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Battle of Ball's Bluff

June 2024
4min read

Battle of Ball's Bluff

A scouting mission turned into a rout at Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, when a fierce Confederate attack and a shortage of boats on the Potomac left Union soldiers terribly exposed.

star Abbot Letter

Abbot Letter

Abbott wrote to his father about his unit's engagement at Ball's Bluff, in which the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers would suffer a third killed or wounded and another third captured. After his death at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, Abbott was recognized for courage and leadership with a posthumous award of the rank of brevet brigadier general.

Camp Benton
Cot 22nd

Now look at the absurdity of the thing. To cross the river we had two little row boats that together carried over 30 men at a time. We landed on the hill almost perpendicular & very thickly wooded. When we get on the top, we are drawn up on the only open space there is, about wide enough for a front of two regiments, & about a short rifle shot in length, surrounded on every side by large, unexplored woods. It was in fact one of the most complete slaughter pens ever devised. Here we were kept, while the 15th marched off to surprise the rebel camp...

In the first half hour, the gunners & horses of the howitzers were all killed; the line in front of our regiment was broken & fled so that we were the only force in the open field & from 2 to 6, we kept that field under a heavy fire of rifles & musketry. It seemed as if every square inch of air within six feet of the ground was traversed by bullets as they whistled by us. Tremblet's company got the worst of it. The col. tried to save ours as a reserve. But we foolishly hung all our company's great coats on the trees just behind us. Their red lining was so conspicuous as to draw the enemy's fire at a great rate. Though we were lying down, our men were shot on every side of us. And yet Capt. Bartlett, though standing up nearly all the time, wasn't so much as scratched. The fight was made up of charges. You would see our capts. rush out in front & cry forward & their companies would follow them at full speed under a tremendous fire till they were obliged to fall back. And this was repeated over & over during the 4 hours fight.

Our company made the last charge. The general was killed, shot by 5 balls; nobody knew who was the senior in command & Col. Lee ordered a retreat. But we were determined to have one more shot. So Frank ordered a charge & we rushed along, followed by all our men without making an exception, & by Lieut. across the field about half way, when we saw the enemy in full advance. There they were in their dirty gray clothes, their banner waving, cavalry on the flank. For a moment there was a pause. And then, simultaneously, we fired & there came a murderous discharge from the full rebel force. Of courser we retreated, but not a man went faster than a walk.

From Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, ed. Robert Garth Scott (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991).

star McGuirk Report

The battle of Ball's Bluff began accidentally when Union forces near Leesburg, Virginia, crossed the Potomac River to ascertain the disposition of Confederate forces. A pitched battle with hand-to- hand fighting soon ensued throughout the after- noon of October 21. The tide turned for the Confederates when 600 to 700 fresh soldiers of the 17th Mississippi joined the battle late in the afternoon and drove the Union soldiers back across the river with many casualties. This report about the encounter was submitted by Lt. Col. John McGuirk of the 17th Mississippi.

In Camp near Carters hull
October 25, 1861

I found the Eighteenth Regiment, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Griffin, formed on the right of the Seventeenth Mississippi Regiment. These forces were under command of Col. XV. S. Featherston, who had drawn them into line and was advancing firing. He ordered the right and left wings up, thus forming a crescent line, which enabled us with raking fire to cut down the advancing enemy. The men manifested confidence under the coolness of their officers. They seemed fighting a sham battle, when above the roar of musketry was heard the command of Colonel Featherston, Charge, Mississippians, charge! Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity! The sound of his voice seemed to echo from the vales of Maryland. The line arose as one man from a kneeling posture, discharged a deadly volley, advanced the crescent line, and thus encircled the invaders who in terror called for quarter and surrendered.

From The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series I, volume 5.

star Holmes Diary

Wendell Holmes of the 20th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered the following passage in his journal, describing his wounding at Ball's Bluff. He survived, going on to a distinguished 30-year career on the Supreme Court.

At Ball's Bluff

Tremlett's boy George told me, I was hit at 4 1/2 p.m., the heavy firing having begun about an hour before, by the watch—I felt as if a horse had kicked me and went over—1st Sergt Smith grabbed me and lugged me to the rear a little way & opened my shirt and ecce! the [the] two holes in my breasts & the bullet, which he gave me— George says he squeezed it from the right opening—Well—I remember the sickening feeling of water in my face— I was quite faint—and seeing poor Sergt Merchant lying near—shot through the head and covered with blood—and then the thinking begun—(Meanwhile hardly able to speak—at least, coherently)—Shot through the lungs? Lets see—and I spit—Yes—already the blood was in my mouth. At once my thoughts jumped to "Children of the New Forest."(by Marryatt) which I was fond of reading as a little boy, and in which the father of one of the heroines is shot through the lungs by a robber—I remembered he died with terrible haemorrhages & great agony—What should I do? Just then I remembered and felt i my waist coat pocket—Yes there is was—a little bottle of laudanum which I had broughot along—But I won't take it yet; no, see a doctor first—It may not be as bad as it look—At any rate wait till the pain begins.

From Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. , 1861—1864, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, edited by Mark De Wolfe Howe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946).

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