Saturday, October 22, 2011

Something Being Done

Wherein a sitting Senator is dead on the field of battle

The death of Senator Edward D. Baker at Ball's Bluff
A quick programming note: it had been my intention to live blog the Battle of Ball's Bluff, but life sometimes gets in the way of plans. However, if study of the Civil War battlefield reveals anything, it's that the victorious are rarely those who planned the best, but those who adapted their plans best when they met reality. Hopefully that works for writing about history too. And so, I'll continue my plan to live blog the battle, but instead I'll live blog it the way most Americans experienced it -- through the weeks and months afterwards that it took to understand what had happened. For a more traditional account, I recommend Disunion today. Or, if you prefer to read in "real time", I recommend the collection of telegrams between Washington and Poolesville that tell the story rather poignantly (though slightly out of order).

On the evening of October 21, the public around the capital city was beginning to realize that something had happened. For those living along the upper Potomac River, the day had been punctured by the deep boom of artillery and the staccato rattle of musketry, signifying that that thing must be a battle, and word was spreading about it fairly quickly. But who had been engaged and who had won?

Only the barest rumors of a battle had George Meade, leading a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. On the afternoon, Meade was marching with the rest of his division away from Dranesville, only a few miles from the battlefield, where men from the division of Charles P. Stone were suffering and dying all day long. The Reserves, under Brig. General George McCall, had been moved to Dranesville on October 19, by order of the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. General George McClellan. McClellan had received a report from Stone, who was charged with watching the river crossings around Leesburg, that the Confederates there had mostly withdrawn. So he had sent McCall and the Reserves to scout out the area and try to scare away any remaining troops, hoping that Stone might have the chance to capture Leesburg, and thus secure Union control of the Potomac.

On October 19, McClellan had wanted McCall to march back to their camp in Langley immediately the next day, so as to not leave a hole in the army's line of defenses around Washington. But the older general had persuaded his young commander to allow him to keep his men out through the weekend in order to give his engineers time to make detailed maps that would be needed for a possible future attack on Leesburg. If the division required to pick up McCall's slack hadn't been that of McClellan favorite "Baldy" Smith, then there may have been no Ball's Bluff, but as it happened, McClellan accepted McCall's request under strict orders that the Reserves were to be back in Langley by October 21.
At 10:00 am on Monday, October 21, McCall dutifully ordered his three brigades to return home. The men marched back down the Georgetown Pike towards Langley, probably split between disappointment that no battle had been fought and eagerness for a properly cooked dinner when they reached camp. The historian of the division recorded that two brigades had reached Camp Pierpont at 1:00 pm (probably Meade's and the Colonel McCalmont's), when McCall was presented with a telegram from McClellan ordering him to remain in Dranesville, if he hadn't left yet. McCall quickly sent a reply asking for new orders, since he had already returned to camp, and was told to let the men rest, but be prepared to move out.

At 9:00 pm, they were still prepared to move out. George Meade found a few minutes to write his wife, who hadn't written since the division had left Camp Pierpont and he had thought it might be his last letter.
We returned this evening from our expedition, which, so far as my brigade was concerend, was very peaceful... I advanced some ten miles and saw nothing of [the Confederates]. We remained out three days, getting an accurate knowledge of the country, and then returned to camp. No sooner are we back than orders come to be ready at a moment's notice to go again, and all is now excitement and bustle, though it is night time. I do not know the meaning, except that something is being done on some other part of the line and we are wanted to support the movement.
As he was writing those words, Union soldiers were drowning or being shot in the dark upriver, as they tried to escape across the swollen Potomac with no boats.

Not long after Meade must have finished his letter, McClellan sent clear orders to the Union division at Harper's Ferry, under Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, to send a brigade to Poolesville to help Stone's men. But Stone had plenty of men, he outnumbered his Confederate opponent nearly 6-to-1, there was just no way to get them across the river. McCall's men, however, never received orders to leave camp, though they didn't stand down until 4:00 pm on October 22, probably because McClellan was guarding against a large Confederate attack on Washington itself.

Banks and his men arrived in Poolesville at dawn on October 22, and made for Harrison's Island, where the staunchest survivor's of Ball's Bluff were fearfully holding on. Along the way he met the more haggard refugees from the battle, stretched out along the road back to their camp, men from the 19th and 20th Massachusetts, the 1st California, and the 42nd New York. He took command of the island, and by that time certainly knew about the death of Edward Baker in battle the afternoon before. The Senator from Oregon and commander of the California Brigade had been thrown across the river when the action there unexpectedly flared up, but the stories of his death were already wildly divergent.

While Banks secured the defense of Harrison's Island against a Confederate counterattack, Brig. General Frederick Lander also arrived in Poolesville to consult with Stone. Lander was supposed to be resigned from his brigade and standing up a new command based on Harper's Ferry, but McClellan had sent him to take over command at Edwards' Ferry, where Stone still had approximately 2,500 men on the Virginia side of the river that had spent a harrowing night of wild firing in the dark, waiting to be overrun. Lander was livid that his former brigade was scattered, some in Virginia, some at Harrison's Island, some in Poolesville, and too many in the field hospitals. When he got to the Virginia side of Edwards' Ferry he was even more furious, and the collapse of discipline led to his refusal to accept command, "as some of the men were marauding and I should have to have some of them shot if I took the command," according to the surprised New York Militia officer asking him for orders.

Lander's refusal to take command meant that Brig. General Willis Gorman remained in charge, while Lander tried to secure more troops from his scattered brigade to defend the small foothold. The man who should have been commanding Lander's brigade, Colonel Edward Hinks, was actually on Harrison's Island, and had arranged an early-morning truce to send a small burial party to Ball's Bluff, as was the custom of warfare at that time. While the massive loss of life was becoming clear to Hinks' men, McClellan was at the White House briefing Lincoln on what had happened.

Senator Baker was a close personal friend of the president (Lincoln's second son, who had died in 1850, had been named Edward Baker Lincoln, after him), and the two had spent time visiting with each other on October 20. McClellan had actually been in the White House briefing Lincoln when a telegram from Stone about Baker's death had been handed to him, but he had kept its contents to himself. Lincoln, who loved to go to the War Department and read the incoming telegraphs, saw a copy of the telegram there and, according to a clerk, walked back to the White House "with bowed head, and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale and wan, his heart heaving with emotion."

Apparently, McClellan told the President that Ball's Bluff had been only a minor skirmish from a raid gone wrong, before he headed off to Poolesville to see for himself, because at 5:30 pm, after spending the day with Stone interviewing survivors, he sent Lincoln a telegram from there saying "from what I learn here the affair of yesterday was a more serious disaster than I had supposed. Our loss in prisoners & killed was severe. I leave at once for Edwards' Ferry."

But still, it was unclear how this "more serious disaster" had come to be. The New York Times ran a story typical of the pieces that showed up in newspapers on October 22 (N.B., with an October 21 dateline):
Gen. Stone crossed the Potomac this morning with one portion of his command at Edward's Ferry, and the other at Harrison's Islands. Skirmishing began between the enemy in uncertain numbers, and part of Gen. Stone's command, as early as 9 o'clock in the morning, and continued without much effect until about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, when large reinforcements of the enemy appeared upon our right, which was commanded by Col. Baker. The Union forces engaged were about 1,800, and were attacked by a force supposed to be 5,000 to 10,000. At this juncture Col. Baker fell at the head of his brigade, while gallantly cheering on his men to the conflict. Immediately before he fell he dispatched Major Young to Gen. Stone to apprise him of the condition of affairs, and Gen. Stone immediately proceeded in person towards the right to take command, but in the confusion created by the fall of Col.Baker , the right wing sustained a repulse with considerable loss.
Meanwhile, at Edwards' Ferry (where there is no record of McClellan ever having arrived), the Confederate 13th Mississippi under Colonel William Barksdale had spent the morning maneuvering into position to repeat the previous day's success, this time against the Union men lined up next to Goose Creek. At 4:00 pm, the Mississippians attacked, surprising some pickets from the 1st Minnesota of Willis Gorman's brigade, who were playing cards instead of watching for Confederates. The attack was so fierce that Gorman said in his official report that they were overrun by 3,000 Confederates, though Barksdale had closer to 600.

The subsequent reports that came out about what ended up being little more than a skirmish are wildly inflated, probably to contrast with the steadily worsening news about what had really happened at Ball's Bluff and whose fault it might be. Barksdale's men abandoned their attack when they came in range of Battery I of the 1st U.S. Artillery, but not before a musket ball hit Brig. General Frederick Lander in the left leg while he was commanding a battalion of sharpshooters from his own brigade, apparently not too disgusted by the state of affairs to leave his men during a fight.

As night fell, Gorman and the mixed command of two brigades hunkered down for another night, expecting to be overrun at any moment. Only about a dozen miles away, the Pennsylvania Reserves finally got their hot meal, and talked about the rumors and accounts of the battle that had happened while they marched the opposite direction. At some point in the afternoon or evening, George Meade would have received a copy of McClellan's General Orders No. 31, passed to him by his division commander so he could in turn pass it to the officers of his brigade, who would read it to their soldiers sometime that night or the next day.

Questions would persist.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 110
  • Goodwin, 381
  • Morgan, 173-195

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