October 18, 1861 – Federal forces converged on an isolated Confederate force at Leesburg, a Virginia town up the Potomac River from Washington, and prepared to attack.
Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, part of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac, positioned his 10,000 men on the Maryland side of the Potomac to defend against Confederates north of Washington to Harpers Ferry. On the 18th, Stone reported that most Confederate pickets in his sector had withdrawn. However, a force under Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, part of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac, remained at Leesburg.
Stone, under orders from McClellan not to provoke a general engagement, reported that he would dispatch scouts to reconnoiter the Leesburg area the next day. Meanwhile, McClellan received word that Johnston was planning to evacuate Evans’s Confederates. Hoping that a show of force would “shake the enemy out of Leesburg” without a fight, McClellan directed Brigadier General George A. McCall’s 13,000-man division to reconnoiter and map the roads to Leesburg.
McCall’s Federals advanced from Langley to Dranesville, about 15 miles southeast of Leesburg. McCall halted his men about three miles north of Dranesville to better defend against a potential attack from Centreville. Meanwhile, a fugitive slave from the 13th Mississippi informed Stone that the Confederates considered Leesburg their weak point. In addition, McClellan received intelligence that the Confederates had abandoned Leesburg, ostensibly because of McCall’s advance. McClellan wrote to his wife that if the Confederates had not actually withdrawn yet, “I hope to make them abandon Leesburg tomorrow.”
On the morning of the 20th, McClellan arrived at Dranesville to find McCall’s Federals three miles north of town. McCall reported that the Confederates had withdrawn from Leesburg to Manassas Junction. While this had been correct, the Federals did not know that Evans’s Confederates had returned. McCall informed McClellan that it would take another day to finish mapping the roads to Leesburg.
McClellan notified Stone on the Maryland side of the river that McCall would be deploying “heavy reconnaissances in all directions from that point (Dranesville).” He directed Stone to “keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away… Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”
Stone complied by moving his troops to the banks of the Potomac and dispersing Confederate pickets around Edwards’s Ferry. He then dispatched a force across to Virginia, which scaled Ball’s Bluff and scouted Leesburg. The Federals returned that evening and reported that the Confederate camp was not fortified. This convinced Stone that the enemy force at Leesburg was weak.
Exceeding McClellan’s ambiguous orders, Stone planned to launch a reconnaissance in force to compel the Confederates to show their true strength. Stone directed a brigade to feint crossing at Edwards’s Ferry, two miles south of Ball’s Bluff, while two regiments advanced against the Ball’s Bluff area; one regiment would move against Harrison’s Island, six miles above Edwards’s Ferry, and another would move against Conrad’s Ferry, just below the island.
The 15th Massachusetts would then cross the Potomac from Conrad’s Ferry at dawn and attack the Confederate camp. The Federals on Harrison’s Island and at Edwards’s Ferry, accompanied by artillery, would cover the attack. Stone assigned Colonel Edward D. Baker, a U.S. senator-turned-officer who was a close friend of the Lincolns, to lead the 1,700 men on the island and at Conrad’s Ferry.
Meanwhile, Evans began mobilizing his Confederates in response to the Federal approach. McCall, who was supposed to lead the Federal reconnaissance in force on Leesburg from Dranesville, withdrew his forces without notifying Stone.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 88-89; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 104; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 74; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 128-29; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 185