What Plan Has McClellan for Ball’s Bluff?

Wednesday, October 23, 1861

As dawn broke over the Potomac at Ball’s Bluff, near Leesburg, Virginia, General McClellan was assessing the situation. The disaster of a battle two days previous had sent the nation into a panic. Though it was a relatively small affair, this was the second rout of a Union army near Washington. Not only did it seem as if the Federals couldn’t win a battle, it seemed like all they could do was run.

Unappraised of General McClellan’s plans, the public, including the press, understood the action at Ball’s Bluff to be the first step in a much broader movement. The New York Herald reported that the affair “was undoubtedly but the prelude to an advance of General Banks’ army, which in all probability will be made to-day.” Surprisingly, though they reported that Stone’s entire column was routed and that Col. Baker was killed, the press was, thus far, supportive and encouraging.

McClellan’s plan, if there was one, was kept guarded. Though he quickly took in the situation and made on the spot decisions concerning the troops in the immediate area, he told no one of a larger plan. Still, he sent reinforcements to Harrison’s Island, opposite the bluff, as well as to the two ferry crossings. He placed more artillery on the Maryland side at Edwards Ferry, where the Union still held some entrenchments on the Virginia side.

This build up caused some soldiers to believe, like the press and public, that this was McClellan’s “On To Richmond” campaign. Within a week, perhaps, one decisive battle would be fought that would put an end to the war.

But it was not to be. The Potomac River, swollen by recent storms, was becoming uncrossable. General McCall’s Division, which had been within ten miles of the battle, had been withdrawn (by McClellan’s orders) and was now too far away to lend any immediate help in taking Leesburg. At 6pm, McClellan sent orders to General Stone to pull his men to the Maryland side of the river during the night.

McClellan, too, it seems, was determined to personally oversee every action of the army. Thus far in the War, he refused to establish corps, the largest body of troops in the Army of the Potomac was the division. This allowed McClellan to micromanage his entire command. He wished to put an end to small, indecisive, but costly adventures like that of Ball’s Bluff. One large battle to decide the War was his desire. From here on out, that would be the mindset of General McClellan.1


After the Battle at Camp Wildcat; General Sherman Insane?

While events in Virginia were looking sour for the Union cause, things in Kentucky were looking up. Though both Secretary of War Simon Cameron and General William Tecumseh Sherman were in a panic for want of troops and arms, Union forces near London, Kentucky had been victorious.

On the same day as the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, the Battle at Camp Wildcat was fought. Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer and his 5,400 men moved along the Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap. They had advanced over sixty miles into Kentucky. A small Union outpost, Camp Wildcat, was all that prevented them from moving farther north into the state. Zollicoffer aimed to overrun the post and press onward. Thankfully for the Union, General Albin Scheopf and reinforcements arrived, bringing the Union strength to 7,000. When Zollicoffer attacked, he was repulsed.

By this day, two days after the battle, Zollicoffer’s Confederates had retreated twenty miles south to Laurel Bridge. General Scheopf wrote to Sherman asking what he should do. Scheopf was convinced that he could take Cumberland Gap and the railroad that ran from Manassas, Virginia to Memphis, Tennessee.2

As for General Sherman, while he was fairly sure that Camp Wildcat could be held, he could give no more reinforcements to that front. He believed his center was too weak to do much of anything. His suggestionto Secretary Cameron that it would take 200,000 troops to hold Kentucky was just now filtering into the press, and they were having a field day with it.

Cameron had made an off-the-cuff comment, calling Sherman’s estimation an “insane request.” The press, being what it waas, and believing, like McClellan, that the entire War could be decided with one soon-to-happen battle, ceased upon the word.3

Suddenly, it wasn’t just Sherman’s estimate that was insane, it was General Sherman himself! His estimate was soon transformed into a demand for 200,000 (which it was not). Sherman was branded a “visionary lunatic” and “military imbecile.”4

Over the next few weeks, the story would take on a life of its own. Secretary Cameron, who was quoted as calling Sherman insane, never publicly denied it, thus lending credence to the idea. Sherman resented the insult, calling his position “simply unbearable.”5


Price Has a Lighter Plan than McCulloch

The previous day, Confederate General Ben McCulloch in Missouri wrote to Missouri State Guard General Sterling Price, expressing some very dark desires to “lay waste Kansas.” Price, however, held a different view.

While Price agreed that Kansas’ ability to help the Union cause “should be broken,” he couldn’t bring himself to “destroy that which is absolutely necessary for the subsistence – I may almost say the existence – of the surrounding inhabitants.” Price’s reasoning wasn’t just altruistic, however. He believed that the focus should be kept on Missouri, wanting to destroy the Hannibal & Saint Joseph Railroad. This would cut off Fremont’s Army of the West from supplies from the east.

Price reasoned that most of Kansas’ help was coming from the vicinity of the Missouri River: “It is there that abolition reigns; it is there her wealth is held; it is there her fighting men are raised; in short, it is the center from which all her depredations upon Southern rights and Southern property radiate.”

Moving to the Missouri River, urged Price with many words extolling the virtues of McCullough and his “gallant men,” would bring the “thorough establishment of Southern independence to the Mississippi Valley.”6

  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p206-207. []
  3. Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B. H. Liddell Hart, Da Capo Press, 1993. []
  4. William T. Sherman by Edward Robins, G. W. Jacobs & company, 1905. []
  5. Memoirs of Gen. W.T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman, C. L. Webster & co., 1891. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p722. []
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What Plan Has McClellan for Ball’s Bluff? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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