October 21, 1861 – Federal forces suffered another horrific defeat when they were driven off a cliff overlooking the Potomac River.
Brigadier General Charles P. Stone sent Federal troops across the river to conduct his planned reconnaissance in force. The initial force consisted of 300 men under Colonel Charles Devens, with orders to seize the supposedly vulnerable Confederate camps at Leesburg, about 35 miles upriver from Washington. When Devens reported seeing no Confederates in the area, Stone dispatched more troops under Colonel Edward D. Baker, a politician-turned officer with no combat experience. Stone instructed Baker to withdraw if confronted by a strong enemy force.
By that time, Devens had encountered a token Confederate force and begun skirmishing. His men took up defensive positions behind a fence. When Baker received this information, he ordered his entire brigade of 1,640 men to cross the river in support. Meanwhile, Stone’s planned diversionary force landed at Edwards’s Ferry, with Stone himself directing operations from there.
Baker sent his men up the steep bluff and, rather than bolster Devens’s defenses behind the fence, took up positions in the clearing with his back to the 80-foot cliffs and ordered Devens to form on his right. Although Baker estimated the Confederate force to be more than twice his size, he ignored Stone’s order and resolved to stand his ground. Baker remained at the front as the troops exchanged fire until around 4 p.m., when Confederates emerged from the nearby woods and shot him dead.
As the remaining Federal officers debated whether to stay or retreat, the Confederates charged, shouting, “Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!” The Federals turned and fled toward the cliffs, and mass panic ensued as many fell to their deaths. For those who managed to scale down the steep wall, several drowned when their boats were swamped. Others were killed by Confederates firing down from atop the bluff.
At Edwards’s Ferry, Stone was unaware of the disaster unfolding because Baker had not informed him of the situation before being killed. Stone decided not to send his men to help because a Confederate force blocked the road and he received a report grossly exaggerating Confederate strength. Stone asked Major General George B. McClellan to send Brigadier General George A. McCall’s men from Dranesville, but McClellan had not informed him that McCall’s force was withdrawn earlier that day.
The Federals sustained 921 casualties (49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 missing) out of 1,720. Of the missing, 529 were captured; the rest were presumed drowned. Many bodies drowned drifted downriver, with some even reaching Washington. Those captured included Major Paul J. Revere of the 20th Massachusetts, grandson of Paul Revere. Other casualties included a nephew of James Russell Lowell and Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The Confederates lost just 155 (36 killed, 117 wounded, and two captured) out of 1,709. Colonel Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, commanding the Confederate force, received a promotion to brigadier general for the skillful handling of his men.
Lincoln was at McClellan’s headquarters when the news came via telegraph that Baker, one of his closest friends, had been killed. McClellan told the grieving president, “There is many a good fellow that wears the shoulder-straps going under the sod before this thing is over. If I should get knocked on the head, Mr. President, you will put another man immediately into my shoes.” Lincoln replied, “I want you to take care of yourself.”
Baker’s death made him a martyr and masked his questionable judgment and conduct during the engagement. Northerners outraged about another military disaster ultimately shifted their blame to Stone.
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