  The Confederate pickets rallied their company and it moved into position at the head of the ravine near the Jackson House.  Union pickets returned the favor and informed Devens of the Confederate movement.  Devens ordered Philbrick and his company H forward to confront the Confederate movement.  Realizing he was outnumbered the Confederate commander withdrew 300 yards and took up a defensive position.  Philbrick followed closely and approached, despite loudly and repeatedly announcing that they were friends, Philbrick drew a Confederate volley.    Company H returned fire and a small skirmish developed.  Devens pondered reinforcing Philbrick with Company G, but a report from pickets announcing the approach of Confederate Cavalry changed his mind.  Devens ordered a withdrawal back to the bluff.  Philbrick had experienced one killed, nine wounded and two missing in the skirmish.

At 0830hrs Devens consulted with Lee at the top of the bluff and after a brief stay there, returned to the previously evacuated position near the Jackson house to await orders from Stone.  Having taken casualties among his pickets, received the briefing from Howe, heard the skirmishes to his front and watched Devens move forward once again, Col Lee sent a note to Maj Paul Revere on Harrison’s Island.  The note told Revere “we are determined to fight” and ordered Revere to cross the remainder of the 20th Massachusetts to the Virginia side.

While this was going on atop the bluff, Lt Howe made his report to Gen Stone.  Howe, who had departed the bluff prior to the morning skirmishes, did not report these events to Stone. Stone ordered Howe to report back to Devens to stay put and that a detachment of cavalry, two mountain howitzers and the remaining five companies of the 15th Massachusetts were being sent as reinforcements.  Stone ordered LTC Ward, of the 15th to take the five companies and march on Smart’s Mill and secure Devens’, northern flank.  Upon being informed of Stone’s decision by the recently returned Howe, Devens once again dispatched the exhausted Howe on his third trip to Edward’s Ferry to report the morning skirmishes to Stone.  Devens expressed a wish that LTC Ward should join him at his current location rather than move to Smart’s Mill.  As luck would have it Howe met LTC Ward and informed him of Devens’ wishes, Ward moved to reinforce Devens rather than Smart’s Mill.  By 1100hrs, the 20th Massachusetts had 317 men aligned along the top of the bluff with pickets posted in the woods to both the north and the south.  The 15th Massachusetts had 650 men at the position near the Jackson House.

The two mountain howitzers, wrestled with great effort by men of the 15th Massachusetts up the steep path to the top of the bluff, were positions on the north side of the open field in front of Col Lee’s position.  Unfortunately, while the Stone ordered reinforcements were arriving, Col Lee diverted the cavalry detachment, under the command of CPT Candy. Lee provided Candy, a staff officer in Lander’s Brigade serving temporarily on Stone’s staff, a note for delivery to Stone.  Candy took the note and his cavalrymen back to Edwards Ferry.  The note said,  “..if the government designed to open a campaign at this time and on that field, we had made a lodgement, but we should want re-enforcements; that the means of transportation were small, and that we also required subsistence.”

Col Edward Baker

Col Edward Baker

The coming storm was growing.  Col Lee’s mention of the limited transportation available should have served both notification and warning.

At 0900hrs on the 21st, Col Baker met with LTC Wistar, Commander of the 1st California Regiment at Conrad’s Ferry, a few miles north of the Ball’s Bluff.  LTC Wistar informed Baker that the 1st California’s orders were to remain at Conrad’s Ferry unless he heard heavy firing at the bluff.  If heavy firing were heard at the bluff Wistar was directed to cross his regiment to support the Massachusetts regiments.  On Wistar’s advice, Baker decided to ride to Edward’s Ferry to meet with Stone and get a full picture of what was happening.

Baker and Stone met at Edwards Ferry at approximately 1000hrs and Stone turned command of the growing enterprise at Ball’s Bluff over to Baker.  Stone told Baker that McCall was at Dranesville (something that had been untrue for almost 24hours) and that Gorman would cross troops at Edwards Ferry to push the Confederates back to the Leesburg Turnpike. Because General Lander was unavailable (He was in Washington D.C. this day.), Baker would command the Union right wing.  Stone’s orders to Baker were to hold all ground already seized in Virginia but not to engage a “superior enemy force.”  If heavy fighting broke out Baker had the choice to reinforce Devens and Lee or pull the entire force back across the river at his discretion.  Baker requested Stone write out the order and then departed northward toward Harrison’s Island.  Along the way Baker met the well-traveled Lieutenant Howe, who was on his way to inform Stone of the morning’s skirmishes.  Howe briefed Baker, who immediately dispatched a staff rider with an order for LTC Wistar to move the 1st California across the river to support Devens and Lee.

Following his meeting with Baker, Stone wrote General McClellan and informed “The enemy have been engaged opposite Harrison’s Island; the men are behaving admirably.”

McClellan later testified that this was his first knowledge that the affair at Ball’s Bluff was anything more than a scouting mission.  This apparently not the only thing that McClellan didn’t know as his first reaction was to telegraph McCall with directions to remain at Dranseville.  After being informed that McCall had already returned to Langley, McClellan changed the order and required McCall and Banks to “hold their divisions in readiness” for a possible move to support Stone.  McClellan informed Stone to call upon Banks, the nearest available force for reinforcements as necessary and that “I will support from Darnestown.”  McClellan further asked what size Confederate force was opposing at the bluff and how many troops Stone felt would be necessary to “carry Leesburg?”

While McClellan, Stone and Baker pondered success at Leesburg, Devens was under ever increasing pressure from the growing Confederate force to his front.  Confederate reinforcements had brought their numbers to near 700 men by 1200hrs.  Increased skirmishing accompanied the growth the Confederate line and the three companies of skirmishers deployed by Devens were forced back to the east of the Jackson house.  Lieutenant Howe returned, once again, from Edwards Ferry brought news of reinforcements and Baker’s appointment of command.  Devens was thankful for the news and inpatient for the reinforcements.  On three occasions, Devens dispatched the well used Lieutenant Howe back to the bluff to find Baker and request the speeding of reinforcements.    Each time Howe returned empty handed, Baker had not yet arrived on the field!

A modern image of a portion of Ball's Bluff, so deadly to Union infantrymen in October 1861.

A modern image of a portion of Ball's Bluff, so deadly to Union infantrymen in October 1861.

Baker arrived at the crossing to Harrison’s Island at approximately noon, instead of the immediate and standard commander’s reconnaissance of his assigned battlefield he consumed two hours supervising the movement of a boat from the canal to the river and the crossing of troops.  Baker also took the time to order the 42nd New York to reinforce the force in Virginia. Two rifles guns of the1st Rhode Island Light Artillery were also ordered to Virginia.    Before crossing Baker sent a message to Stone that his intent was to advance towards Leesburg as soon as sufficient troops had been crossed.  Baker also commented that he hoped that operations at Edwards Ferry would “give advantage.”   The Edwards Ferry adventure had grown to three infantry regiments but had scarcely moved inland despite the claim for Gorman to his troops that “we will sleep in Leesburg tonight.”

While Baker tended to items on Harrison’s Island no one directed the troops arriving in Virginia to reinforce Devens.  Growing Confederate troop strength finally forced Devens to retreat to the Bluff.  Baker finally arrived on top of the Bluff at approximately 1400hrs and ceremoniously announced his command to Lee and congratulated him on the “prospect of battle.”  These words had barely left Baker’s lips when Devens’ tired troops, marched down the path from their forward position.  Devens and his troops were well aware of the prospect for battle but were congratulated by Baker “for the splendid manner in which your regiment behaved this morning.” Baker assigned to 15th to a place on the north of the Union line.   Baker had decided he was not yet strong enough to initiate offense action and established a defensive line.  Abandoning the forward position allowed the 8th Virginia to tighten the noose around the growing but idle Union force by moving into the woods at the western edge of the field recently vacated by Devens.

The Union forces now truly had their backs against the wall.  The few hundred yards of maneuver room provided by Devens’ advanced position was now gone.  Confederate forces quickly took control of the wooded area west of the open field to Baker’s front.  Baker’s line was only a few yards from the precipice of the bluff to the east.

The battles final stages began with Baker’s forces rearranged in a chevron shaped defensive front that would soon prove faulty.  On the Union right the 15th Massachusetts, aligned east-west, was located on a down slope which gave poor line of site toward the open field; two companies of the 1st California fell in on the right of the 15th.  The skirmishers of H Company, 20th Massachusetts completed the right of the Union line.  The bulk of the 20th Massachusetts formed the center of the line that ran north-south, parallel to the bluff.  The left of the line consisted of two additional companies of the 1st California and D Co, 20th Massachusetts that had been posted there as pickets at 0730 hrs and promptly forgotten.  The two available mountain howitzers were in the open field near the right of the line.  Additional reinforcements from the 1st California and 42nd New York continued to arrive at a pace supported by the limited boat capacity.

The narrow path to the top of the Bluff

The narrow path to the top of the Bluff

Baker and Wistar consulted about the troop disposition and Wistar became the first to express concern about the terrain to the south.  Wistar told Baker that if Confederate forces seized the ravine and sloping wooded area to the south Baker would be outflanked.  Wistar requested to extend his line in that direction to help prevent that from happening.  Baker responded by giving Wistar the, “…entire responsibility for the left wing.”

Sporadic fire continued to fall upon the Union lines with little response.  Many in the 15th Massachusetts could not, based upon the ground slope, see the enemy and laid or sat down to get out of the line of fire.  The two companies of the 1st California on the right of the 15th followed suit.  Eventually Baker ordered his officers and men to lie down to avoid the incoming fire.  This ensured no return fire, as it is virtually impossible to load a musket lying down.   By 1430 hrs, the 1st California had landed six additional companies; followed by C Company, 42nd New York; one of the rifle guns and Col Cogswell, Commander of the 42nd.  The reinforcements from the California regiment bolstered the left of the line.  The first job for Company C was to drive back Confederate skirmishers on the north edge of the bluff that were shooting at the boats crossing to the landing point.  As he had with Wistar, Baker asked Cogswell for his opinion concerning troop disposition.  The professional soldier quickly pointed out the high ground to the south and told Baker that if the Confederates occupied it, Baker’s command would be destroyed.  Cogswell recommended an immediate advance of the entire force to seize the ground.  Baker ignored the advice and detailed Cogswell to look after the artillery.

At the end of his tour with Cogswell, Baker again met with Wistar and briefed him concerning Stone’s estimation of 4,000 Confederate troops opposing the landing.  Baker ordered Wistar to push out two companies of skirmishers to locate the enemy.  Wistar pleaded with Baker that to send out two companies against 4,000 was to sacrifice them.  Baker insisted and Wistar sent two companies forward, across the open field and into the wood line on the western side.  Wistar’s men succeeded in finding the 8th Virginia, who surprised the right flank of the skirmishers and quickly sent them back from whence they came.  The final battle had begun.

Unfortunately for Baker and his men, the 18th Mississippi arrived and occupied the feared high ground to the south, the 18th was soon reinforced by elements of the 17th Mississippi and Baker was now truly hemmed in; backed against the bluff on the east and

Confederate forces to the north, west and south.    Baker’s only hope was relieve from the Edwards Ferry crossing, but this was to be a furlong hope as Gorman’s troops never sent more than a few skirmishers forth from the bridgehead.

Col Milton Cogswell

Col Milton Cogswell

Confederate troops from all sides poured small arms fire onto their Union adversaries.  Their fire was concentrated on the crews of the Union artillery pieces that were on the field and in the open.  Gun crews quickly suffered heavy casualties and volunteers including Baker and Wistar vainly attempted to keep them in action.  The artillery would play little part in this story, less than ten rounds were fired from the recently arrived rifled gun. What rounds were fires had little effect on the enemy due to the wooded nature of their positions.  Similar poor results were achieved by the two mountain howitzers, whose crews also suffered heavy casualties.

At Edward’s Ferry optimism was still high; Stone believe the heavy fire from the bluff was evidence of Baker’s advance towards Leesburg.  The truth was impending disaster, on the right of Baker’s line the 15th was forced to detail two companies (A & I) as skirmishers to protect their rear from the growing presence of hostile Virginians and Mississippians closing in from the north.  The latest Union troops to arrive, Companies A and H, 42nd New York were immediately thrown into the fray at the south of the line were the Confederates strength in the woods was now a very serious issue.  The brave New Yorkers managed to drive the forward most enemy back about 50 yards before they themselves were forced back by the volume of fire.  Now completely surrounded and under heavy smalls arms fire, Baker remained steadfastly upright. At about 1700 hrs, Confederate fire found the Union commander, several balls hit the Colonel, killing him instantly.

Colonel Lee, believing command passed to him, ordered a retreat across the river.  Colonel Cogswell, however, had other ideas and claimed command for himself, and took it with Lee’s consent.  Cogswell believed the only hope was not retreat across the river, but a breakout to the south and reunion with the forces at Edward’s Ferry.  Cogswell ordered all remaining forces into a column of attack for the breakout attempt.  An attempt was made to throw the rifled gun over the bluff to keep it from Confederate hands but fallen trees foiled the attempt.  Seeing the enemy rearranging, Colonel Eppa Hunton’s 8th Virginia rushed forward and seized the mountain howitzers despite an attempt by the 20th Massachusetts to defend them.    Cogswell’s breakout attempt fizzled when a mystery officer appeared and seemingly ordered the attack to begin.  Only some elements of the 42nd New York and 15th Massachusetts heeded the mystery order and the resulting weak effort was quickly repulsed by the Mississippians to the south.  The havoc caused by the aborted attack made even Cogswell realize all was lost, and he ordered a retreat to the river.  Colonel Devens, in a most untimely display of backbone, refused the order unless it was repeated in the presence of another officer.  Cogswell repeated the order for Devens and Maj Kimball of the 15th, and the order was passed to the troops.  What was intended as an orderly movement down the steep path to the riverbank rapidly turned into a panicked stampede.  Men were killed and injured when they jumped or were pushed over the bluff.

As Union troops massed on the narrow flood plain at the foot of the bluff, Devens attempted to arrange return fire but the effort proved futile.  Devens ordered his troops to throw their weapons into the river and escape the best they could, it was every man for himself!  Devens threw his sword into the river and floated to Harrison’s Island on a large tree branch.  Remarkably, the large flatboat now arrived on the Virginia shore carrying troops from Companies E and K, 42nd New York!  Colonel Cogswell rallied the newcomers and a few volunteers from the 20th Massachusetts to form a line on the path from the bluff and prevent Confederate forces from entry onto the flood plain and gain as much time as possible for the retreat.   The emptied flat boat was swamped with wounded and panicked troops and tipped over and sank upon leaving the shore.  Only three small boats were now available to support the retreat.  Confederate troops, in control of the bluff, poured fire down on the mass of troops below, encouraging many to attempt the swim to Harrison’s Island, and eventually rendering the remaining boats unseaworthy.  Cogswell  fought to the end, rallying a few troops he attempted to prevent Confederate fire from the mouth of the southern ravine onto the flood plain.  Cogswell and his brave band were soon surrounded and captured.

Map depiction of the Battle of Ball's Bluff

Map depiction of the Battle of Ball's Bluff

Stone became fully aware of the looming disaster and the death of Baker at approximately 1830hrs and ordered a retreat from Edward’s Ferry.  By 2000hrs it was essentially over, the Union troops remaining on the flood plain surrendered to the victorious Evans.  Small groups would evade the enemy and make or attempt their escape throughout the night.  Informed of the disaster McClellan countermanded Stone’s order to withdraw the Edward’s Ferry force.  McClellan ordered Banks to rush his division to reinforce Gorman.   It was during this exchange that Stone finally learned that McCall had been withdrawn from Dranesville before the battle at the bluff had begun. Two of Bank’s brigades arrived at Edward’s Ferry at 0300hrs, 22 Oct, much too late to make any difference.

The weather on 22 October 1861, day after the battle, was cold and rainy. Union spirits were even drearier.   Col Hinks, commander of the 19th Massachusetts and senior officer at Harrison’s Island, was charged with preparing entrenchments on the island to defend against a possible Confederate attempt to seize it and restoring order among the panicked and demoralized troops.  Hinks and LTC McGuirk of the 17th Mississippi arranged a truce so that a burial party could attend to the Union dead atop the bluff.  The burial party was led by Capt Thomas Vaughn, 1st RI Light Artillery and Lt James Dodge, 19th Massachusetts, and consisted of ten enlisted men of the 19th Massachusetts.  Lt Dodge carried an offer to send over Union physicians to help with the wounded but the Confederate Commanders agreed only on the condition that the doctors remain in Virginia as Prisoners of War.  LTC Hinks understandably declined the Confederate conditions and the physicians stayed in Maryland.  Capt Vaughn and his detail worked until nightfall and completed the burial of 47 Union dead.  Vaughn reported that this constituted approximately two thirds of those that required burial. Soon after Vaughn’s return, Col Hinks was ordered to stop digging entrenchments and abandon Harrison’s Island under the cover of darkness.  McClellan initially directed that the Edward’s Ferry contingent be reinforced by Banks and ordered the beachhead held “at all hazards.” However, after McClellan arrived to view the situation for himself on the evening of the 23 Oct he changed his mind.  Once again the Union forces were withdrawn under the cover of darkness and by the morning of the 24th all had returned to the Maryland side of the river, a place McClellan declared in a letter to his wife “they never should have left.”

High ground to the Union south

High ground to the Union south

In the hours and days following the battle Union regiments busied themselves with counting their losses and attempting to restore morale to the downtrodden troops.  Official records reported the Union losses as 49 dead, 158 wounded and 714 missing.  These figures are clearly incorrect as to the number of dead and wounded.  Confederate forces reported 553 prisoners taken, leaving 163 of the missing unaccounted for.  Vaughn’s count of 47 buried being two thirds of those laying on the battlefield accounts for some of the remainder as do the at least 18 bodies which washed up onto the banks of the Potomac on the Union side.   An unknown number of Union dead also washed up on the Confederate side of the Potomac.   The heaviest losses were reported among the 15th Massachusetts (14 dead, 61 wounded, 227 missing); the 1st California (13 dead, 40 wounded, 228 missing); the 20th Massachusetts (15 dead, 44 wounded, 135 missing); and the 42nd New York (7 dead, 6 wounded, 120 missing).  The Confederates sent 529 able bodied prisoners to camps the remaining 24 prisoners were wounded and unable to be moved.  The majority of the prisoners would be paroled early in 1862 and virtually all were returned by September 1862. A few of the officers, including Col Cogswell, were held as hostages in the CSS Savannah debate, they were threatened with hanging if the same fate should befall the crew of the Savannah which were being tried for piracy by their Union captors.

The truth of the matter is that this wasn’t much of a battle in size or importance and it garnered far more attention than it actually warranted.  The death of the well-known Baker and a second consecutive rout at the hands of the rebels put it on the front page of every newspaper in the Union.  The shock of a second miserable defeat, the loss of a sitting United States Senator, and unrelenting negative press led Congress to appoint a body known as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.  The Committee had a broad mandate and subpoena power to investigate any aspect of military affairs “past, present and future” which struck its fancy.  The Committee’s fancy fell hard upon the debacle at Ball’s Bluff.  Called to testify Stone cast the majority of the blame on Baker but cast some on McClellan as well.  Stone testified that if McClellan had informed him that McCall’s division had withdrawn from the operation he would have withdrawn his forces as well.  For his part McClellan attempted to assist Stone by issuing a circular to the Army that placed the blame for the defeat on the “immediate commander”, a not so veiled reference to Col Baker.  McClellan was far less veiled in a letter to his wife in which he proclaimed, “the man directly to blame for the affair was Col Baker who was killed while he was in command, disregarded entirely the instructions he had received from Stone, and violated all military rules and precautions.”

Despite this evidence, the Committee (a kangaroo court of primarily Republicans), only one of which had any significant military experience, found cause to have Stone arrested and held in prison for six months.  Stone was eventually released and returned to duty but his career was effectively ruined and he resigned from the Army in 1864.  The armies of both sides had returned to winter quarters to await renewal of hostilities in the spring of 1862.

It is difficult to find any redeeming features for Union forces engaged on the Bluff,  Many newly minted soldiers and officers were “blooded” on the bluff and gained expensive but meaningful combat experience.  Among the two Massachusetts regiments at least eleven officers broken in on the Bluff would go to General Officer rank by the end of the war, with many commanding divisions or brigades.  They were:

 

Brevet Major General Charles Devens (15th Mass)

Brevet Major General William F. Barlett (20th Mass)

Brevet Major General George N. Macy (20th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General George H. Ward (15th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General John W. Kimball (15th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General Francis A. Walker (15th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General William R. Lee (20th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General Francis W. Palfrey (20th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General Paul J. Revere (20th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General Charles L. Pierson (20th Mass)

Brevet Brigadier General Caspar Crowninshield (20th Mass)

 

The Union catastrophe had many root causes each contributing its fair share to the outcome, among the most significant:

Unintended “Mission Creep”:  Actually more like “Mission Dash” then “Mission Creep”, in the space of 24 hours a twenty person reconnaissance patrol became a 200 person raid which became a nearly 2000 person invasion of Virginia.  Stone, Lee and Baker all independently ordered reinforcements without apparent thought as to what to do with them; how to effectively move them to the battle area; how they might be exfiltrated should it become necessary; or really little if any advanced planning at all.  This failure of forethought proved costly.

Conducting a specialized operation without specialized support:  River crossing operations are specialized operations for which the army provides specialized troop support, usually in the form of engineers.  Stone had no engineer support available yet undertook a triple river crossing operation! (Edwards Ferry to Virginia; Maryland to Harrison’s Island; and Harrison’s Island to Virginia)  At Ball’s Bluff, troops had to be shuttled across the river from Maryland to Harrison’s Island and then across the river again from Harrison’s Island to Virginia.  Had the boatlift been confined to the 200 person raiding party this might not have been a problem.  Unfortunately, the mission grew beyond boatlift capability.  Cogswell commented on the shoddy manner in which the boatlift was conducted; no was one put in control, the boats were simply passed from unit to unit for use as the receiving unit saw fit. No ferrying service was properly established and it was several hours before a line was even strung for shore to shore to speed up the passage.

Terrain Choice:  The Bluff was an excellent choice for insertion of the reconnaissance patrol, lightly patrolled by the enemy with plenty of cover and concealment for a small body of men. The terrain proved far less suitable for the larger raid as evidenced by the several hours it took to get even 200 men into position.  The terrain was an absolutely ridiculous choice as the entry for a large-scale operation.  Union actions within the terrain acted to accentuate its difficulties.

Poor Coordination:  From the beginning this action was poorly coordinated.  McClellan ordered a demonstration that, based upon the timing of the order, could not take place while it was actually useful to McCall.  McClellan never informed Stone of McCall’s withdrawal until it was way to late to prevent this tragedy.  Stone’s efforts at supporting the Ball’s Bluff operation with another landing at Edward’s Ferry was a good idea, but not carried out to fulfill that objective.  Troops landed at Edward’s Ferry remained virtually idle, with only a small cavalry unit actually engaging the enemy.  Evans never had much to worry about from this operation, which was far better suited (three large flat boats providing lift and available artillery support) to offensive action than the Ball’s Bluff effort.  Stone ordered artillery moved to the Maryland shore across from the bluff but it never became involved in the battle.  Artillery support from the Maryland shore might have been useful, particularly against the high ground to the south.

Poor use of artillery:  Artillery supported the Edward’s Ferry operations from the far banks of the Potomac, where was it at Ball’s Bluff.  Stone ordered artillery moved to the Maryland shore across from the bluff but it never became involved in the battle.  Artillery support from the Maryland shore might have been useful, particularly against the high ground to the south.  Emplacement of the guns atop the bluff was ridiculous but dictated by the failure to expand the beachhead.

Failure to expand the beachhead:  Once it was decided to “open a campaign” in Virginia at Ball’s Bluff actions to secure and expand the beachhead were essential.  Initially means to do this were small, but enemy resistance was also small.  The reinforcement of Devens’ advanced position and the seizure of key terrain would have allowed for more maneuver room, better utilization of the limited artillery available, and stretched the Confederate defenses.

Immature leadership:  Okay, lets face it, this was horrible leadership at every level.  Green troops, led by green officers on a difficult mission and the results reflected it. The Union officers behaved bravely but stupidly, there was little or no tactical acumen to speak of.   (I would give Cogswell a pass here.)

***

Battle of Ball’s Bluff – Bibliography

Harvard’s Civil War, a History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; Richard F. Miller, University Press of New England, Lebanon, New Hampshire, 2005

The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865; George A. Bruce, Houghton, Miflin and Company, 1906

The Story of the Fifteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 1861-1864; Andrew E. Ford, Coulter Press, 1898

Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment;  Capt John G.B. Adams, Potter Printing Company, Boston, 1899.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Staff Ride Guide; Ted Ballad, Center of Military History

The Glories of War, Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861; Charles P. Poland Jr., AuthorHouse, 2006

A Little Short of Boats:  The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861; James A. Morgan III, Ironclad Publishing, 2004

Ball’s Bluff, A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow; Byron Farwell, EPM Publications, 1990

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Report of Col. Charles Devens, Fifteenth Massachusetts Infantry, 23 October 1861.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Report of Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone, Corps of Observation, 29 October 1861.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Report of Brig. Gen. N.G. Evans, C.S. Army, 31 October 1861

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Report of Col. William Barksdale, Thirteenth Mississippi Infantry, 28 October 1861

 

*****

 

The Battle of Leesburg: The Battle from the Southern Perspective

 

Battle of Leesburg

In October of 1861 the euphoria over the victory at Manassas had subsided into a noncommittal defensive standoff. The first major battle of the war left both sides disorganized and aware of the limitations of their newly raised armies. While the Union forces regrouped in a compact area around Washington the Confederate forces gathered themselves in a line that ran roughly parallel to the Potomac River. Directly south of Washington the Federals still occupied territory on the Virginia side of the river but as the line moved north it drew nearer to the river. On the extreme left the Confederate line touched the river near Leesburg approximately 35 miles from Washington.

Four days after Manassas Special Order No. 169 assigned the 8th Virginia Infantry, under Colonel Eppa Hunton, to the defense of the Leesburg area. On August 8th this command was supplemented by P.T.G. Beauregard with three regiments of Mississippi infantry (13th, 17th, and 18th). With the Mississippi troops came Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans who was charged with assuming command of all the troops in Loudon County.  Evans had parlayed an unspectacular academic career at West Point into a steady but equally unremarkable career in the pre-war US Cavalry. A strong performance at Manassas had brought him to prominence and he was promoted helping to resolve a nebulous command situation in the new assignment.

Col Nathan Evans

Col Nathan Evans

His new command, designated the 7th Brigade of I Corps the Army of the Potomac, contained the four infantry regiments, a battery of five guns from the Richmond Howitzers, and five companies of cavalry. The cavalry element was comprised of three companies from the 4th Virginia (B, C, and E) and two companies of the 6th Virginia (H and K). The mixed command of troopers was led by LTC Walter Jenifer. The Marylander, Jenifer, held the dubious distinction of flunking out of West Point not once but twice. Powerful family connections allowed him to be granted a 2nd Lieutenant commission in 1847. His first posting was in the 2nd US Cavalry where he served with Evans. He was still a 1st Lieutenant in April 1861 when he resigned to join the Confederate forces.  General R. W. Wright, commander of the local militia, lived nearby and was expected to reinforce Evans if necessary.

The three months after Manassas proved to be a pleasant interlude for Evans’ troops. Many of the Virginians had been recruited from Loudoun County and took every advantage of their proximity to home. Intermixed with the daily training routine and efforts to clothe and equip the soldiers was visits from family, meetings with wives and girlfriends, and plenty of food provided by the supportive populace. The Mississippians were also enjoying the idle late summer months. Apparently some were enjoying themselves too much. In the month of August the 18th Mississippi of Colonel William Barksdale reported 25 new cases of venereal disease amongst his troops. Other diseases were also taking a serious toll on the brigade. On August 31st the muster rolls of the 8th Virginia showed 53 men on sick call, about 20% of the regiment.  Company B of the 13th Mississippi, the Winston Guards, were so stricken with typhoid and measles that at one point only eight men reported for duty. They lost at least nine men to these two diseases. Despite the preoccupation and the sickness Evans brigade still had a serious military mission to accomplish.

Evans’ area of responsibility contained several features of military significance. The primary crossroads in the center of town was the junction of the Old Carolina Road and the Alexandria-Winchester Turnpike. Possession of Leesburg would grant Union forces a high speed avenue of approach to the Confederate flank and rear. Of course to gain control of the town necessitated a successful crossing of the Potomac River. This area fronted several potential crossing points; Conrad’s Ferry (north of town), Edward’s Ferry (south of town), and during times of low water a number of fording sites. The terrain near the river also offered an excellent platform for the observation of Union movements across the river. To defend the area Evans had established a set of earthworks (called Fort Evans) about two miles east of Leesburg. Several other small fortifications were started but never reached completion before the Confederates left the area in the spring of 1862. A regular picket was established to keep an eye on the crossings. The picket duty was maintained under an unspoken truce until General Stone sent Captain Clinton Berry across under a flag of truce to announce that any Confederate caught on the Maryland side of the river would be arrested and shot. The Confederate commander was only too happy to reciprocate the new arrangement. The new understanding concerning picket duty at the river was adopted and things continued on in this tense but peaceful way until October 19th.

Map of the battle area at Ball's Bluff

Map of the battle area

On October 9th Union General George McCall moved his division of Pennsylvania troops across the Potomac and settled into camp (Camp Pierpont) near Langley. In response to the Federal move Colonel Evans shifted his troops to the Oatlands Plantation on October 16th. The unauthorized relocation of his forces caused Beauregard to send a message to Evans demanding an explanation. The importance of Loudon County was not lost on the Confederate commander. Colonel Evans’ mission, clearly stated in the message from P.G. T. Beauregard on 17 October, was to safeguard these upper crossings of the Potomac River. The goal of this sentry duty was to prevent the forces of McClellan from uniting with Nathaniel Banks’ men already in Virginia. Evans was expected “to prevent such a movement” by making “a desperate stand, falling back only in the face of an overwhelming enemy.”  Although Beauregard allowed him to remain in place he insisted that the area around Ball’s Bluff was to be watched by at least a regiment. Evans movement also caught the attention of McClellan, who sensed an opportunity to take Leesburg without a major confrontation. Accordingly he ordered McCall to conduct a probe in the area of Dranesville.

With Beauregard’s directive fresh in his mind Evans pulled his men back toward the city at the first hint of McCall’s movement. They took up a new position at the north end of “the burnt bridge” on the turnpike over Goose Creek, approximately four miles southeast of Leesburg. The capture of a Union courier on the 19th created a heightened awareness of the impending threat to Evans’ command. The messages (never found) apparently indicated the move against Leesburg and spurred the aggressive Evans into action. An artillery position was constructed and the units were ordered to dig trenches and rifle pits. It was here that Evans would contest the expected attack McCall’s Division on Leesburg.

While the desired result of the Union movement described in the captured documents was supposed to be the withdrawal of Evans’ brigade from the Leesburg area it had the opposite affect. As the Union forces moved from Langley to Dranesville Evans maintained his position at Goose Creek. He intended to meet the advance and protect the city in accordance with the guidance from Beauregard. Not only was he operating contrary to the expected reaction but his movement to Goose Creek was also misinterpreted by the Federal commanders. The selection of this consolidation point hid him from the Union observation post on Sugar Loaf Mountain. The disappearance of Evans’ command from view caused the lookouts there to falsely report that the area had been abandoned by the Confederate forces. When reports that Leesburg was undefended reached McClellan he decided to test the validity of the report by issuing an order to BG Charles Stone to “keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away.” He believed a “slight demonstration” might prove useful in their efforts to move the Confederate defenders away. The order started a series of events that proved disastrous for the Federal forces.

Plaque describing the role of the 17th   Mississippi at the battle of Leesburg

Plaque describing the role of the 17th Mississippi at the battle of Leesburg

The consolidation of the brigade at “the burnt bridge” left the Ball’s Bluff area scantily defended. At that time the area was being watched by Co. K of the 17th Mississippi, commanded by CPT William Duff. The Magnolia Guard had been detached for this duty for almost two months. Operating from Big Spring, Duff had established a regular 50% picket rotation to over watch the various points of interest in his sector. The regular positions for the pickets included Mason’s Island, Ball’s Mill, Conrad’s Ferry, and Smart’s Mill. On the night of October 20th these posts were manned in their usual fashion however the usually alert pickets completely missed the presence of a Union patrol near Ball’s Bluff around midnight.

At about 0630 on the 21st Colonel William Barksdale of the 13th Mississippi reported “the guns of the enemy opened upon us from their batteries on the Maryland side of the Potomac River” to cover a crossing at Edward’s Ferry. The activity there was Evans primary concern and he held the bulk of his command at Goose Creek to counter the threat there. It was a logical choice; the terrain in the Edward’s Ferry area was favorable for any large scale crossing. Here the Federal troops would have room to establish a bridgehead, consolidate their forces, and have access to a high speed avenue of approach toward Leesburg via the Edward’s Ferry Road. His position just north of the Goose Creek bridge put him in a position between the two primary sectors of enemy activity. The expected attack from the south and the Union landings to the east. It would prove a wise choice, indeed, as the situation played out. While his original concern over the Edward’s Ferry landings and McCall’s movements proved to be overblown he was within easy support distance of the rapidly developing events at Ball’s Bluff.

Near Smart’s Mill, less than a mile north of Ball’s Bluff, CPL Hugh Hudson and a three man detail were beginning what would prove to be an eventful tour of duty. Unbeknownst to them a small Union reconnaissance patrol had landed at the bluff during the night and sent word back that an enemy camp had been

Northern ravine near where the initial clash of forces occurred

Northern ravine near where the initial clash of forces occurred

discovered. The Union command in the area decided to raid the supposed camp. Near dawn the Federal forces that were intended to conduct the operation were gathering at the top of the bluff. There are two versions of what happened next. In the first Hudson’s detail observed the enemy crossing and “had fired into the boats and then into a squad that came in search of them.” The other version is that a Federal patrol, led by 1SG William Riddle Co I of the 20th Massachusetts, was conducting a reconnaissance of the right flank of the Federal position with three other soldiers and stumbled on to Hudson’s detail just as they fired into a work party on Harrison’s Island. The two groups exchanged fire. Whatever the case the encounter left Riddle wounded in the right elbow and the Union deployment on the Virginia side of the river discovered.

Both of the small parties withdrew immediately after the brief exchange of shots. Cpl Hudson’s detail narrowly escaped a reinforced patrol of ten Union soldiers sent out to find them before reporting the encounter to Captain Duff. Duff immediately sent LT Joseph Harten to inform Colonel Evans of “this intelligence”. As Harten rode to Evans headquarters, CPT Duff began assembling the available forces to meet the Union foray. The gathering of his company gave Duff approximately 40 soldiers to conduct the initial defense of the approaches to Leesburg.  He marched his small band to block the only road leading from the “Big Bluff” to the city.  Duff described the events this way:

“On reaching the mouth of the lane leading to the river some 500 or 600 yards from the mill, I threw forward twelve skirmishers to scour out a clump of woods to the front and right, ordered one of my men to bring in the rest of my pickets, filed my company to the right up a long hollow in an old field, leaving the clump of woods on my left. When we reached the top of the hill near Mrs. Stephens’ house we saw the skirmishers of the enemy on the left, and in large force in Mrs. Jackson’s yard, some 150 yards in front.”

The sudden appearance of an enemy force in his front surprised the Union commander (Devens) who apparently had not been informed that their presence had been detected.

Unsure of the Confederate strength Devens hesitated to commit all of his available troops. He sent CPT Philbrick’s Co. H and CPT Rockwood’s Co. A to deal with the unexpected appearance of the enemy.

While LT Harten raced to spread the word of the Yankee landing at Ball’s Bluff, CPT Huff formed a short line “on the foot of a hill, some 300 yards from his reserve.”  The Federals did not take long to challenge his position. Although he reported “at least five or six companies” advancing against him there was in reality only a single company (Co H). The sides broke down to Huff’s 40 men to Philbrick’s 60. In a strange exchange, Huff ordered the advancing enemy to halt “five or six times” and each time the Union commander responded with “Friends” while continuing to move forward. At 60 yards Huff decided to act in a most unfriendly manner. He ordered his men to kneel and deliver a volley into the Yankee line. The initial blast stopped the advance and a second sent the enemy scrambling back. Fearing that he might get cut off Huff also fell back.

In response to the artillery barrage on the night of the 20th Colonel Evans sent LTC John McGuirk (17th Mississippi), Officer of the Day, to investigate a reported landing at the mouth of Goose Creek. On the way to the suspected landing site McGuirk used an order from Evans to get control of two companies of the 18th Mississippi from COL Erasmus Burt.  As they approached the area in question they came upon the cavalry picket that insisted that they had been driven away from the river by at least “two regiments”. Leaving the infantry in defensive positions rather than lead them into an uneven fight McGuirk advanced with “10 picked men and a Lieutenant”.  At the shore McGuirk found only evidence that a boat “had touched the shore.” The negative report was forwarded to Evans and McGuirk continued on a journey to inspect the other picket posts. It was an overnight trip that would eventually reunite him with his regiment on the field at Ball’s Bluff. The rest of Evans’ command was sent to bed after appropriate security measures were in place.

Col W. S. Featherston

Col W. S. Featherston

The next morning another artillery barrage announced activity at Edward’s Ferry. Two companies of Minnesota infantry were crossed and established a beachhead under the watchful eyes of the Confederate cavalry pickets. This development had the desired effect on Evans who became concerned about the possibility of a Union force gathering there. Word of the encounter at Ball’s Bluff had not yet reached him and the movements at Edward’s Ferry certainly would have been Evans primary concern. COL Featherston echoed the concern when he wrote in his official report that “the enemy had crossed the river at Edward’s Ferry in large force, and it being expected that they would advance upon Leesburg.” Evans decided to test the resolve of the enemy with a reconnaissance by two companies of the 13th Mississippi toward Edward’s Ferry. They encountered only a small Union cavalry detachment. A brief exchange of gunfire between the two parties drove the Federal horsemen back to the shoreline.

While CPT Huff was beating back the first Federal attack at Ball’s Bluff, LT Harten reached Colonel Evans with the news that a landing had taken place.  The report forced Evans to “make preparations to meet him in both positions.” Realizing that Huff was totally under manned for such an effort he dispatched LTC Walter Jenifer with four companies of infantry (two from the 18th Mississippi and one each from the 17th Mississippi and 13th Mississippi) along with a small force of cavalry, approximately 70 men. Thinking the situation to the north had been satisfied, at least temporarily, Evans returned his attention to the Edward’s Ferry situation.

Jenifer was instructed to hold the enemy until his “design of attack” became apparent. Jenifer, however, was not inclined to assume a passive defense. Shortly after arriving at Huff’s position Jenifer deployed his troopers in a ravine “near the enemy’s position in order to make an attack should he again advance.” The four infantry companies joined him and Duff shortly thereafter at this location. The reappearance of the Union forces near the Jackson House was enough to spur Jenifer into action. Assuming overall command Jenifer went on the offensive. At 1100 he placed a small cavalry detachment under the command of CPT W. B. Ball and pushed the infantry and a portion of the cavalry dismounted against the Union skirmishers to their front. A “high and strong fence” between the two sides prevented a cavalry charge until the obstacle was removed.

Once the obstruction was taken down by CPT J. W. Welborn’s Co. K 18th Mississippi skirmishers Jenifer bolted forward from the Union left with the remainder of the available cavalry force. The shock effect of this charge is reflected in the words of the Union soldiers that attempted to meet it.

PVT Roland Bowen, Co. B 15th Massachusetts wrote of his surprise;

..But hold. Shots from the left. I look – Great God they are upon us. They have flanked us. They are right between us and our skirmishers…. Our skirmishers gave a hideous yell and came in at a triple quick. Every man had to run for dear life.

PVT George Simonds, Co. B wrote:

…someone said cavalry, and sure enough, the next minute a large body of them dashed upon us. It was impossible for so few of us, situated as we were, to withstand such a force.

8th Virginia Battle Flag

8th Virginia Battle Flag

Although Jenifer’s report is rather self-serving there is no disputing the result of his attack. The Union line was again pushed back into the wood line around the Jackson House. Valuable time was gained for Evans to make adjustments to the new situation to his north.

At the time of Jenifer’s attack Evans had arrived at an important conclusion. When the expected enemy movement at Edward’s Ferry failed to materialize he became increasingly convinced that no major offensive moves were going to occur in this area. Using the captured orders and the reluctance of the Union forces to advance Evans determined at 1000 that “the main point of attack would be Ball’s Bluff.” It was a bold decision under the circumstances. The inactivity of the Federal forces at Edward’s Ferry could end at any point and leave his command weakened in the face of a growing enemy threat. The risky decision allowed him to throw forces into the growing fight at Ball’s Bluff. Accordingly, COL Eppa Hunton and his 8th Virginia were released to join the fight there. They arrived shortly after Jenifer had called back his attacking units.

Colonel Eppa Hunton and the 8th Virginia, minus Co. H, arrived near the Jackson house about noon after a two hour march. Colonel Hunton proved no less aggressive than Jenifer, from whom he assumed overall command. Almost immediately upon his arrival he ordered a resumption of the attack that had just been called back by Jenifer. A bit of reshuffling set the Confederate line of battle with CPT Huff’s company on the extreme left, Jenifer’s dismounted cavalry next on the right, Hunton’s 8th Virginia, and three mixed companies of Mississippi infantry on the far right. CPT L. D. Fletcher’s with his Company D of the 13th Mississippi arrived at some point during the attack and took a position between Hunton and Jenifer, or directly opposite the Jackson House. The ensuing action is only briefly described but certainly the main attack on the left center of the Union line had run its course by 1430.  One Confederate veteran recalled that;

 “The battle opened again severely, the Virginians fighting straight ahead, with Jenifer’s force covering their left, which gave them opportunity for aggressive battle…

Col Eppa Hunton

Col Eppa Hunton

Colonel Hunton gives little detail but states in his OR that his men “fought the enemy in large force strongly posted for about four hours” before his ammunition “was nearly exhausted”.  The net result of the four hour struggle was that Devens pulled his units further back in a consolidation effort.

On the extreme left Jenifer and Huff became separated from the main fight by foliage and terrain and advanced against the Union right. Huff’s small company managed to move within 100 yards of the river. Attempting to get a look at the activity on the river Huff sent two men to the bank. The scouting party returned with a report of Union reinforcements being shuttled across with artillery. Jenifer ordered Huff to try and gain a position where they could challenge the Yankee landings. Pushing forward into the area where Cpl. Hudson’s picket detail had made the first contact with the enemy earlier in the day Huff’s men again bumped into Federal troops. This time the meeting occurred at 10 yards due to the “dense thicket” near the ravine that marked the northern edge of the battlefield. One of Huff’s skirmishers was ordered to halt “by a man who proved to be an officer in the Tammany regiment of New York.” The Union officer was “shot down” by another member of the skirmish line before he could offer any more challenges. A close range fire fight developed between the two lines that continued about thirty minutes before the ubiquitous Huff and his men were relieved by a company of dismounted cavalry. He returned his company to their original location at Big Spring and sat out the remainder of the fight. Despite their nearly constant involvement Huff reported “we did not lose a single man.

A combination of terrain restriction and the presence of the small band of Confederate forces effectively sealed off the northern section of the area of operations from the Federals. With the possibility of progress to the west (toward Leesburg; the original objective) blocked by the 8th Virginia task force the only remaining movement options for the Yankees were retreat eastward back across the river or over the high ground to the south. The Confederate command denied the latter with the arrival of the 18th Mississippi.

The 18th arrived on the field about 1430 and assumed a position on the right of the 8th Virginia.  Colonel Erasmus R. Burt, the regimental commander, fell mortally wounded in the early going and command passed to LTC Thomas Griffin. Griffin ordered Captain Hann to take his company into the wooded area on the right flank and clear it of “Federalist”. The move not only removed the threat to his flank but extended the Confederate line into the high ground south of the Yankee position. From here the crews of the Union artillery were exposed to a murderous fire. So effective was the fire placed on the Yankee gun crews that the pieces had little or no impact on the overall fight despite the fact they were the most powerful weapons on the field. Shortly after clearing access to the ridge all the remaining companies of the 17th Mississippi arrived from Edward’s Ferry to further extend the line toward the river. The occupation of the ridge here enclosed the Union force in the small area of open ground at the top of the bluff. The trapped enemy was being decimated by fire from three directions. The Federal commanders became desperate to get out from under the Confederate guns. This desperation led to an attempted move to the south.

High ground defended by Featherston's Mississippi troops.

High ground defended by Featherston's Mississippi troops.

The coordination for this break-out effort was destroyed by the appearance of a “mystery officer”. As preparations were being made for the attack on the Confederate line on the ridge to the south an officer appeared in front the 42nd New York waving his hat and imploring them to charge. Confused some of the units from the New York regiment and the 15th Massachusetts ignored Colonel Devens order to “stand firm where you are” and attacked. They were easily repulsed and the Federal line disintegrated in disorder. Sensing that the Union forces were ready to collapse Colonel Featherston, 17th Mississippi, jumped in front of the Mississippians on the ridge and ordered a counter attack.

LTC McGuirk, newly arrived from his lengthy ride to the field described the action this way;

‘…above the roar of musketry was heard the command of Colonel Featherston, “Charge Mississippians! Charge! Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!” The sound of his voice seemed to echo from the vales of Maryland. The line arose as one man from a kneeling posture, discharged a deadly volley, advanced the crescent line, and then encircled the invaders, who in terror called for quarter and surrendered’

While almost certainly an over dramatic description of the scene the attack had the desired effect on the Union troops. Over whelmed with panic the Federals sought any means of refuge. Men leapt from the bluff or stampeded down the steep path.  In the end few made good their escape. There were not enough boats to bring them to safety so they gathered in the narrow flood plain. When the Confederates gained the top of the bluff they began firing down on the mass of soldiers there. Union commanders ordered the helpless men to throw their weapons into the river. Desperate men attempted to swim the river and were either shot by the Confederates on the bluff or drowned. The single large boat was swamped by wounded and panic stricken men and sank. The few smaller boats were riddled with gunfire and soon proved of no value. There was nothing left to do but surrender. A complete Confederate victory was concluded when 17th and 18th Mississippi drew back from the bluff at dark leaving LTC McGuirk and two companies as pickets.

The massive haul of prisoners would grow the next morning when another large group of Yankee soldiers was discovered during the night by civilian volunteer Elijah White. A 40 man group of volunteers from the 8th Virginia led by CPT William Berkeley, collected an additional 325 prisoners.

With the threat from Ball’s Bluff now gone Evans could return his attention to the Union forces that still occupied the Edward’s Ferry area. On the 22nd no less than portions of six infantry regiments, another 100 cavalry troopers to add to Mix’s command, and two 12 lb. howitzers from Battery I 1st US Artillery were digging in on the Virginia side of the river. To this point the enemy forces here had cooperated with Evans daring reinforcement of Ball’s Bluff by remaining motionless. Failure to act thus far was no guarantee that they would continue to do so.

Col William Barksdale

Col William Barksdale

Evans had only the nine remaining companies of the 13th Mississippi and one company of the 17th Mississippi (H) left to counter any potential threat that might develop here. The commander of the 13th, Colonel William Barksdale, had two companies picketing the Edward’s Ferry Road to act as an early warning system in case the Federals attempted any advance from the beachhead. The Union inactivity continued until about 1100 when Barksdale grew tired of the waiting game and began to maneuver against the Yankee position. His orders were to conduct a reconnaissance and to attack if he found an opportunity. His first priority was to identify the location of the Federal artillery. After a short look at the field Barksdale determined what he thought would be the most likely position of the enemy guns “on a ridge which made out from Goose Creek to Daily’s field, and in front of the left of the enemy’s line.”  Making allowance for his shortage of troops, Barksdale decided against a frontal assault. Instead he sent Co. C and Co. G through the woods in an effort to flank the supposed position of the battery.

With the remainder of the regiment he trailed the forward deployed companies until he identified an advantageous position. His plan was to assault the enemy line once the lead companies subdued the guns. CPT William Eckford, Co C, moved carefully until he was near the area where the guns were expected to be found. When he attacked he found not the artillery but the Union pickets heavily involved in a game of cards. The unsuspecting Yankees were caught totally unprepared and were sent flying back toward their main line. Barksdale immediately joined in the attack. The total manpower at his disposal was not the 3000 estimated by Federal General Gorman but 600. Nevertheless they came on strong.  SGT Henry Lyons, 34th New York, described the scene this way; the attack started about ½ mile in front of the Federal position when Barksdale’s men came:

 

“…yelling like demons and driving our pickets ahead of them in double quick time.”

 

An attack made against these kind of odds was destined to be short lived and so it proved to be. The battery that had been the object of Eckford’s search made its actual position known. According to SGT Lyons the battery:

“…turned their charge which they were making so splendidly (they did make a nice charge no mistake) into a complete rout.”

The entire affair resulted in about a dozen casualties and a return to the previous lines. After another day of patrolling the Union forces were withdrawn to the Maryland side of the river. Only the dead remained to be cared for. An extremely cordial meeting between LTC Jenifer and LTC Palfrey of the 20th Massachusetts on October 30th, under a flag of truce, allowed the recovery of CPT Henry Alden’s (42nd New York) body, arrangements for the support of those taken prisoner, and a round of toasts to be shared.  Confederates spent the next few days dragging the river for Yankee bodies and the much prized Enfield rifles that had been deposited there by the defeated enemy. A complete victory had been won at the cost of 155 casualties(36k, 117w, 2m).

It would be easy to assign the outcome of the Battle of Leesburg to Union mismanagement, miscommunication, and poor leadership. This conclusion, however, would overlook some adroit decisions made by the entire Confederate command structure. From the NCO ranks to the highest levels the Confederate leaders made better choices than their enemy.

Beginning with Cpl Hudson, who understood the value of the information he discovered in his brief encounter with 1SG Riddle, and hurried it up the chain the Confederate leadership displayed a much better grasp of the situation than their Federal counterparts. Using the timely and accurate reports Evans was able to make decisions based on a situational awareness that escaped the Yankee command.  What appeared to be a victory handed to him by Union incompetence was actually a poor tactical situation reversed by bold decision making based on intelligence and military intuition.

The initial Confederate position was located between three possible Union courses of action (COA). Evans possession of the captured documents allowed him to discount the possibility of action from McCall’s advance toward Dranesville. This superior intelligence on enemy dispositions reduced the possible enemy COA’s to the threats from Edward’s Ferry and Ball’s Bluff. The landings at Edward’s Ferry certainly would have appeared the greatest threat but the inactivity there and an educated but risky guess by Evans that no advance would be made from this area allowed him to concentrate on just a single area of operations. Had the Union forces worked in concert this decision might have proven fatal for the Confederates.

The concentration of his forces at Ball’s Bluff was a tactical masterpiece. The failure of the Union command to take advantage of their early manpower advantage allowed these Confederate reinforcements to trap them in poor terrain. Disregarding several opportunities to withdraw placed the Yankee forces in a desperate situation with a significant natural obstacle at their back and inadequate means to overcome it. Their possible courses of action was reduced to just two; a break out attempt over a single remaining avenue of advance, the ridge to the south or retreat. They opted for the first but were thwarted by the seizure of this terrain by Featherston. Retreat proved unrealistic given the resources at hand. The final options for the Union troops were surrender or perish. Most chose the former.

Although ultimately successful in a grand way, Evans did have some troubles. The expected help from the Virginia Militia never materialized. When called upon to reinforce the units at Ball’s Bluff General R. W. Wright was forced to admit that he could not get the units to muster. Another issue that might be called into question is Evans dismemberment of the regimental command structures by his piecemeal distribution of the individual companies. Instead of units from three different regiments why didn’t he send four companies from the same regiment or an entire regiment with Jenifer? It mattered little in the end.

The victory at Leesburg was greeted with jubilation in the south. The leaders would reap the benefits of their participation. Evans, Featherston, Barksdale, and Hunton would eventually rise to the general officer ranks. They would lead troops in almost every major battle of the war. Evans would fight at Second Manassas, South Mountain and Antietam before going west to participate in the Vicksburg Campaign. On his return to South Carolina he became involved in a dispute with his superior officer and was removed from duty. Rumors of alcoholism kept him from being returned to command until spring 1864. Before he could take his brigade to Petersburg an injury from a buggy accident ended his role in the Civil War.

Barksdale, the ex-Representative to the United States Congress, would die at Gettysburg after seeing action in nearly every major battle in the eastern theater. Featherston saw action in both theaters. His resume includes Second Manassas, the Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg,  and the Vicksburg and Atlanta Campaigns. His war ended only when he surrendered with Johnston in North Carolina. Hunton served with Longstreet as a brigade commander in Pickett’s division until wounded at Gettysburg. On his return he saw action at Cold Harbor, Five Forks, and Sayler’s Creek where he was taken prisoner.

Another notable present at Leesburg was CPT John Morris Wampler. The commander of Company H, 8th Virginia saw no action during the battle but was recognized for another expertise. His engineering background got him transferred to Beauregard’s staff and he would rise to be the Chief Engineer for the Army of Tennessee. He rendered valuable service in both theaters. He was killed during a Union bombardment of Morris Island in August 1863. This war like all others took its fair share of the best and brightest.

 

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Battle of Leesburg – Bibliography

  • The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volume V Chapter 14 Beauregard, G. T.; Evans, N. G.; Barksdale, William; Eckford, William; Fletcher, L. D.; Featherston, W. S.; McGuirk, John; Duff, W. L.; Griffin, Thomas; Hunton, Eppa; Jenifer, W. H.
  • Confederate Engineer – Training and Campaigning with John Morris Wampler, George G. Kundahl
  • Ball’s Bluff – A Small Battle and its Long Shadow, Bryon Farwell
  • A Little Short of Boats – The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, James A. Morgan III
  • Battle’s of Ball’s Bluff, Staff Ride Guide; Ted Ballard, Center of Military History
  • The Glories of War – Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861, Charles P. Poland

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Articles

  • Ball’s Bluff and the Arrest of General Stone, Richard B. Irwin, taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 2

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Online resources

Camp Pope Publishing

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