The history of the battle of Ball's Bluff has never been published. No event of the war since the assault upon Fort Sumter created a like sensation; and the cause of the disaster, the name of the persons culpable, or the plans and purposes of the officers who ordered the movement, have not officially or certainly been made known. The report of General Stone, in command, was not satisfactory to the country, and Congress called upon the War Department for the, facts. Major General McClellan, who, it was known, ordered the movement, refused to furnish the facts. The insulted Congress repeated its demand, and received a second time the same answer. A joint committee of both Houses of Congress was appointed to inquire into the “conduct of the present war,” especially, as was remarked in. the debate, “as regards the battle of Ball's Bluff.” That committee has as yet made no report.* General Stone, by order of the President, was arrested and imprisoned upon several charges involving disloyalty, and “for misconduct at the battle of Ball's Bluff.” After a confinement of six months he was discharged without trial, and the cherished expectations of the public for the facts so long withheld were again disappointed.
Ball's Bluff, so called from Mr. Ball, a farmer living in the vicinity, is a bold embankment, of one hundred feet elevation, on the Virginia shore of the Potomac, three miles from Leesburg northwesterly, and an equal distance from Edwards' Ferry in a southern direction. Poolsville, Md., lies opposite, five miles, and by the road running easterly, Washington is distant thirty-four miles. From the river's edge to the summit, the Bluff is covered with trees and bushes, which, joining with the woods on either side, enclose above, in the form of a half circle, an open natural clearing of seven acres. In the middle of the Potomac, in front of the Bluff, lies Harrison's Island, a fertile strip of land two hundred yards wide and four miles long. At a distance of half a mile north of the Bluff is Smoot's Mill, situated upon a gentle slope of the bank; and near to it a road leads from the river, by an easy ascent, to the Leesburg turnpike, which, running southerly to Drainesville, passes near to Edwards' Ferry. On the day of the battle General McCall, with twenty-four thousand men, was in that turnpike, nine miles from Ball's Bluff, and General Gorman, with fourteen hundred men was at Edwards' Ferry, on the Virginia side. The whole distance from Ball's Bluff to the Maryland side of the Potomac, across Harrison's Island, is not six hundred yards.
On Sunday night, Oct. 20, 1861, in obedience to orders of General Stone, Colonel Devens, of the Fifteenth Mass. Volunteers, proceeded, with three hundred men, from camp at Poolsville to a point opposite Ball's Bluff and Harrison's Island, and in three small boats crossed to the Virginia shore, arriving at the summit just before daylight. The landing-place was soft and mucky, and the ascent winding and difficult. At the same time four companies of the First Minnesota Volunteers crossed the river at Edwards' Ferry. No enemy was encountered at either place, and his pickets had not been seen for two days. Whatever knowledge of the topography of our country our forces possessed had been acquired by distant observation from Maryland, and no guide accompanied them.
At daybreak Colonel Devens led his troops over the open field, and through the woods towards and within one mile of Leesburg, where, in scattered small numbers, he descried rebels, and after exchanging several volleys with them at long range, fell back to the woods. Here being attacked, he repulsed the enemy with small loss on both sides, and then retired to the Bluff, where he was joined by the remainder of his regiment, and by Colonel Lee with one hundred men of the Twentieth Mass. Volunteers, making in all seven hundred and twenty Federal troops across the river. The day was fair.
At the same time, eight o'clock, A. M., Colonel Baker arrived from his camp near Poolsville on the Maryland side, opposite, where he found the first battalion of the California regiment, six hundred and eighty officers and men, Lieutenant Colonel Wistar commanding. He was informed of an order from General Stone, then at Edwards' Ferry, that in the event of heavy firing in front, the California battalion should cross and reinforce Colonel Devens. Upon inquiring as to the means of transportation, and learning that they consisted of two frail scows, each capable of carrying twenty-five men, and the river deep and rapid, Colonel Baker rode in haste to Edwards' Ferry that he might have better assurance of an order so extraordinary. Meanwhile several dead and wounded arrived from the Bluff, where firing was growing more frequent, and three companies of the California regiment crossed to Harrison's Island. Colonel Baker returned from Edwards' Ferry at eleven o'clock, bearing a written order from General Stone to reinforce or retire Colonel Devens, "in his discretion.'' The returned wounded reported the enemy in force, pressing Colonel Devens. How could seven hundred men be safely retired in two small boats under the fire of a bloodthirsty and superior enemy? Shall they be left to their fate, or will he reinforce them and share their peril? Colonel Baker was not long in determining upon his course of duty.
A larger scow, discovered in the canal running parallel to the river, was with great labor dragged across the tow-path and launched in the channel. Placing Captain Ritman in charge of the transportation of the troops, and directing that they should cross as rapidly as possible, with his staff composed of Assistant Adjutant- General Harvey and Captain Young, Brigade Quartermaster, Colonel Baker embarked for the Island, where, on the western side, he found three hundred men awaiting their chance to go over to the Virginia shore. Impressed with the grave responsibility of his position, Colonel Baker was silently remarking the two small boats plying with their heavy freight of reinforcements, when his attention was called to an officer of one of the Massachusetts regiments standing on the Virginia shore, who cried out, “We can see three regiments of the enemy coming down from Leesburg.” Colonel Baker responded, “All right─, be of good cheer there will be the more for us to, whip " ─ and immediately crossed the river. On reaching the summit, and assuming command, he found the Massachusetts troops drawn up on the right of the field in good order, quietly awaiting a nearer attack of the enemy, who, though silent, with the exception of occasional shots, were known to be in large force in the woods in the front and on the right. It was three o'clock before all of the California battalion had crossed and climbed the Bluff, which, joined to two companies of the Tammany regiment, made with the Massachusetts troops, our whole force seventeen hundred. An order was received from General Stone advising Colonel Baker that the enemy was four thousand strong, and that he might count upon General Gorman coming to his reinforcement from Edwards' Ferry, on the left. He decided, therefore, not to advance, but await the arrival of the promised aid, formed his line of battle by placing Colonel Devens and his command on the right at the border of the woods, resting upon and making a right angle with the centre, composed of two companies of Twentieth Mass. and two companies of the Tammany regiment; the California battalion forming the left and touching the woods, bounding the plateau to the south. The ground, sloping from a point distant thirty yards from the edge of the cliff, afforded a fair cover for men lying upon their faces, from the increasing fire of the enemy in the woods. At three o'clock Colonel Coggswell of the Tammany regiment arrived upon the field, and being received by Colonel Baker with much enthusiasm, was placed in command of the artillery, consisting of one six-pounder and two mountain howitzers, then in charge of Lieutenant Bramhall, of the Ninth New York State Militia. The pieces were drawn into the open field, twenty yards in advance, of the centre of the line of battle. Colonel Baker, with his staff on foot, ─ there were no mounted officers on the field, ─ traversed several times the whole line of forces under his command, addressing pleasant words to officers and men, and setting hem an example of coolness, courage, and confidence. From the Maryland shore frequent shells came flying over the river and bluff, bursting harmlessly far in the rear of the enemy, who seemed patiently to defer his attack until we crossed in greater numbers.
At precisely four o'clock loud yells preceded a flashing line of fire in the woods, and the report of a thousand rifles announced the opening of the engagement with part of the enemy, several of whom had climbed into the trees, that they might have a better aim at our recumbent men. For nearly an hour showers of bullets and buck-shot continued to pour upon our devoted line; but considering the nearness of the enemy, the casualties were not very great. On our part the cannon alone for the first half hour responded with thundering voice, clearly telling General Stone and the Union forces at Edwards' Ferry of the hot engagement near them; and flying farther, reached the ears of General McCall and his division, which, by order of Major-General McClellan, was returning to its camp at Drainesville. Six thousand troops had, during the afternoon, assembled at the crossing-place opposite the Bluff, but by reason of the small means of transportation, were obliged to remain there regarding in helplessness and rage the unequal contest. A rope had been stretched across the channel to the island, which aided much in the passage of the boats; but from the Virginia side there was no rope, and the solitary leaky scow was poled over and back slowly. By five o'clock nearly two thousand men had ascended the Bluff, and engaged in most part in returning the fire of the enemy. Notwithstanding the discouraging aspect of matters, our troops generally exhibited good feeling, determined courage, and obedience to command. The wounded and some dead were carried by their comrades down the hill, who, after placing them in the boat, returned to the field. The enemy was several times driven back with great loss by discharges of the cannon, which, after the artillery men had been killed or wounded, was loaded and fired by Colonel Coggswell, Lieutenant Bramhall, and other officers. A volley of musketry from the thick forest on the left attracted our attention, and Colonel Baker, thinking it came from the expected and promised reinforcement from Edwards' Ferry, ordered a company of the California men to advance cautiously, and discover if they were friends or foes.
The officer commanding the company having called out, “Who are you?" received for answer, “Confederates!” and another volley following immediately, many of our men were killed and wounded. Colonel Baker fell dead, struck with three balls. Five or six rebels ran from the woods towards his body, lying ten yards in advance of the line of battle, when Captain Bieral, of the California regiment, with a dozen of his men, dashed forward, and driving the others back, rescued the corpse and sword, which were immediately carried from the field by Captain Young, who had but a moment before been, ordered by Colonel Baker to go to General Stone, and report the state of the engagement, and ask for reinforcements. At the same time Lieutenant Colonel Wistar and Lieutenant Bramhall, being severely wounded, were helped down the hill, and with Colonel Baker's body, safely reached the island. At the last discharge of the cannon it recoiled even to the edge of the cliff, and falling over, was inextricably lost in the rock and jungle.
Later the two howitzers, which had not been fired during the engagement, were thrown over the bank, and they with the cannon were afterwards recovered by the enemy. By seniority Colonel Coggswell assumed command, and regarding the battle as hopelessly lost, and there being no retreat by the river, he determined to fight his way to Edwards' Ferry. By his order the Fifteenth Massachusetts moved across the field from the right to the left of the line, where the two companies of the Tammany regiment had already moved. While making the proper arrangements for retreat, a rebel officer misled our troops by approaching them and giving a command to charge upon a large body of the enemy who now occupied our late position on the right. - Rushing forward en masse our men received a destructive fire, and the line being broken, general confusion ensued for a few moments. Re-forming in line, several volleys were exchanged with the enemy,
who were now near, in sight, in front, with considerable loss on both sides; but, night coming on, and no one knowing the road to Edwards Ferry, Colonel Coggswell abandoned his plan of retreat to that point, and gave an order to fall back to the river's bank, below the Bluff, leaving two companies above to hold the enemy in check. At this moment, the only boat in the channel was seen to go down, overloaded with wounded and fugitives; and thus disappeared the only means of escape, except by swimming. The enemy soon occupied the heights, and poured down a fatal fire upon the crowded mass below. Three times bodies of our men climbed to the summit, and after delivering their fire, returned to their helpless comrades below. Throwing their arms and clothing into the river, many swam for the island, while others, aided by the increasing darkness, crept along the bank above and below the Bluff, and on logs, and in a small skiff which by good fortune was found, escaped.
There was no formal surrender, but a sullen submission to adverse fate. The colors, heavily weighed with stones, were cast into the stream. At eight o'clock all firing and noise had ceased, save the moans of the wounded, and the shrieks of the drowning in their vain attempts to swim to the island. At midnight twenty-two commissioned officers and seven hundred and ten men were prisoners of war, on their march to Leesburg.
Never was a conquered army less subdued in spirit. Astounded, bewildered, indignant, there was no feeling of shame, for never did soldiers conduct themselves with more courage. Each man felt that something had gone wrong. "Some one had blundered," or may be worse, and silently marching under the rebel guard, each sought in his own mind, or in whispering voices of his companions, for an explanation of the disaster.
The enemy's force engaged is not known, but is stated in the report of Colonel Evans, who commanded them, at twenty-six hundred. It is believed that there were full four thousand. His loss was not less than four hundred, mostly killed. On our side the casualties cannot be precisely stated, as many were missing whose death by drowning or killed on the field could not be ascertained. The total loss was one hundred and fifty killed, two hundred wounded, and seven hundred and ten taken prisoners.
Such is the narrative of the affair at Ball's Bluff, as told by those who were engaged in it, but had no part in its planning, and are still ignorant of its purpose. As stated, all attempts to discover the object of sending across the Potomac at that point a small force, while Generals McCall and Smith, with over twenty thousand men, were
already on the Virginia side, within nine miles of Leesburg, have not been successful. In vain is the inquiry repeated, "Why was Ball's Bluff chosen as a crossing-place, while, at a distance of one half mile above it, the land slopes to the river bank, and an easy ascent and open country would have placed our force on equal footing with the enemy ? Why was not transportation provided in advance, adequate for a successful withdrawal of Colonels Devens and Lee and their commands, or for throwing over a large force for their support?" The movement was not unpremeditated, and there was no want of boats or material for pontoons and bridges in the vicinity of Harrison's Island. An army of ten thousand men had been lying idle at Poolsville for months, expecting at some time to cross the river. The canal leading to Washington offered excellent facilities for furnishing the necessary means for crossing, and three frail scows, made of inch plank, and one skiff, were all that our army found there on the day of the battle.
Why were not the promised reinforcements sent to our aid from Edwards' Ferry? During the engagement fourteen hundred troops, under the command of General Gorman, awaited on the Virginia shore, at Edwards' Ferry, an order to march to our aid; and in his report General Gorman says, that at the moment Colonel Baker fell, General Stone sent an order for them to throw up entrenchments! There was no enemy between Edwards' Ferry and the battle-field, and we may fairly suppose that one hundred men coming up and attacking them on their flank would have changed the fortunes of that day. That night General McClellan, at Washington, having learned of the disastrous result of the expedition he had ordered, despatched an order to General Banks, at Darnstown, Md., twelve miles from Ball's Bluff, to march his division to the Potomac, at the same points, which, during the day, had been occupied by eight thousand of our troops, vainly demanding transportation to their commands over the river! Generals McCall and Smith, at Drainesville, Va., received no orders. Two days afterwards, all of the Federal forces returned to their respective camps ; and thus concludes the affair of Ball's Bluff.