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NY Times, October 31, 1861


The late Disaster.

A Full History of the Movement Across the Potomac, and the Disaster which Followed It – Where the Responsibility Belongs.

From Our Special Correspondent.

Poolesville, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1861

It is now a week since the battle took place between the opposing forces which met this side of Leesburgh. During that time many versions of the affair have been given, all more or less incorrect, and the country has been balancing between the blame which certain correspondents insist should fall upon Gen. Stone and the unbounded praise which the same parties lavish upon the late Col. Baker.  I have prepared, from official documents – the same from which Gen. Stone has made up his report – the following statement, which embraces every result up to the time when Gen. Banks assumed the command and the general retreat was ordered. Before giving that statement, I will remark that the order said to have been found upon the person of Col. Baker, signed Stone, and ordering him to go on to Leesburgh, is a forgery. Gen. Stone is not Napoleon and does not sign his dispatches "Stone", nor does he address Colonels as Generals, nor does he write ungrammatical orders. I have his word for it, that the document is a forgery.

It seems that on the 20th instant, Gen. Stone, having been advised of the movement of Gen. McCall to Darnestown, determined to make a demonstration to draw out the intentions of the enemy at Leesburgh. Consequently he proceeded, at 1 P.M., to Edwards’ Ferry, from this point, with Gorman’s Brigade, the Seventh Michigan Volunteers, two troops of the Van Alen Cavalry and the Putnam Rangers, sending at the same time to Harrison’s Island and vicinity four companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, under Col. Devens, (who had already one company on the island,) and Col. Lee, with a battalion of the Twentieth Massachusetts. And the Conrad’s Ferry, a section of Vaughn’s Rhode Island Battery and the Tammany Regiment, under Col. Coggswell. A section of Bunting’s Y. Y. S. M. Battery, under Lieut. Bramhall, was at the time on duty at Conrad’s Ferry, and Rickett’s Battery, already posted at Edwards’ Ferry, under Col. Woodruff.

The movement of Gen. McCall, on the day previous, seems to have attracted the attention of the enemy, just previous to the arrival of Gen. Stone at Edwards’ Ferry, a regiment of infantry had appeared from the direction of Leesburgh, and taken shelter behind a wooded hill near Goose Creek, 1 miles from the position of the Orlon troops at the ferry. Gen. Stone ordered Gen. Gorman to display his forces in view of the enemy, which was done, without inducing any movement on their part, and then ordered three flat boats to be passed from the canal into the river, at the same time throwing shell and spherical shot into and beyond the wood where the enemy were concealed, and into all cover from which fire could be opened on boats crossing the river, to produce an impression that a crossing was to be made. Orders were also sent to Col. Devens, at Harrison’s Island, some four miles up the river to detach Capt. Philbrick and twenty men to cross from the island and explore by a path through woods little used, in the direction of Leesburgh, to see if he could find anything concerning the enemy’s position in that direction ; but to retire and report on discovering any of the enemy. The launching of the boats and shelling at Edwards’ Ferry caused a rapid retiring of the force which had been seen there, and Gen. Stone caused the embarkation of the three boat-loads of thirty-five men each, from the First Minnesota, who, under cover of the shelling, crossed and re-crossed the river, the boats consuming in crossing from three to seven minutes. The spirit displayed by officers and men at the thought of crossing the river was most cheering, and satisfied the General that they could be depended on for most gallant service, whenever more than demonstration might be requested of them.

As darkness came on Gen. Stone ordered Gorman’s Brigade and the seventh Michigan to fall back to their respective camps, but retained the Tammany Regiment, the companies of the fifteenth Massachusetts and artillery near Conrad’s Ferry, in their positions, waiting the result of Capt. Philbrick’s scout, he (Stone) remaining with his Staff at Edwards’ Ferry. About 4 P.M., Lieut. Howe, Quartermaster of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, reported to Gen. Stone that Capt. Philbrick had returned to the island after proceeding unmolested to within a mile and a half of Leesburgh, and that he had there discovered, in the edge of a wood, an encampment of about thirty tents which he approached to within twenty-five rods without being challenged, the camp having no pickets out any distance in the direction of the river. Gen Stone at once sent orders to col. Devens to cross four companies of his regiment to the Virginia shore, and march silently, under the cover of night, to the position of the camp referred to, to attach and destroy it at daybreak, pursue the enemy lodged there as far as would be prudent with the small force, and return rapidly to the island, his return to be covered by a company of the Massachusetts Twentieth, which was directed to be posted on a bluff directly over the landing place. Col. Devens was ordered to use this opportunity to observe the approaches to Leesburgh and the position

and force of the enemy in the vicinity, and in case he found no enemy, or found him only weak and in a position where he could observe well and be secure until his party could be strengthened sufficiently to make a valuable reconnaissance, which should safely ascertain the position and force of the enemy, to hold on and report. Orders were dispatched to Col. Baker to send the First California Regiment to Conrad’s Ferry, to arrive there at sunrise, and to have the remainder of his brigade in a state of readiness to move after an early breakfast. Also to Lieut.-Col. Ward, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, to move with a battalion of a regiment to the river bank opposite Harrison’s Island, to arrive there by daybreak. Col. Devens, in pursuance of his orders, crossed the river and proceeded to a point indicated by a scouting party, Col. Lee remaining on the bluff with 100 men to cover his return.

In order to distract attention from Col. Devens’ movement, and at the same time to effect reconnaissance in the direction of Leesburgh from Edward’s Ferry, Gen. Stone ordered Gen. Gorman to throw across the river , at that point, two companies of First Minnesota, under cover of fire from Rickett’s Battery, and sent a party of thirty-one Van Alen Cavalry, under command of Maj. Mix, accompanied by Capt. Chas. Stewart, Assistant Adjutant-General ; Capt. Murphy, Lieuts. Pierce and Gouraud, with orders to advance along Leesburgh road until they should come to the vicinity of the battery, which was known to be on that road, and then turn to the left and examine the heights between that and Goose Creek, see if any of the enemy were posted in that vicinity, ascertain as nearly as possible their number and disposition, examine the country with reference to the passage of troops to the Leesburgh and Georgetown turnpike, and return rapidly to cover beh8ind the skirmishers of the First Minnesota.

This reconnaissance was most gallantly made by all in the party, which proceeded along the Leesburgh road nearly three miles from the ferry, and when near the position of a hidden battery came suddenly on a Mississippi regiment about thirty-five yards distant, received its fire and returned it with their pistols. The fire of the enemy killed one horse, but Lieut. Gouraud, the gallant Adjutant of the Cavalry Battalion seized the dismounted man, and drawing him on his horse behind him carried him safely from the field. One private of the Fourth Virginia Cavalry was brought off by the party, and as he was well mounted and armed his mount replaced the one lost by the f8ire of the enemy. Meantime Col. Devens on the right, having in pursuance of his orders arrived at the position indicated by the scouts as the site of the enemy’s camp, found that the scouts had been deceived by the uncertain light, and had mistaken the openings in the trees for a row of tents. He found, however, wood in which he concealed his force from view and proceeded to examine the space between that and Leesburgh, sending back word to Gen. Stone that thus far he could see no enemy. Immediately on receipt of this intelligence, which was carried by Lieut. Howe, quartermaster of the fifteenth Massachusetts, Gen. Stone ordered a non-commissioned officer and ten cavalry to join Col. Devens, for the purpose of scouring the country near him while he continued his reconnaissance, and to give him due notice of the approach of any enemy, and that Lieut.-Col. Ward, with his battalion of Fifteenth Massachusetts, should move on to Smart’s Mill, half a mile to the right of the crossing-place of Cols. Devens and Lee, where in strong position, he could watch and protect the flank of Col. Devens on his return, and secure a second crossing-place more favorable than the first and connected by a good road with Leesburgh. Capt. Candy, Assistant Adjutant-General in Gen. Lander’s Staff, served on Gen. Stone’s Staff during the day and accompanied the cavalry.

For some reason never explained at headquarters, neither of those orders were carried out. The cavalry were transferred to the Virginia shore, but returned without having left the shore to go inland, and thus Col. Devens was deprived of the means of obtaining warning of any approach of the enemy. The battalion under Lieut.-Col. Ward was detained on the bluff in rear of Col. Devens, instead of being directed to the right.

Col. Baker having arrived at Conrad's Ferry with the First California Regiment at an early hour in the morning, reported personally to Gen. Stone at Edwards' Ferry that the regiment was at its assigned post, the remainder of his brigade under arms, ready to march and asking for orders.

Gen. Stone, after consultation with Col. Baker, decided to send him to Harrison's Island to assume command, and, in a full conversation with him, explained the position of affairs as they then stood, according to reports received ; told him that Gen. McCall had advanced to Drainstown, and that, above all things, he was anxious to ascertain the exact position and force of the enemy in his front, and of exploring, as far as it was safe, on the right towards Leesburgh and Gunn Spring road. Gen. Stone also told him that he should continue to reinforce the troops under Gen. Gorman, opposite Edwards' Ferry, and try to push them carefully forward to discover the best line from that ferry to the Leesburgh and Gunn Spring road already mentioned, and pointed out to him the position of the breastworks and hidden battery which barred the movement of troops directly from left to right. He also detailed to him the means of transportation across the river, of the efficiency of which he (Col. Baker) was to be the judge, authorizing him to make use of the guns of a section each of Vaughn's and Bunting's

Ball's Bluff Map from NYT (Click on the small image to see the map originally included in this article.)
Batteries, together with French's mountain howitzer, all the troops of his brigade, and Coggswell's Tammany Regiment, besides the Nineteenth, and part of the Twentieth Regiments Massachusetts Volunteers, and left it entirely to his discretion, after viewing the ground to retire the troops from the Virginia shore under cover of his guns and the fire of the large infantry force, or to pass our reinforcements in case he found it practicable, and the position on the other side strong and favorable. Gen. Stone impressed upon Gen. Baker the fact, that he wished no advance made unless the enemy were in inferior force, and under no circumstances was the Colonel to pass beyond Leesburgh, as a strong position between it and Goose Creek, on the Gunn Spring (Manassas) road. Gen. Stone particularly cautioned him in reference to passing artillery across the river, and begged him if he did so, to see it well supported by good infantry. He pointed out to him the position of some bluffs on this side of the river, from which artillery could act with effect on the other, and leaving the matter of crossing more troops, or retiring what were already over, to his own discretion, gave him entire control of operations on the right.

Col. Baker left Gen. Stone about 9 1/2 o'clock A.M., in high spirits, and proceeded rapidly up the river to his charge.

Reinforcements were rapidly thrown to the Virginia side by Gen. Gorman, at Edwards' Ferry, and his skirmishers and cavalry scouts advanced cautiously and steadily to the front and right, while the infantry lines were formed in such position as to act rapidly and in concert, in case of an advance of the enemy and shells were thrown by Lieut. Woodruff's Parrott guns into the woods beyond our lines as thus extended, especial care being taken to annoy the enemy by the battery on the right.

Messengers from Harrison's Island informed Gen. Stone, soon after the arrival of Col. Baker opposite the island, that he was crossing his whole force as rapidly as possible, and that he had caused an additional flat boat to be lifted from the canal into the river, and had provided a line by which to cross the boats more rapidly.

During the morning a sharp skirmish took place between two of the advanced companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts and a body of about 100 strong of Mississippi riflemen, during which a body of the enemy's cavalry appeared, causing Col. Devens to fall back in good order on Col. Lee's position, after which he again advanced, his officers and men behaving admirably, fighting, retiring and advancing in perfect order, and exhibiting every proof of high courage and good discipline. Had he, at this time, had the cavalry scouting party which was sent him in the morning, but which, most unfortunately had been turned back without his knowledge, he could, doubtless, have had timely warning of the approach of the superior force, which afterwards overwhelmed his regiment and their brave commander and comrades.

Gen. Stone, evidently thinking that Col. Baker might be able to use more artillery, dispatched to him two additional pieces of Vaughan's Battery, supported by two companies of infantry, with directions to its officer to come into position below the place of crossing, and report to Col. Baker.

Later in the day, and but a short time prior to the arrival of the guns, Col. Baker suggested the same movement to Gen. Stone, thus justifying the General's opinion.

After Col. Devens' second advance, Col. Baker seems to have gone to the field in person, but he has left no record of what officers and men he charged with the care of the boats and insuring the regular passage of the troops. If any one was charged with this duty, it was not performed, for it appears that the reinforcements, as they arrived, found no system enforced, and the boats were delayed most unnecessarily in transporting back, a few at a time, the wounded that happened to arrive with attendants.

Had an efficient officer been in charge at each landing, with one company guarding the boats, their full capacity would have been made serviceable, and sufficient men would have passed on to secure the success of his operation. The forwarding of artillery (necessarily a slow process) before its supporting force of infantry, also impeded the rapid assembling of an imposing force on the Virginia shore. The infantry which was waiting with impatience should have been first transported, and this alone would have made a difference in the infantry line at the time of attack of at least 1,000 men -- enough to have turned the scale in our favor.

At about 1 o'clock P.M. the enemy appeared in force in front of Col. Devens, and a sharp skirmish ensued, which was maintained for some time by the Massachusetts Fifteenth. Unsupported, and finding himself about to be outflanked, Col Devens retired a short distance in good order, and took up a position in the edge of the wood about half a mile in front of Col. Lee’s position, where he remained until 2 P.M., when he again retired with the approach of Col. Baker, and took his place in line with those portions of the Twentieth Massachusetts and First California regiments which had arrived.

Col. Baker at once formed his line, awaited the attack of the enemy, which came upon him with great vigor about 3 P.M., and was met with admirable spirit by our troops, who, though evidently struggling against largely superior numbers, nearly if not quite three to one, maintained their ground and a most destructive fire upon the enemy.

Col. Cogswell, with a small portion of his regiment, succeeded in reaching the field in the midst of the heaviest fire, and they went gallantly into action with a yell, which wavered the enemy’s line.

Lieut. Bramhall, of Bunting’s Battery, had succeeded, after exertions of labor, in bring up a piece of the Rhode Island Battery, and Lieut. French First Artillery, his two mountain howitzers ; but while for a short time these maintained a well-directed fire, both officers and nearly all the men were soon borne away wounded, and the pieces were handed to the rear to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy.

At about 4 o’clock P.M., Col. Baker, pierced by a number of balls, fell at the head of his command, while cheering on his men, and by his own example maintaining the obstinate resistance they were making.

Col. Lee then took command, and prepared to commence throwing our forces to the rear, but Col. Cogswell, of the Tammany Regiment, being found to be senior in rank, assumed command, and ordered dispositions to be made immediately for marching to the left, and cutting a way through to Edwards’ Ferry.

Unfortunately, just as the first dispositions were being made, an officer of the enemy rode rapidly in front of the Tammany Regiment and beckoned them towards the enemy. Whether the Tammany understood this as an order from one of our officers, or an invitation to close work, is not known ; but the men responded to the gesture with a yell, and charged forward, carrying with them in their advance the rest of the line, which soon received a murderous fire from the enemy at close distance. Our officers rapidly recalled the men, but in the position they had no placed themselves it was impracticable to make the movement designed, and Col. Cogswell reluctantly gave the order to retire. The enemy pursued our troops to the edge of the bluff over the landing-place, and thence poured in a heavy fire on the men who were endeavoring to cross to the island.

Rapid as the retreat necessarily was, there was no neglect of orders. The men formed near the river, deploying as skirmishers, and maintained for twenty minutes or more the unequal and hopeless contest rather than surrender.

The smaller boats had disappeared, no one knew whither. The largest boat, rapidly and too heavily laden, swamped some fifteen feet from the shore, and nothing was left to the gallant soldiers but to swim, surrender or die.

With devotion worthy of the cause they are serving, officers and men, while quarter was being offered to such as would lay down their arms, stripped themselves of their swords and muskets and hurled them out into the river to prevent their falling into the hands of the foe, and saved themselves as they could by swimming, floating on logs, and concealing themselves in bushes and forests to make their way up and down the river, back to the place of crossing.

Instances of personal gallantry of the highest order were so many that it would be unjust now to detail particular cases. Officers displayed for their men, and men for their officers, that beautiful devotion which is only to be found among true soldiers.

While these scenes were being enacted on the right, Gen. Stone was preparing for a rapid push forward to the road by which the enemy would retreat if driven and entirely unsuspicious of the perilous condition of the troops on the right. The additional artillery had already been sent in anticipation, and Gen. Stone was told by a messenger from Baker's position, that the Colonel could, without doubt, hold his own in case he did not advance. Half an hour later, say at 3 1/2 P. M., a similar statement was made by another messenger from Col. Baker, and it was the expectation of Gen. Stone that an advance on the right would be made, so that he could push forward Gen. Gorman. It was, as had been explained to Col. Baker, impracticable to throw Gorman's Brigade directly to the right, by reason of the battery in the wood, between which we had never been able to reconnoiter.

At about 4 o'clock P.M. Gen. Stone telegraphed to Gen. Baker, requesting him to send a brigade of his division, intending it to occupy the ground on this side the river, near to Harrison's Island, which could be abandoned in case of a rapid advance ; and shortly after, as the fire slackened above, Gen. Stone was waiting the arrival of a messenger, on whose report he should give orders, either for the advance of Gen. Gorman, to cut off the retreat of the enemy, or for dispositions for the night in the present position of our troops.

Capt. Candy arrived at headquarters from the field of Col. Baker about 5 P.M., and announced to Gen. Stone the news of Col. Baker's death, but giving no news of further disaster, though he stated that reinforcements were slow. Gen. Stone telegraphed this fact to Gen. Banks, and the fact of Col. Baker's death, and instantly rode to the right to assume command. Before he reached the point opposite the island, evidences of disaster began to be met, in men who had crossed the river by swimming, and on reaching the landing the fact was asserted in a manner leaving no possible doubt. It was reported to Gen. Stone that the enemy's force was 10,000 -- an evident exaggeration. He gave orders to hold the island for the removal of the wounded, and established a patrol on the tow-path from opposite the island to the line of pickets near Monocacy, and then returned to the left, to secure the troops there from disaster, preparing means of removing them as rapidly as possible.

Orders arrived from headquarters of the army [sic] of the Potomac to hold the island and Virginia shore at Edwards' Ferry at all hazards, and promising reinforcements, and Gen. Stone forwarded additional entrenching tools to Gen. Gorman, with instructions to entrench and hold out against any force that might appear. That evening Gen. Stone learned by telegraph that Gen. Banks was on the way to reinforce him, and at about 3 A.M., he arrived and assumed command.

I understand that Gen. Stone's report compliments very highly the courage, good discipline and general conduct of officers and men, and he may well do so. What the official documents in Gen. Bank's hands may add to the above I cannot say, but as they can only refer to the crossing and re-crossing of reinforcements, they can in no way bias this statement one way or another.

15th Massachusetts VI