Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Slight Demonstration

Wherein Stone attempts to scare Evans out of Leesburg

On the morning of October 20, Brig. General Charles P. Stone commanding a division of the Army of the Potomac based at Poolesville received the following message from that army's commanding general's staff:

Stone had been in charge of guarding the river crossings on the upper Potomac River since the launch of the Rockville Expedition in July. As a sizable community in a fertile country, with two good ferrying points, Leesburg would make a splendid base of operations for a sudden northward stab by the Confederates to cut the line between Washington and southern-sympathizing Baltimore, thus enveloping the capital. The bulk of the Army of the Potomac blocked the direct approach for the Southerners on Washington, Harper's Ferry was far enough away to allow a wheeling movement by that army, and a Northern flotilla controlled the lower Potomac (the batteries at Evansport not yet fully operational), and so throughout the summer and fall, Leesburg was presumed to be the jumping off point for an attack by the overestimated-in-size Confederate army.

Stone was the man asked to guard that point, and it was a job he intended to do professionally. He was a serious man, described as polished and well-mannered. A Democrat fiercely loyal to the Union, Stone had accomplished the unusual feat of being well-liked by both his immediate commander, Maj. General George McClellan, and the aged general-in-chief, Bvt. Lt. General Winfield Scott. Stone's obsession with doing things according to the professional code he had developed in his career with the U.S. Army sometimes bothered his superiors and volunteer troops. He was famous for sending careful enumerations of his division's supply problems, persistently requesting regular troops to carry out his mission, and scolding the War Department for sending him documents marked "secret" by U.S. Mail. His men had just had a run-in on October 16, when, after catching two possible Confederate spies in camp selling pornography to the men, he expelled them and then had the entire division searched for pornography, which he destroyed.

Stone's command numbered around 12,000 men, dwarfing the force of his counterpart in Leesburg, Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans. He had taken to calling it the "Corps of Observation", a name that the rest of the army had taken up. McClellan had spent the fall trying to standardize the divisions, to make sure each was able to be a fully functional unit under its commander. Stone's was typical: three brigades of infantry, three batteries of artillery, and a battalion of cavalry (in this case, six companies). Stone also had two additional infantry regiments that had not yet been assigned to a brigade (and which might not be assigned to a brigade in his division, when all was accounted for), the 15th Massachusetts and the 42nd New York.

His first brigade was supposed to be led by Brig. General Frederick Lander, but Lander, a friend of Scott's, had convinced the older general to create a new military command, the Department of Harper's Ferry and the Cumberland, carved out from McClellan's territory and designed to bring the loyal Virginians of the mountains more into the fight. Lander had actually submitted a letter of resignation to Stone at Poolesville and was back in Washington planning to stand-up his new command. In his absence, the brigade was commanded by its senior colonel, Edward Hinks of the 19th Massachusetts. The brigade also contained the 20th Massachusetts, a Massachusetts sharpshooters battalion, and the 7th Michigan.

The second brigade was led by Brig. General Willis Gorman, a Kentucky-born politician who moved to Indiana to become a state legislator. He volunteered in the Mexican War, receiving a wound at Buena Vista, and rising to colonel of one of the Indiana regiments. When the war ended, he became territorial governor of Minnesota, then after statehood became a legislator. And when the Civil War broke out, he led the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry at Bull Run. How he commanded the brigade that included his old regiment and two New York regiments.

The final infantry brigade was Colonel and Senator Edward D. Baker's California Brigade. The Oregon Senator had petitioned Lincoln to allow him to expand his 1st California Regiment to a full brigade of Californians. Baker had been insistent that the West Coast be represented in the battle for Union and so had created the regiment, and later brigade, from Philadelphians who agreed to march under California's banner. He had four regiments raised by October 20, including his extra-large 1st California.

The day before, McClellan had dispatched the Pennsylvania Reserves under Brig. General George McCall to Dranesville, to reconnoiter the Confederate position at Leesburg. The Confederates had nearly abandoned the city a few days earlier, but during the night of October 19 and 20 rushed back into position, taking up defenses at the site of a Goose Creek bridge that had been burned in July. McClellan's hope was that if Stone made it look like there was a coordinated attack between his division and McCall's, it might be enough to make the Confederates permanently abandon the city.

The burnt bridge at Goose Creek was located at the site of Edward's Ferry, one of the two major crossing points at Leesburg, so Stone sent his most experienced commander, Gorman, there with his brigade with orders to be as obvious as possible. Battery I of the 1st U.S. Artillery was already in position and spent the day firing at anything that moved. He also sent Gorman two companies of cavalry, in case an opportunity presented itself.

Upriver, Stone also sent the 42nd New York, one of his unattached units, and two 13-pdr James rifles from Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Artillery to Conrad's Ferry. To complete the impression that he was planning on attack on Leesburg, he stationed five companies of the unattached 15th Massachusetts on Harrison's Island, in the middle of the Potomac, along with most of the 20th Massachusetts from Lander's brigade.

View Ball's Bluff, October 20 in a larger map

But Evans did not bite, in fact, he practically ignored Stone's demonstrations and focused on reoccupying defensive positions opposite McCall's lead brigade. Because technology was limited, though, Stone had no way of knowing what was going on, so mid-afternoon he ordered a patrol from the elements of the 15th Massachusetts on Harrison's Island. Colonel Charles Devens handed the assignment to the commanding officer of his picket company, Captain Chase Philbrick, who selected volunteers and waited for night to fall.

Meanwhile, downriver, Stone decided to have Willis Gorman send some of his infantry over at Edwards' Ferry too, to convey the impression that he was making his crossing at night. Gorman picked his own 1st Minnesota for the job, and company E and K crossed the river just before sunset, drove in the Confederate pickets, and returned back across the Potomac. Stone then gave Gorman permission to send his men back to their campsites for the night, and wrote out a brief report for McClellan on his "slight demonstration" and, naturally for Stone, data in case of a future aggressive action.
Made a feint of crossing at this place this afternoon, and at the same time started a reconnoitering party towards Leesburg from Harrison's Island. Enemy's pickets retired to intrenchments. Report of reconnoitering party not yet received. I have means of crossing 125 men once in ten minutes at each of two points. River falling slowly.
At about 10:00 pm, the report of Captain Philbrick's reconnoitering party reached Stone at a rush. Philbrick had crossed at Harrison's Island with about a dozen men from his Company H and advanced to within a few miles of Leesburg, when he had spotted what appeared to be a large, unguarded Confederate camp. Both fearing detection and eager to report the vulnerability, he rushed his patrol back across the river and brought the news to Colonel Devens, who ordered the report forwarded to Stone.

Stone recognized an opportunity to catch Evans unawares, and though he couldn't order a general attack by his division without approval from McClellan, used his discretion to put together a raid on the Confederate camp. A little over an hour later he had a plan ready, and sent Devens' messenger back to him with orders.

Print Sources:

  • Morgan, 13, 15-27.

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