Union Disaster at Ball’s Bluff

Monday, October 21, 1861

In the fading light of the previous evening, a Union scouting party crossed the Potomac near Ball’s Bluff, and stumbled onto what they believed to be an unguarded Confederate camp outside of Leesburg, Virginia. General Charles Stone, Union commander, ordered Col. Charles Devens to take 300 men, capture the camp and then push onward.

Devens and his men crossed, climbed the 100 foot bluff, but found no camp. In fact, they found no Rebels at all. Within sight of Leesburg, Devens sent word of his lack of findings to Stone. Before long, General Stone ordered the inexperienced Col. Edward Baker, a Senator from Oregon, to cross the Potomac and determine if Devens’ force should retire or if they should ferry more men to the Virginia side. However, he warned, if they should meet a strong Confederate force, they were immediately retire to Harrison’s Island. Stone was asking a brash and inexperienced politician to decide whether to fight or flee. Baker was determined to fight.

Meanwhile, Devens’ men found some Rebels and a small skirmish ensued. Devens sent word back and when Baker heard the news, he decided to throw his entire brigade, 1,640 men, across. The only problem was that the lack of boats caused a bottleneck.

Col. Devens was soon joined by 300 or so more men and continued to skirmish with the ever-growing number of Rebels. Finally, realizing that Baker’s Brigade would take all day to cross, Devens fell back to a secure position behind a fence. Part of another regiment had crossed, climbed the steep bluff and took up a position in a clearing at its crest.

A lull fell over the battlefield, at which time Confederate General Evans resupplied and reinforced his position. His regiments were arrayed in a wooded ridge overlooking the Union position in a clearing. Col. Baker finally crossed the river, climbed the bluff and resolved to hold the clearing rather than Devens’ position. With the 100 foot bluff to their backs, this was a very precarious place for the Federals to be in. If there was ever a time to safely withdraw from the field, it was now.

Instead, Baker moved Devens to the clearing, placing him on the right. He then composed a line of three other regiments and several pieces of artillery. Baker, who had only 1,600 troops (some still on the Maryland side), believed the Confederates to be 4,000 strong. Still, he wanted to fight.

And a fight is what he received. From the hill above, it came first as skirmish fire upon the artillery. But soon, it was a whole regiment, filling the air and Union bodies with musket balls, and then a whole brigade. Though evenly matched, the Confederates held better ground and the Union were taking the worst of the exchange. All the while Col. Baker, full of vinegar, stood at the front of his men, more stupid than brave, and exclaimed what poor marksmen the Rebels were.

Word then came of 5,000 Union reinforcements from Edwards Ferry. Though it was erroneous, Baker believed it to be true. Suddenly, from out of the woods, several Rebels made a dash at the Colonel. One, a large, red-haired man, drew a revolver and fired four or five shots into Baker, killing him instantly.

After Baker’s death, a small power struggled ensued. Devens demurred to Col. Lee of the 20th Massachusetts. They both demurred to Col. Cogswell of the Tammany Regiment from New York. While both Devens and Lee thought the battle was lost, Cogswell was determined to fight their way through to Edwards Ferry, three miles away.

It was twilight when Cogswell called for a charge of the Confederates lines, hoping to break through. Devens jumped in front of his own men and ordered them to stand their ground. Only a few companies of the Tammany Regiment advanced and were quickly shot to pieces.

The Rebels immediately counter attacked. The call of “Charge, Mississippians!” was heard over the battlefield. “Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!” The Union line broke into a retreating mass of confusion. Leading up and down the bluff was but one small path. There were over 1,700 troops trying to escape down the bluff. Some, overflowing with blind terror, jumped to their death. Many more, possibly as many as 100, dove for the water and the sounds of screams and drowning men echoed off the cliffs. Hundreds were captured and more were killed as the Rebels fired down the bluff and into the water.

The Confederates, holding fine defensive positions, suffered 33 killed and 115 wounded. The Union faired much worse with 49 killed, 158 wounded and 714 captured. The latter figure may also include 100 or more men who were drowned, their bodies swept downstream.1

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Soldiers from Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Go Home!

The raid by General Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guards was being pursued by two Union bodies: Col. Plummer, with 1,500 men, and Col. Carlin with 3,000. While Carlin occupied Fredericktown, recently abandoned by Thompson’s 1,500 men, Plummer was coming up to join him.

Unable to determine the strength of the force before him, Thompson arrayed his men to ambush the Union troops, placing one regiment in a cornfield in hopes of luring the Federals into his trap. To an extent, it worked. Plummer, seeing the exposed unit, sent two regiments to attack both of its flanks. The Missouri State Guard unit held its ground, but held it too long, taking heavy casualties.

Plummer fed more regiments into the fight and, knowing he was whipped, Thompson began to withdraw. A running fight ensued and the Union forces nipped at the heels of Thompson’s orderly retreat for six miles. As night fell, Plummer called his men back to Fredericktown. Thompson’s men marched another twenty miles through the night to arrive in Greenville by the next morning. The Missouri State Guard lost sixty men, killed or wounded. The Union suffered six dead and sixty wounded.2

Jeff Thompson’s raid was all but over. Making the rounds in the locals papers was a stirring proclamation recently released by the Missouri secessionist:

Soldiers from Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Go Home! We want you not here and we thirst not for your blood. We have not invaded your states, we have not polluted your hearthstones, therefore leave us, and after we have whipped the Hessians and Tories, we will be your friendly neighbors if we cannot be your brothers.”3



  1. I used both Ball’s Bluff; A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow by Byron Farwell and Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie for most of this. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p206-209; 227-228. []
  3. Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron, The Ozarks Mountaineer, 1980. []
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Union Disaster at Ball’s Bluff by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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