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 fot 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 Bramball, being severly 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 in 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. Reforming 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 command 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 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 intrenchments! 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.
Originally posted 2008-03-19 16:06:26.