We Have Met With a Sad Disaster

Tuesday, October 22, 1861

Everything was still being sorted out at Ball’s Bluff. The battle had ended after nightfall in a crushing and confusing defeat for the Union. Telegrams between General Stone, commanding at the battle, General McClellan and President Lincoln shot across the wires through the night.

In Washington, Lincoln was heartbroken to learn that Col. Edward Baker, Oregon Senator and close friend, had been killed. In the same telegram, Stone reported the battle as a “disaster,” and informed him that “our killed and wounded may reach 200; number of prisoners unknown.”

General McCall’s Division had moved to Dranesville, fourteen miles south of Leesburg, several days ago. They had since been recalled nearer to Washington, but Stone was not made aware of their movement. McClellan ordered Stone to hold whatever ground he could on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Thankfully, during the night, the Confederates fell back.1

Throughout the rainy morning, General Stone was joined by his commander, General Nathaniel Banks and his men, worn out by a forced night march. There was a heated debate over whether to withdraw from the Virginia side or stay and await reinforcements from McCall’s Division (which had, unknown to them, left the area the day before).

There were over 3,000 Union soldiers on the Virginia side of the swollen river, most near Edwards Ferry. A Rebel attack was expected throughout the morning and afternoon. Finally, at 4pm, it came.

The Rebels attacked the left of the Union line, pushing in their skirmishers. With the entire Confederate force under General “Shanks” Evans numbering only 1,600, there wasn’t much they could do. The fight was sharp, but short, and the Union defenders, some armed only with bayonets attached to useless muskets, beat back the charge in quick order.

In Washington, about the time of the Confederate attack, Lincoln received final verification by telegram: “We have met with a sad disaster. Fifteen hundred men lost, and Colonel Baker killed.” Also receiving the news, McClellan decided to ride to Ball’s Bluff to see for himself.

General Stone was worried that blame for the debacle would be focused on him. When McClellan reached the field, he assured Stone that the unfortunate Col. Baker was to blame. Stone felt reassured. What more vindication could possibly be needed when General McClellan himself excused Stone? The next day, McClellan would properly survey the ground and decide what to do.2

__________________

MCulloch Grows Darker

In Missouri, Union General Fremont’s Army of the West, 40,000 strong, was inching slowly towards Springfield, chasing the secessionist troops of General Sterling Price, now at Neosho in the southwest corner of the state. There, a “rump session” of the Missouri Congress, still loyal to secessionist Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, was scheduled take place for two weeks.

Price, who wasn’t completely sure of Fremont’s strength, had upwards of 12,000 men. He wished to form a juncture with Confederate General Ben McCulloch, headquarted at Pineville, twenty miles south. The two Generals had fought together before at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Though neither could have won the battle without the other, McCulloch had no great desire to work again with Price. Price, however, realized that he couldn’t even dream of holding Missouri without McCulloch.

General McCulloch expressed different ideas in a message to Price. Knowing that Fremont’s intension was Springfield, he wanted to advance upon the city while instructing “Col. Stand Watie, with one regiment of Cherokees, to move into the neutral land and Kansas, and destroy everything that might be of service to the enemy.”

He suggested to Price that a cavalry unit be sent south of Carthage to do the same. McCulloch, known for his brashness, closed with a dark post script: “If the enemy should not advance beyond Springfield, we might with our cavalry lay waste Kansas.” 3

__________________

Department of Northern Virginia; Jackson to the Valley

Some rather exciting administrative news was also happening in Richmond. The Department of the Potomac was scrapped in favor of the Department of Northern Virginia. Though the army, commanded by General Joseph Johnston, was still called the Confederate Army of the Potomac, it was being reorganized and expanded.

The Department was divided into three districts. The Potomac District, under General Beauregard, encompassed the area around Washington, while the Aquia District, General T.H. Holmes commanding, focused on the southern end of the Potomac River. The Valley District was made up of the land between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley. Its commander was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.4

Meanwhile, the Federals were also creating new Departments. General Benjamin Kelley, of the Battle of Philippi fame, was given command of the Departments of Harpers Ferry and Cumberland (not to be confused with the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky). Kelley would be based out of Romney.5



  1. Ball’s Bluff; A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow by Byron Farwell. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p720, 721. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p913-914. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p625. []
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  1. A couple of typos: the town is Springfield and the governor was Claiborne Fox Jackson.
    Neosho still makes much of being (briefly) the Confederate capital of Missouri. Actually, it’s hard to find a town in Missouri that doesn’t have some sort of Civil War monument!

    • Thank you, both fixed! I forgot the “g” in Springfield (an actual typo, of which there are more than I like) and with Jackson, I mixed his name up with Isham Harris, renaming the poor fellow Isham Jackson. All is now fixed. Thank you!

      I was raised in a town (New Berlin, Pennsylvania) that was apparently once considered for the state capital, so I can only imagine how the folks at Neosho feel. 🙂