Sunday, October 20, 1861
Union General George B. McClellan had noticed that most of the Confederates inching closer and closer to Washington since the Battle of Manassas, were pulling back to that original battleground. Leesburg, roughly forty miles from the capital, was another story altogether. Though rumors and some preliminary scouting suggested otherwise, General Nathan “Shanks” Evans and 1,700 Confederates occupied ground just outside of Leesburg.
The previous day, McClellan sent a division under General George McCall to Dranesville, later ordering him to scout four miles north, in the direction of Leesburg. On the morning of this date, McClellan himself entered Dranesville, but could not find McCall’s division. Finally, three miles north of town, they met. When asked, McCall related that he moved so far north in fear of an attack from Centerville. This would have left his rear open to attack and his line of supply and retreat cut off.
Throughout the day, McCall adjusted his line, but reported that the Rebels once occupying Leesburg had indeed moved on to Manassas. Shanks Evans Brigade had left Leesburg several days ago, but had returned unnoticed, confusing pretty much everyone on the Federal side. McCall’s main mission was to map the roads around Dranesville. McClellan had hoped it would be finished on this date, but McCall reported that it would take an additional day.
Figuring that McCall would be in Dranesville the entire day and that the Rebels were probably gone from Leesburg, General McClellan sent a dispatch to General Stone, headquartered across the Potomac River from Leesburg, at Poolesville.
McClellan told Stone that Dranesville was covered by McCall, who would be sending out “heavy reconnaissances today in all directions from that point.” To Stone, he ordered him to “keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away.” In closing he added, “Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”
General Stone devised a plan for this “slight demonstration.” First, he would fake a crossing at Edwards Ferry, opposite Goose Creek, two miles south of Ball’s Bluff, with an entire brigade. With whatever Rebels were watching distracted, he would move a regiment to Conrad’s Ferry [now called Whites Ferry], near Harrison’s Island, opposite Ball’s Bluff, and another regiment to the island itself.
By 4pm, the plan took shape as Union artillery opened up from Edwards Ferry. Several Rebel pickets could be seen diving for cover. Soon, Union troops had gathered boats, and two companies of the 1st Minnesota crossed the Potomac, deployed as skirmishers, and waited to see the results.
From Harrison’s Island, a detachment of twenty men from Col. Charles Devens’ 15th Massachusetts Regiment crossed to the Virginia side, and climbed up the steep face of Ball’s Bluff. When they reached the top and saw no Rebels, they moved towards Leesburg. On a hill outside of town, they spied a small, unguarded Confederate camp. Their mission complete, they recrossed and reported to Stone. The Minnesota troops also recrossed, their faint at an end.
Stone, appraised of the vulnerable camp, ordered Col. Devins and half of his regiment to cross at dawn and take the camp. If no other Rebels were found, he was to stay on the Virginia side for further reconnaissance. Troops and artillery on Harrison’s Island would cover both their crossings. From Edward’s Ferry, some cavalry and infantry would create a diversionary crossing, but they were warned to watch out for Devins’ men.1
Lee Changes Everything and Prepares to Leave
To General Lee in Western Virginia, it seemed like the Federals were stirring for an attack along the Greenbrier River, 100 miles north of his position on Big Sewell Mountain. To bolster his own line, Lee had ordered General Loring’s division from near the Greenbrier to come to Big Sewell. On this date, he ordered Loring to go back and reinforce General Henry Jackson. The Union troops on Cheat Mountain, opposite the Greenbrier, however, had no plans of attack.
All that Lee had left on Big Sewell was the deflated troops of Wise’s Legion. Wise was long gone, but his tattered brigade limped on. Knowing he couldn’t hold Big Sewell with them, he ordered them back to Meadow Bluff, near Lewisburg.
General Floyd’s troops, however, had crossed the New River, poking closer to the Union troops at Gauley Bridge, commanded by General Rosecrans. Lee believed that Rosecrans knew of Floyd’s movements and told Floyd to be on his guard. Floyd would be, more or less, alone. With Loring back at the Greenbrier and the Legion at Meadow Bluff, Floyd would be facing off against Rosecrans without support.
In closing, Lee wrote to Floyd, “On reaching Meadow Bluff, I will inform you of the probable time of my return to Richmond.” General Lee was leaving.2