Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac near Washington, had positioned 10,000 men on the Maryland side of the Potomac River to defend the line between the capital and Harpers Ferry. The bulk of this force was at Poolesville, Maryland, across from Leesburg, Virginia, and its commander was Brigadier General Charles P. Stone. On October 17, Stone reported, “A large body of the enemy seems to have suddenly left the vicinity of Leesburg.”
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army (also named the Army of the Potomac) near Washington, had begun consolidating his forces around Centreville, Manassas Junction, and the Bull Run battlefield. Part of this consolidation involved pulling in troops from the Leesburg area. While Stone was correct in that the Confederates were withdrawing, a force under Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans still remained posted there.
Stone reiterated his report that the Confederates had withdrawn from Leesburg on the 18th. Having been ordered by McClellan not to provoke a general engagement, Stone stated that he would send 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 advance up the Virginia side of the Potomac from Langley to Dranesville, about 15 miles southeast of Leesburg.
McCall’s Federals halted about three miles north of Dranesville to better defend against a potential attack from Centreville. McClellan informed Stone at Poolesville that McCall would be conducting “heavy reconnaissances in all directions from that point.” He directed Stone to “keep a good lookout on 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.”
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 McClellan wrote to his wife that if the Confederates had not actually withdrawn yet, “I hope to make them abandon Leesburg tomorrow.”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. This had been true several days earlier, but 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.
Meanwhile, Stone complied with McClellan’s suggestion of a demonstration and moved his troops to the banks of the Potomac. They fired artillery across the river and dispersed Confederate pickets around Edwards’s Ferry. Stone then sent Federals across into Virginia, where they scaled Ball’s Bluff and scouted Leesburg. They returned that night 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. McClellan became concerned that any further moves toward Leesburg might prompt a Confederate attack from Centreville, so he ordered McCall to abort his reconnaissance and return to Washington. McClellan did not inform Stone of this new development.
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