Sunday, October 23, 2011

With the Manifest Aid of the God of Battles

The aftermath of Ball's Bluff for the Southern army

On the evening of October 22, Colonel Thomas Jordan received a message from Colonel Thomas Rhett. As the adjutants of Generals G.T. Beauregard and Joe Johnston, respectively, the two were in charge of transmitting all orders and communications from headquarters to headquarters. Rhett was sending General Orders No. 47 for promulgation to all units in the army, to congratulate Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans on his victory at Ball's Bluff. It is an order typical of Johnston, orderly, straightforward, and gracious. "The skill and courage with which this victory has been achieved entitles Colonel Evans and the Seventh Brigade of the First Corps to the thanks of the Army."

But Jordan didn't send the order to the brigades on October 22, instead he held it over for a day, so that Beauregard could add his own, typically Beauregard, order to accompany it:

At 10:00 am on October 23, the Northern prisoners of war arrived in Manassas Junction for movement to Richmond. Depending on the account, there were between 500 and 600 men that had surrendered at the battle, among them Colonel William Lee of the 20th Massachusetts (a distant relative of Robert E.). Evans had sent the captives to Leesburg the day after the battle, locking the enlisted prisoners in the yard of the courthouse [the present building only dates to 1894, but is on the same site as the Civil War-era yard]. As was the custom, the officers were offered parole, wherein they would be able to move about freely without guard.

Evans wrote out a parole and asked each officer to sign it, but the Union officers were not happy with the terms. Some were irritated that the terms did not allow them to return home, as was usually the case with parole, while others took offense that Evans specified they would not return to the fight against him, considered an affront to their gentlemanly honor. Colonel Lee asked Evans to amend the written parole to add that they would not take up arms again "unless duly exchanged or otherwise." Lee's request especially seems to have touched a nerve with Evans with its suggestion of imminent rescue, and he decided to march all the prisoners through the night for Manassas Junction, where they boarded railcars for transfer to prison in Richmond on October 23. Prisons were already being prepared for them in old tobacco warehouses, mere blocks from where Jefferson Davis would have spent the morning surprised that while reading accounts of the battle in the Richmond Dispatch he had stumbled upon highly inflammatory excerpts of Beauregard's official report on Manassas in print for all to read.

Whether from Lee's request or the two additional brigades that had appeared the day before, Evans made the decision to pull back from Leesburg on October 23. His men had spent the previous day burying their dead and, more enthusiastically, collecting equipment from the battlefield. Over the next few days they would recover 1,500 muskets from the ground and the river (where Union soldiers had thrown them to try to keep them out of Confederate hands), along with three cannons, and a substantial amount of ammunition and other equipment. The job was easier on October 23, because the Union force at Harrison's Island had retired to the Maryland side of the river during the night, allowing the Southerners to dive for weapons, but with a force still at Edwards' Ferry Evans couldn't take the risk of his men being cut-off from the rest of Beauregard's corps. Throughout the day he pulled back to Carter's Mill [near Oatland Plantation], the very position he had been in on October 17 that lead to the whole affair at Ball's Bluff.

Union cavalry, in fact, had been patrolling from the position at Edwards' Ferry, carefully followed by Evans' own cavalry. The two forces did not exchange fire, but watched each other. Evans could not ascertain if it was a scouting party for further movement, or if it was a scouting party to keep his own men away from the infantry lines. It was the latter, but Evans wouldn't know until the next day when the remainder of all troops at Edwards' Ferry had been evacuated, the cavalry screen with them.

Print Sources:
  • Morgan, 178-187

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