Worrying the Administration Into a Battle

On the rainy morning after their horrific defeat, about 3,000 Federals remained on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, with most of them south of Ball’s Bluff at Edwards’s Ferry. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone received reinforcements from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, overall commander in the region. The Federals drove off a Confederate assault around 4 p.m.; the fighting was so intense that many used their bayonets and wielded their empty muskets like clubs.

President and Mrs. Lincoln spent the 22nd in mourning due to the death of their close friend, Colonel Edward D. Baker. They received no visitors. Meanwhile, news of the Federal disaster, which took place exactly three months after the disaster at Bull Run, spread. Damning reports were published in many newspapers. Harper’s Weekly opined: “History affords few examples of such slaughter.” Leslie’s Illustrated concluded: “This time military incompetence must accept its own responsibilities. The battle was not a great military blunder, but a great military crime.”

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived at Stone’s headquarters on the night of the 22nd. Stone was concerned that he would be blamed for the disaster, but Stone’s only blunder was putting Baker in command. Baker had been instructed to withdraw from Ball’s Bluff if the Confederates attacked in force, but Baker had opted to stay in an untenable position and fight.

McClellan assured Stone that the fault had been Baker’s, not his. McClellan then announced to his division commanders, “The disaster was caused by errors committed by the immediate Commander (Baker)–not Genl Stone.” This was reiterated in a letter that McClellan wrote to his wife Ellen: “That affair of Leesburg on Monday last was a terrible butchery… it was entirely unauthorized by me & I am in no manner responsible for it. The man directly to blame for the affair was Col Baker who was killed–he was in command, disregarded entirely the instructions he had received from Stone, & violated all military rules & precautions.”

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Stone wrote a preliminary report on the battle that mildly criticized Baker for the defeat. When it was stolen from his headquarters and published in the New York Tribune, Stone wrote a new report that specified exactly what Baker had done wrong. Stone noted that he had been compelled to explain himself due to the “persistent attacks made upon me by the friends (so called) of the lamented late Colonel Baker, through the newspaper press…”

McClellan posted more troops at Harrison’s Island and the two ferry crossings, and more artillery at Edwards’s Ferry. This led many to believe that he intended to avenge the defeat. An optimistic article in the New York Herald stated that the Ball’s Bluff engagement “was undoubtedly but the prelude to an advance of General Banks’ army, which in all probability will be made to-day.” However, the Potomac soon rose to an unfordable level, and McClellan issued orders to withdraw.

Funeral services for Colonel Baker took place at the White House on the 24th. The Lincolns’ eight-year-old son Willie wrote a poem in Baker’s honor and submitted it to the National Republican. When Mrs. Lincoln was criticized for wearing lilac instead of black, she replied, “I want the women to mind their own business. I intend to wear what I please.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist belonging to the Radical faction of the Republican Party, used the service to blame slavery for being “the assassin of our children, and the murderer of our dead senator.”

The Ball’s Bluff disaster infuriated the Radicals, many of whom distrusted McClellan’s motives since he was an avowed Democrat. Senators Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and Lyman Trumbull of Illinois met with the general on the night of the 25th and demanded to know why the army had suffered such a severe defeat. President Lincoln’s secretary John Hay likened the senators to French revolutionaries and called them the Jacobin Club, whose goal was to “worry the administration into a battle.”

The meeting lasted three hours, during which time Wade demanded that McClellan immediately give battle; Wade stated, “We exhorted him for God’s sake to at least push back the defiant traitors.” This overlooked the fact that the defeat may have indicated the army was not yet ready for offensive operations. The senator even reasoned that a defeat would be better than inactivity because it would at least spark a recruitment frenzy. McClellan replied that he would rather have a steady stream of recruits and gain a victory rather than a flood of recruits after a defeat. He also blamed General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, asserting that Scott was hindering his ability to coordinate his forces.

McClellan wrote his wife about the meeting, “They will make a desperate effort to have Gen. Scott retired at once; until that is accomplished I can effect but little good. He is ever in my way, and I am sure does not desire effective action. I want to get through with the war as rapidly as possible.” Just as McClellan hoped, the senators went to the White House and urged Lincoln to nudge Scott into retirement.

The Radicals demanded an “all-out war” to destroy both the Confederacy and slavery. They asserted that an immediate defeat would be no worse than McClellan’s stationary posture. Chandler said that he “was in favor of sending for Jeff Davis at once, if their views were carried out.” Trumbull worried that if the army went into winter quarters without fighting, it would shatter northern morale and possibly even cause the European powers to recognize Confederate independence. Lincoln defended McClellan, but he was starting to share the Radicals’ concerns.

The president visited McClellan after the meeting to warn him that the Radicals’ patience was growing thin. Lincoln then added, “At the same time, General, you must not fight till you are ready.” McClellan said, “I have everything at stake, if I fail I will not see you again or anybody.” Lincoln replied, “I have a notion to go out with you, and stand or fall with the battle.”

Not only did McClellan continue to argue that the army was not ready to take the offensive, but he would give no timetable as to when it would. Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited McClellan on the 30th to see if the general could provide more details on his military situation (i.e., troop strength and positions, and McClellan’s plan of attack). The next day, McClellan enlisted the help of close friend Edwin M. Stanton, former U.S. attorney general, to prepare a formal report.

The report concluded that McClellan had two options, neither of which were good: “Either to go into winter quarters, or to assume the offensive with forces greatly inferior in numbers…” McClellan stated that there were 134,000 officers and men in his army, of which 76,285 could be used for offensive operations. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac on the Centreville-Bull Run-Manassas line, had just 41,000 men, but McClellan claimed that Johnston had “not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded, and strongly entrenched.” McClellan asserted that he needed at least 240,000 men to attack.

McClellan’s estimates came from his intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton, who had become famous for his detective work. But Pinkerton had little experience with military intelligence, and he used faulty information to calculate enemy strength. McClellan would continue to rely on Pinkerton’s erroneous reports to consistently overestimate Confederate forces.

The report recommended that all available forces from every theater of operations be sent to bolster McClellan’s army, as “a single will should direct & carry out these plans.” McClellan wanted these forces by November 25. This was an impossibility, but it would absolve McClellan from blame for not taking the offensive. Stanton wrote on McClellan’s behalf: “No time is to be lost–we have lost too much already–every consideration requires us to prepare at once, but not to move until we are ready.”


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