A detachment of the Federal Army of the Potomac, commanded by Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, was stationed on the Potomac River at Poolesville, Maryland. Stone planned to send a detachment across the river and conduct a reconnaissance in force against Confederates at Leesburg, Virginia, which lay about 35 miles upstream from Washington. Stone expected support from Brigadier General George McCall coming up from Dranesville, but unbeknownst to him, McCall had been recalled to Washington by Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal army.
The initial force consisted of 300 men under Colonel Charles Devens. The Federals crossed the Potomac, scaled a 80-foot-high cliff called Ball’s Bluff, and reported seeing no Confederates in the Leesburg area. Stone dispatched a brigade under Colonel Edward D. Baker, a U.S. senator-turned-officer with no combat experience. Baker would be the ranking commander on the field, with orders to fight or, if the Confederates proved too strong, withdraw to Harrison’s Island.
By this time, Devens had found a token Confederate force and his men had taken 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 cliffs. He ordered Devens to abandon his defenses and form on Baker’s right. Baker estimated the Confederate force to be more than twice his size, but he had no intention of retreating, despite Stone’s instructions. As the Confederates gathered in the woods, Baker shook hands with Colonel William R. Lee, commanding the 20th Massachusetts, and said, “I congratulate you, sir, on the prospect of a battle.” He then yelled out to the troops, “Boys, you want to fight, don’t you?” He got loud cheers in response.
The 42nd New York, Baker’s old regiment, soon came up. Colonel Milton Cogswell, commanding of the 42nd, was a West Pointer and when he saw what his men were up against, he did not share Baker’s enthusiasm. There was much confusion among the Federals, and Confederate sharpshooters killed the gunners manning the two cannon. Baker went over to strengthen the right of his line, remaining at the front. Around 4 p.m., Confederates emerged from the nearby woods and shot Baker through the heart. He died instantly.
More confusion ensued, as it was not clear who would take Baker’s place. Devens and Lee finally deferred to Cogswell, who resolved to fight his way through to Edwards’s Ferry, three miles away. Cogswell led the Federal left forward in an attack, but it was easily repulsed. The Confederates then 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. Federal Lieutenant Washington A. Roebling remembered, “The boats were swamped of course & nearly 100 drowned; those who did not surrender were bayonetted & many drowned in trying to swim over–the river was full of floating dead bodies…”
At Edwards’s Ferry, Stone was unaware of the disaster unfolding because Baker had not informed him of the situation before being killed. He told General McClellan, “I believe this command can occupy Leesburg to-day.” Stone soon learned of the fiasco and reported, “I am occupied in preventing further disaster.” He asked McClellan to send McCall’s division up and advised, “Any advance from Dranesville must be made cautiously.” McClellan finally informed Stone that McCall was no longer at Dranesville.
McClellan initially ordered Stone to maintain his position at Edwards’s Ferry, but Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Shenandoah, told McClellan, “Opinion of many officers is strongly against any advance now.” President Abraham Lincoln saw this dispatch and added, “I think Banks & Stone better not advance at any risk.”
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 drowned bodies drifted downriver, with some even reaching Washington. Those captured included Colonels Lee and Cogswell, and 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 with Secretary of War Simon Cameron and secretary John Hay when news of the fight arrived. The president showed concern when informed that Baker, a close personal friend, was involved. Stone then sent a message: “We have met with a sad disaster. Fifteen hundred men lost, and Colonel Baker killed.”
Hay recalled that Lincoln read the telegram and sat silent with an “expression of awe and grief.” When he announced the news, “simple and hearty eulogies” were shared. McClellan told the grieving president, “There is a good many fellow who wears the shoulder-straps going under the sod before this thing is over. There is no loss too great to be repaired. If I should get knocked on the head, Mr. President, you will put another man immediately in 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 would ultimately shift their blame to Stone.
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