- 21 Oct 2019 13:17
October 21, Monday
In the earliest hours of the 21st Federal Colonel Charles Devens shoves off from Harrison’s Island in the Potomac. His force, five companies numbering about 300 men, has only three small boats capable of carrying ten men each, so the crossing takes four hours. Before dawn they are joined at the top of the Ball’s Bluff (nearly 100 feet high, studded with rocks and covered with tangles of mountain laurel, named after the previous owner and George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington) by 100 additional men, sent across the river under Colonel William R. Lee, a doughty old West Pointer, to cover the withdrawal. About daybreak Devens sets out for Leesburg looking for the Confederate camp. They find the right ridge, but it soon becomes clear that the camp doesn’t exist—it had been an illusion caused by moonlight filtering through a row of trees. Devens moves on until he can see Leesburg from a ridge not much more than a mile from the town. He sees four tents but no other sign of the enemy, and sends word back to General Stone that he can hold in front of Ball’s Bluff until reinforced.
Though Devens can’t see them there are plenty of Confederates around, an entire brigade of 2,000 men encamped along the Leesburg Turnpike several miles southeast of the town. Their commander, Colonel Nathan G. Evans, an experienced officer and Amerind fighter who had gallantly held against the opening Federal attack at Bull Run, had moved there the previous day to meet the threat posed by General McCall’s occupation of Dranesville to the southeast. During the night a detachment of about forty Confederates had been on sentinel duty less than a mile upriver from Ball’s Bluff and had detected the sounds of Devens’ predawn crossing. They are now heading back to Leesburg to avoid being cut off and at about 7:00 in the morning stumble onto Devens’ Federals. A sharp skirmish ensues.
Both sides send for reinforcements. Colonel Evans now knows that two groups of Federals have crossed the river. He sends three of his four regiments to block the road to Leesburg from Edwards Ferry. To hold Devens in check in front of Ball’s Bluff, he sends seven companies of infantry and cavalry—about 400 men—to join the 40 Confederates who stumbled into Devens’ force. Devens falls back toward the bluff, where he is joined by the rest of his regiment and five more companies of the 20th Massachusetts—668 more men. Thus reinforced, he moves forward again.
Around noon, however, the Confederate commander begins to gain control. Sensing that the main action will occur at Ball’s Bluff, Evans begins hurrying regiments to join the attack. Devens’ men fall back under the assault of the new reinforcements, until at about 2:15 the Federals have retreated back to a large open field fronting Ball’s Bluff.
Atop the bluff, Devens finds a stream of new reinforcements struggling up the cow path. Their commander is Colonel Edward D. Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon. He had become a close friend of President Lincoln when they were young lawyers in Illinois, and they had stayed in touch when he went west to California and then Oregon. Lincoln had named his second son after his old friend. Though he has risen to command a brigade he has rejected Lincoln’s attempt to promote him to Brigadier General, saying that rank would be incompatible with his role as a senator.
After Baker reaches the bluff and greets Devens, he begins deploying his troops parallel to the river, each wing extending into the woods on either side. It is not a good formation—to the left beyond a ravine rises a cluster of wooded hills that command the federal position, and the right flank is aligned so that it will be unable to fire to the front if the center of the line advances. In addition, the reserves behind the battle line are fully exposed to Confederate snipers in the woods that surround the field on three sides that soon begin to take a toll.
Colonel Cogswell, a West Pointer and one of the few professional soldiers on the Federal side this day, commander of the Tammany Regiment reaching the top of the bluff shortly after Baker, instantly spots the worst defects of Baker’s deployment and suggests an immediate advance to occupy the high ground on the left, but Baker ignores the advice.
About half an hour later, the reinforced Confederates increase their fire from the woods, the fire so intense that the Federals conclude that they are outnumbered by 3 or 4 to 1. (The Confederates, for their part, think they’re outnumbered by at least the same margin.) Then about an hour later the last Confederate forces join the crescent-shaped Confederate line and the two forces are about equal in strength. However, most of the Confederates had been blooded at Bull Run while for nearly all the Northerners are new to battle.
For a time the Union forces possess superior firepower despite the heavy Confederate musket fire. Baker’s men had manage to bring two light mountain howitzers and a rifled James cannon across the river and up the bluff, and their fire proves effective, shells crashing into the woods to send splinters from trees into hidden clusters of Confederates. But Baker has made another tactical error, stationing the artillery in front of his battle line without sufficient infantry support. One by one, the gun crews are picked off by Confederate musket fire. The two howitzers are almost captured by a Confederate regiment, but the charge is repulsed. Among the Federal casualties of that repulse is a young lieutenant just out of Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes. The future justice of the US Supreme Court is hit by two musket balls and carried unconscious from the field. He joins the stream of wounded being carried down the bluff and ferried back to Harrison’s Island.
About a half hour later on the Union left flank, General Baker is about ten paces out in front of his lines urging on his men when a Confederate soldier jumps out of the woods and empties his revolver into him. As Baker crumples to the ground there is a Homeric scramble for his body, a hand-to-hand struggle before the Federals recover the body and send it back across the river.
The Federal position is now desperate with Confederates pressing in from three sides, squeezing the Federals back toward the steep bluff, but Colonel Cogswell, the professional soldier whose advice Baker ignored and who now finds himself the ranking officer in the field, believes it might still be possible to cut through the Confederate line on the left and follow the river downstream three miles to the Federal beachhead opposite Edwards Ferry. He orders a column of attack to form on the left, and one of those freakish—and decisive— incidents occurs. Out of the woods a man rides, waving his hat and shouting, “Come on, boys!” Many of the men forming the column respond with a yell and surge forward, thinking he’s one of their officers. But he’s actually a Confederate brigade staff officer, Lieutenant Wildman, who’s momentarily mistaken the Federals for his own men. Real Federal officers manage to halt some of the charging men, but the rest move ahead into a burst of Confederate fire and are cut up while Lieutenant Wildman makes his escape unharmed. All hope of a breakout on the left now gone, Cogswell orders the men to withdraw to the edge of the bluff and prepare for evacuation.
The terrible irony of their plight is that help is agonizingly near. Just several hundred yards away on Harrison’s Island are 1,000 Federal soldiers, waiting for boats that are slowed by the unloading of the casualties from the battlefield. Another few hundred yards east on the Maryland shore are twice that many men, also lacking adequate ferry service.
And of course, three miles downstream is the Federal beachhead on the Virginia shore opposite Edwards Ferry. General Stone, supervising from the Maryland side, has 2,250 men across. Until he receives word shortly after 5 pm of Colonel Baker’s death he had thought all was well at Ball’s Bluff because Colonel Baker had failed to inform him otherwise. Now with the Confederate detachment Evans left to blockade the road to Edwards Ferry (only 500 men but appearing much larger), a masked battery of field guns, and (wildly exaggerated) reports of as many as 10,000 Confederates opposing him, General Stone orders his force opposite Edwards Ferry to withdraw back to Maryland and rides upstream to take personal command of the forces on Harrison’s Island and the Maryland shore opposite it.
There, at about 6 pm, Stone remembers McCall’s division down at Dranesville and he wires McClellan’s headquarters in Washington asking for help from McCall. The request takes McClellan by surprise—he too has thought that the battle at Ball’s Bluff is going well—but as it happens McCall’s division is no longer in Dranesville. Following his orders to retire when he had completed his reconnaissance, he had started the march back at 8:30 that morning and by now is 20 miles away. McClellan has failed to inform General Stone of this, yet one more of the many Federal failures of communication this day.
Meanwhile, at Ball’s Bluff the final tragic act is being played out. By 6 pm Cogswell’s men have fallen back under his orders to the woods fringing the bluff with their back at the edge of the precipice above the river. The Confederates deploy in a conventional battle formation two ranks deep with skirmishers in front, fix bayonets, and advance, firing as they come until they hammer into the Federal line. Many of the Federals manage to flee down the cow path under heavy Confederate fire; but others fall over the edge, many to their deaths—some killed by the fall, some by the bayonets of those below them. On the beach the scene is no less chaotic with soldiers scrambling through the gathering dark in a futile search for boats, two of the boats having vanished, one so riddled by bullets that it sinks, another loaded with 30-plus wounded capsizing when able-bodied men from the bluff jump aboard. Some men throw themselves in the river without first removing their equipment and heavy clothing and sink like lead. But in all the chaos many Federal officers keep their heads. Captains Bartlett and O’Meara lead some men up the bluff for one last skirmish, then Bartlett takes about 80 men upstream along the shore to where the water is less turbulent, finds a skiff, and gets all the men across to Harrison’s Island five at a time while O’Meara stays behind as a rear guard on the bluff until he’s overwhelmed and captured. Colonel Devens orders his men to discard their weapons and swim for it, and his men insist on bringing him to safety with them on a log. From atop the bluff the Confederates keep firing into the screaming, dying men until, one of them recalls later, “darkness shut down the bloody work and night in mercy drew her sable curtain over the dead.”
It is a dramatic, terrible, costly Federal defeat and a well-fought Confederate victory. Forces were about equal, 1,700 on each side at Ball’s Bluff, also known as Leesburg, Harrison’s Island, or Conrad’s Ferry. But in losses the Federals have 49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 missing (including 529 captured—among them Colonel Cogswell and Major Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of the Revolutionary War patriot—and probably more than a hundred drowned), for 921 casualties—over half of the Federals that saw action. Confederates have lost 36 killed, 117 wounded, 2 missing for 155 casualties. Senator Baker, despite his somewhat rash advance, will be made a martyr, mourned by Lincoln and the nation. General Stone, stolid defender of Washington earlier in the year, will be accused in the press and elsewhere of friendliness with the enemy, ineptness in command, and downright treason. His imprisonment without being formally charged will have definite political overtones, and although he will later return to service, his career will be forever marred by a defeat for which historians will be more and more disinclined to blame him. McClellan, despite his indefinite and perhaps erroneous orders, will escape criticism. Investigation after investigation will write reams into the official records, but that won’t matter to those who stumbled down the tree- and brush-entangled slopes to their deaths. For the Confederates, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans has, as at First Manassas, proved a quick-thinking soldier, but his alleged drinking will probably be responsible for his never gaining the rank and reputation his obvious qualifications indicate. In the North—consternation, another defeat; in the South—jubilation, although it is clear the battle means little for Confederate independence.
This same day near Fredericktown, Missouri, Federals under Colonel J.B. Plummer pursues retreating Confederates and fights for three hours south of the town. Gradually the Confederates continue their withdrawal. Losses are moderate. There is action at Rockcastle Hills or Camp Wildcat, Kentucky, and at Young’s Mill near Newport News, Virginia.
In Washington the grief-stricken President writes Roman Catholic Archbishop John J. Hughes for names of those suitable to be appointed chaplains for hospitals.
Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?
To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.