Friday, October 21, 2011

Battle of Ball's Bluff

150 years ago today the Battle of Ball's Bluff was fought. It was the second largest battle in the eastern theater in 1861, and it was another Union defeat. On October 20th, a Union scouting party was sent across the Potomac River from Maryland to investigate some rumors of a Confederate retreat in the area. In the dim evening light, an inexperienced Union officer mistook a row of trees for an unguarded Confederate camp. Acting on this information, a raiding party of 300 men was sent the next morning to attempt to capture it.

Finding that the report about the Confederate camp was false, the raiding party reported back and waited for orders. Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, a US senator, was sent to decide whether to reinforce the party and continue to advance, or have them retreat back across the river. Baker ended up ordering all the available troops in the area to cross the river. This crossing was very slow because of the few number of boats. Meanwhile, the reinforced raiding party engaged in several skirmishes with Confederate troops, and at 2:00 PM they fell back to the troops who had crossed the river and formed up along the bluff.
Col Baker killed
At 3:00 pm the Confederates began to attack the Union position against the river in earnest. The Federals were in a very bad position. They had no room to maneuver or fall back, they could not cross the river because of the lack of boats, and they were being pressed hard from the front, where the Confederates had a commanding position. Col. Baker was killed at 4:30, being the only senator ever killed in battle. Just before dark a fresh Confederate regiment arrived and broke the Union line. The Union Colonel Devens wrote this:
"[I]t seemed impossible to preserve the order necessary for a combined military movement, and Colonel Cogswell reluctantly gave the order to retreat to the river-bank. The troops descended the bluff, and reached the bank of the river, where there is a narrow plateau between the river and the ascent of the bluff, both the plateau and the bluff being heavily wooded. As I descended upon this plateau, in company with Colonel Cogswell, I saw the large boat, upon which we depended as the means of crossing the river, swamped by the number of men who rushed upon it. ... It was impossible to continue to resist, and I should have had no doubt, if we had been contending with the troops of a foreign nation, in justice to the lives of men, it would have been our duty to surrender; I had no hesitation in advising men to escape as they could, ordering them in all cases to throw their arms into the river rather than give them up to the enemy. ... [A]t dark [I] swam the river by the aid of three of three soldiers of my regiment."1

The broken Union troops paniced and rushed toward the river. There was no way they would be able to cross the river in such a few number of boats. So many men piled into the ones that they did have that they quickly capsized. Many were drowned or were shot trying to cross the river. In this chaos 223 Union troops were killed, 226 wounded and 553 captured, a very high number for the less than 2000 engaged. The Confederates lost only 155.
Senator Col. Baker
Although the losses from this battle were very small, it had a huge impact on both sides. With the loss of a senator, the Congress needed someone to blame. They picked General Stone, the overall commander, even though it was actually Senator Baker who caused the huge fiasco by his inexperience and bad decisions. Stone was arrested and remained in jail for six months, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was formed for the Congress to punish those who they saw as causing defeats.
General Stone

1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, p. 130


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