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Battle of Balls Bluff

By William Marvel 
Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: August 08, 2011 
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End of the Gentleman's War
Bungled messages and poor leadership result in a Union disaster at Ball's Bluff

Library of Congress.
Library of Congress.

Six months after the attack on Fort Sumter, little had changed in the struggle between the Union and Con­federate armies. Only two battles worthy of the name had been fought—both Rebel victories—and the opposing lines had shifted only slightly since the spring. By the fall of 1861, the war had not yet shed all its glamour, and the appearance of harmony still seemed to unite the political factions waging war against secession. A combination of miscommunication and amateur bungling on the upper Potomac River would soon shatter that illusory détente.

In the East, Confederate forces still held most of northern Virginia, with General P.G.T. Beauregard commanding from the Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah Valley. Beauregard's army was camped around Manassas Junc­tion, 25 miles below Washington, where the first great Union army had been defeated in July. Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac occupied Washington and an adjacent fringe of Virginia. Two divisions of McClellan's grand force guarded the upper Potomac on the Maryland side: Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks lay at Darnestown with three brigades, while Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone covered the river above and below Poolesville with three more.

To keep Banks and Stone from extending McClellan's foothold below the Potomac, Beauregard posted a single brigade at Leesburg, 25 miles north and west of Ma­nassas Junction. He put Colonel Nathan G. Evans in com­mand there, warning him to make a desperate fight if the enemy crossed in force. "Shanks" Evans, one of the Rebel heroes of the First Battle of Manassas, could field only four regiments, some cavalry and one artillery battery against all those Yankees, and in the third week of October a confrontation seemed imminent.

On October 19, McClellan sent George McCall's division of Penn­sylvania Reserves out from Langley, Va., to survey the roads toward Lees­burg. McCall marched to Dranesville, a dozen miles from Leesburg, and a portion of his command ranged a couple of miles beyond that. Interpreting the reconnaissance as an attack on him, Evans marched his brigade several miles down the Leesburg Pike to Goose Creek, where he intended to challenge McCall. Union signalmen on a Mary­land hilltop detected the movement and reported it to McClellan.

That inspired the Union general to try seizing the town, which he thought might quell growing impatience with his army's inactivity. On the morning of October 20, McClellan telegraphed General Stone to apprise him of McCall's mission to Dranesville, urging him to keep a sharp lookout on Lees­burg. The Rebels might abandon the town, McClellan suggested, if Stone undertook a "slight demonstration."

Stone summoned Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman's brigade to Edwards Ferry, to make a feint at crossing. Edwards Ferry sat just above the mouth of Goose Creek, and from the heights on the Maryland side Stone's artillery threw shells up the creek, where he thought the Confederates lay waiting. Two companies of the 1st Minnesota In­fantry poled over to the Virginia side in flatboats, pausing briefly on the floodplain before going back.

To see if the ruse had worked, Stone ordered a clandestine reconnaissance more than three miles upstream. At that point the Potomac divided into two channels to skirt the 500-acre Harrison's Island, where Stone had posted pickets. After dark Stone sent across some of the pickets—members of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, under the command of Captain Chase Philbrick—to approach Leesburg by an obscure path, to check whether the town was guarded. The path led Philbrick's party up the steep dolomite face of Ball's Bluff, which towered 100 feet over the river. About a mile beyond the bluff, the 15th came upon what appeared in the bright moonlight to be an outpost camp. Rather than investigating further, Phil­brick hurried back to report his discovery to Stone.

Stone immediately issued orders to capture or disperse the camp. In the wee hours of October 21, Colonel Charles Devens led five companies of the 15th Mas­sa­chusetts back over the river and up the bluff, while Colonel William Lee followed with 100 men of the 20th Massachusetts, to cover the withdrawal when Devens returned. At Stone's insistence the crossing had been accomplished stealthily, but with only a few small boats on the Virginia side of the island it required about three hours. Devens and Lee left instructions to have a big flatboat brought over from the Maryland side, to expedite their return to the island.

Lee's men rested atop the bluff while Devens started forward, hoping to pounce on the outpost at daybreak. He guided his battalion over a wooded ridge and into open fields, but when they neared the "camp" he recognized it for an optical illusion. Moon­light shining through a row of trees had simulated a well-organized line of conical tents; there was no enemy in that direction at all, so Devens noted the surrounding terrain and withdrew to the wooded ridge. Thinking he hadn't been detected, he decided to await further instructions before turning back, and sent his quartermaster, Lieutenant Church Howe, to report to Stone.

The arrangements for the flatboat put an end to the mission's secrecy. Evans had left a few pickets at the more predictable crossing sites, one of which was Smart's Mill, opposite the upper end of Harrison's Island. When the boatmen poled their way up the Maryland shore and then downstream on the Virginia side, they passed within sight of some Mississippi riflemen at Smart's Mill, who trailed the boat toward Ball's Bluff. The prowling Rebels spotted some guards posted by Colonel Lee, exchanged shots with them, then reported the contact. That brought the Mississipians' picket re­serve on the run from the direction of Leesburg, and when Devens saw them he threw out a skirmish line. A little fight flared, and Evans dispatched most of his cavalry under Lt. Col. Walter Jen­ifer, whose approach convinced Devens to fall back to the bluff with Colonel Lee.

By that time Stone had sent a small troop of his own cavalry across at Edwards Ferry to scout the road to Leesburg from that direction. Those horsemen ran head­long into William Barksdale's 13th Mississippi and came pelting back with the news.

Lieutenant Howe finally found General Stone, telling him that Devens had encountered no one. With that misinformation, and with his cavalry reporting the Confederates in strong force near Edwards Ferry, Stone deduced that the route from Ball's Bluff should be lightly defended. He sent Howe back with orders for the rest of the 15th Massachusetts to cross at Smart's Mill—where the river ran shallower, the riverbank rose less precipitously and the brick mill might serve as a fort in an emergency. The second battalion of the 15th Massa­chusetts instead climbed right up the bluff with the indecisive Devens, who had returned to the ridge to hold the enemy at bay.

That's when Colonel Edward D. Baker re­ported to Stone that his troops were waiting upstream from Harrison's Island, as Stone had ordered. Baker, an old friend of Presi­dent Lincoln and a U.S. senator from Oregon, was the highest-ranking colonel in a brigade of Pennsylvania regiments full of so many Gold Rush ad­venturers that they called themselves the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Cali­fornia. Baker had commanded an Illinois regiment in the Mexican War, and had purportedly led his brigade at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, so seniority and reputation quali­fied him to command at Ball's Bluff. Stone told Baker to assess the situation there and either withdraw everyone or push ahead in force, as he thought best. Baker spurred off up the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, but before he reached the island he saw Lieutenant Howe galloping back down to Edwards Ferry. When Howe told him of the fighting, Baker rose melodramatically in his stirrups, proclaiming that he would lead his entire command to battle over the river.

Stone was already shuttling Gorman's brigade over to Edwards Ferry, to confuse Evans, who nevertheless be­gan diverting infantry to Ball's Bluff. By early afternoon the 15th Massachusetts faced several companies of Mis­sissippi infantry, four companies of Virginia cavalry and Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia Infantry, most of which hailed from Leesburg and the surrounding countryside. Ignorant of the concentration against the bluff, but knowing that he outnumbered Evans significantly, Stone reported to McClellan at 1 p.m. that he thought he could take Leesburg that same day.

A garbled message from McClellan instructed Stone to establish communication with "Darnesville"—meaning General Banks, at Darnestown. Stone naturally mistook it for Dranesville, where he thought McCall stood ready to cooperate against Evans. But McClellan had already ordered McCall back to Langley without alerting Stone. Colonel Evans, however, did know about McCall's withdrawal from dispatches that had been found on a captured courier; Evans therefore realized he was free to deal exclusively with the unwitting Stone.

Under Colonel Baker, the situation atop Ball's Bluff deteriorated steadily. His duty and his orders required im­mediate observation of the ground, but he dawdled for hours on the Maryland shore, funneling troops across and superintending details like the transfer of a barge from the canal to the river. Once he crossed the river, he assigned no one to any of the crossing points on either side of the island, leaving complete chaos behind him.

He scrambled up the bluff and cavalierly congratulated Colonel Lee "on the pros­pect of a battle," but by then it was midafternoon and Devens had been driven back over the wooded ridge again. The 15th Massachusetts, much of the 20th and Baker's own 71st Pennsylvania ("1st California") crowded into a few acres of open ground, and part of the 42nd New York was coming up to join them, while a growing crescent of Confederates crept ever closer.

Baker deployed his men awkwardly, positioning about a third of them where they could fire only into their own ranks. The best-trained and most experienced officer on the field, Colonel Milton Cogswell of the 42nd New York, criticized Baker's dispositions and urged an immediate advance to the high ground ahead of them before the enemy seized it. Baker sent two companies that way to reconnoiter, but they met part of the 8th Virginia approaching from the other direction. In the ensuing melee some of the Virginians broke and ran, presenting an opportunity to push through the closing cordon. But while Baker dithered, the 18th Mississippi filled the void, lunging furiously at the serried Federals.

Two mountain howitzers and a James rifle, complete with its team and limber, were lugged to the bluff's top to bolster Baker's line, and as the afternoon waned, Confed­erate infantry opened a withering fire from the woods, bringing down all the crews and horses. Most of the 18th Mississippi attempt­ed again to drive the Yankees to the bluff, while one company slipped around the Fed­erals' left, climbed a ridge and poured flanking fire into the throng of blue uniforms.

One fusillade killed Baker. Lee then took command, issuing orders to withdraw, but Cogswell came forward and announced he was senior to Lee. He formed several companies of the 42nd New York into a spearhead to pierce the en­croaching Rebel line, in hopes of reaching safety at Edwards Ferry, but the pressure in front was mounting quickly. Hunton's Virginians made a desperate charge at the middle of the dense Union mob as Mississippians blazed away from both flanks. With sunset, the lopsided battle turned into a rout.

Two fresh companies of the 42nd New York fanned out on the brim of the bluff to cover the retreat, but before long the Rebels had over­powered them. Frantic Yankees slid down the steep path from the bluff or spilled into the ravines on either side, seeking refuge in darkness and distance. The fugitives piled into the boats and the scow, shoving off for the island with the flatboat so overloaded that it was soon swamped.

Burdened by their shoes and heavy woolen clothing, many men plunged into the cold Potomac. Scores of them drowned, while bullets began peppering the water all around them.

At the foot of the bluff Cogswell mustered a squad to stem the pursuit, but a Mississippi company took all the Northerners prisoner. Colonel Lee wandered upstream with the help of junior officers, and they too were all captured. Devens made it to Harrison's Island with the help of an enlisted man, but nearly half of those who had climbed the bluff did not come back. Of the nearly 1,700 Union soldiers who went into the fight, about four dozen had been killed outright, and more than 700 were either captured or drowned. The final casualty count was 223 killed, 226 wounded and 553 taken prisoner.

Night had fallen before anyone apprised General Stone of the trouble upriver. Wide-eyed fugitives claimed that Evans had been heavily reinforced, so Stone began withdrawing from Edwards Ferry as well. To avoid a public outcry over another repulse, McClel­lan ordered him to hold the Virginia shore at all costs, coming to the scene himself the next day. Not until the night of October 23 did the troops at Edwards Ferry start back to the Mary­land side.

Evans had won the battle with the aid of an intercepted dispatch that allowed him to pit most of his troops against his most serious threat, while McClellan's poor communications served only to misinform Stone. Still, the greatest blame accrued to three novice Union colonels. Devens, an erstwhile militia general, had brought the battle on by lingering unnecessarily on the Virginia shore after detecting the reconnaissance error, and Lee failed to inform Devens that enemy pickets had discovered them. The worst culprit, though, was Baker, who let his troops engage mounting enemy strength without a commander for several crucial hours and, when he finally realized it, left Stone unaware of their plight. Colonel Cogswell, a Regular Army officer, would have been a far better choice than Baker to lead the effort. But even if General Stone had known of Baker's deficiencies, he could have superseded him only by violating the cardinal rule of seniority, which Cogs­well himself strictly observed.

Rather than let Baker become a symbol of military incompetence, his Republican congressional colleagues pre­ferred him to be seen as a martyr. Thus was born the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, which spent the rest of the conflict investigating military defeats and controversies from a sharply partisan perspective—censuring conservative generals while whitewashing the failures of Radicals. The examination into Ball's Bluff set that jaundiced tone. The committee accepted the most dubious testimony against General Stone, ignoring any exculpatory evidence. Eventually Stone's loyalty came into question. When Edwin Stanton became secretary of war in 1862, he immediately sacrificed Stone to the powerful Radical faction by throwing that promising and well-respected officer into a military prison without charges or cause. After congressional ac­tion forced Stanton to release him six months later, the secretary continued to block and foil Stone's career until he finally resigned.

For the men who fought there, Ball's Bluff ended the prelude to their war. In the wake of that disastrous battle, the entire nation lost much of the naiveté with which it had undertaken the sectional struggle.



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