The following article is reprinted by permission of Paul Della Valle, publisher of the Lancaster Times and Clinton Courier  (Massachusetts), where it was originally published in April 2001.
‘What of my husband?'
'Have you heard anything of my boy?’
Lancaster, Clinton men fought and died together at Ball’s Bluff disaster
By Paul Della Valle
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
 On Oct. 21, 1861, George Cutler, a 22-year-old harness maker from Lancaster and Henry Greenwood, a 25-year-old printer from Clinton, stood side by side in a wooded glade above the Potomac at the crest of a sheer 80-foot-high river bank called Ball’s Bluff.
 Both men were privates in Company C of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and neither of them, nor anyone else in Co. C, had been in a battle before. Now lead balls from the rifles of Mississippi and Virginia sharpshooters, veterans of the first Battle of Bull Run, were whizzing through the air so thick that the branches of the trees over their heads were falling like rain. 

 It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
 Company C was made up of 63 men from Clinton, 14 from Lancaster, including Cutler’s 19-year-old brother Isaac, and a handful of other soldiers from Northboro and Worcester. Just four months earlier, on June 28, the Clinton Light Brigade, under Captain Henry Bowman, had marched to the train station in Depot Square as heroes, off to make quick work of the rebels and to preserve the union.
 “The departure was ... one of the grandest and at the same time one of the most touching incidents that ever transpired in Clinton,” editorialized the Clinton Courant, Greenwood’s employer, on June 29. “With cheers, music, and cannon they left us — all to return again, we trust.”
 The editorial writer trusted wrong, as Greenwood and Cutler and the entire North soon found out. Before the war ended, Co. C. would suffer some of the heaviest casualties of any Union outfit, and on this day, Oct. 21, 1861, the men of Co. C would be sacrificed to some of the most inept leadership in a war often marked by inept leadership. The men of Lancaster and Clinton paid dearly for the “disaster at Ball’s Bluff,” as it would come to be known. It would lead to an angry Congress forming a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and, so mismanaged was the Union effort, that the federal commander, Gen. Charles Stone, was jailed for suspected treason. Ball’s Bluff would inspire Herman Melville to poetry and the death of  young Lt. Willie Grout of Worcester inspired a celebrated Civil War song, “The Vacant Chair.” Among the Union casualties was future Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was wounded while serving with the Massachusetts 20th. Although the untested volunteers from Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania exhibited “every proof of high courage and good discipline,” according to Stone’s battle report, most of the Union men killed were shot in the back or drowned while trying to swim the Potomac.

 It wasn’t supposed to be like this.   

Stand up and fight’
It got worse. Greenwood wrote how Devens and other union officers rode up and down the line urging the troops to “stand up and fight like men.” Baker, as brave as he was foolish, was soon killed, shot  through the head. Confusion reigned — some accounts of the battle say a drunken Confederate officer rode his horse between the enemy lines and ordered a charge. The New York troops, mistaking him for a Union officer, charged and then, realizing their error, retreated. Regardless, a full-scaled Union retreat was triggered, so unruly and horrific that even the Rebels were stunned.
 “Then ensued an awful spectacle,” Confederate Pvt. Randolph Shotwell of  Virginia later wrote. “A kind of shiver ran through the huddled mass upon the brow of the cliff; it gave way; rushed a few steps; then, in one wild, panic-stricken herd, rolled, leaped, tumbled over the precipice.”
 Hundreds of Union soldiers clambered and slid down the steep rocky bluff, “tumbling onto the heads and bayonets of the men below with resultant screams of pain and terror,” according to Shotwell. The Confederates rushed to the edge of the cliff and fired down upon the blue mass of retreating soldiers. The riverbank was already covered with the Union wounded who had been brought down during the day. More than 30 men drowned when the last overloaded boat sank. Soldiers dove into the water in an attempt to swim across with the Rebel bullets making the surface boil “as white as in a great hail storm.”
 Capt. Bowman was captured but refused to surrender, tossing his sword and side arms into the river. Col. Devens, who served gallantly in later battles, stripped and swam to safety, but many, many more died trying, either drowning or being shot in the back. Greenwood, who claimed in his diary to have killed a scavenging Rebel during the retreat, tried to swim, but the water was too cold and his uniform too heavy, so he returned to the Virginia side and lay down next to the dying.
 “As is the usual way, they called for water, but there was no water but the muddy water of the Potomac, which was not fit to drink,” Greenwood wrote. “I wish to never hear those cries again. We laid there until we were ordered to surrender.”
 More than 640 Union soldiers were taken prisoners. For weeks afterward, Union bodies washed up from the swollen river. Congress, stunned by yet another embarrassing defeat, was livid. Stone was jailed for 189 days as a suspected traitor. Back home, citizens in Lancaster and Clinton were shocked, then galvanized by the disaster, and many citizens in both towns volunteered to replace the men lost.  Henry Cutler, the 18-year-old brother of George and Isaac, enlisted in 1862 and was killed nine months later.
A long shadow
After leaving town, the Clinton Light Brigade had been reformed as Co. C in Worcester, where the 14 Lancastrians joined them on July 12. Nine days later, the Rebs won a decisive and bizarre victory at Bull Run. But the 15th was not involved in that, and nothing much had happened since then, so the Clinton and Lancaster recruits still had a cocky swagger. With winter closing in, soldiers from the North and South simply eyed each other from across the Potomac near Washington, sometimes shouting out news or even trading supplies. But on Sunday, Oct. 20, after Union Gen. George McClellen decided to stop a Confederate movement near Leesburg, Va., Co. C was pressed into its first action.  
 “Church Howe, our quartermaster, came riding down with his horse all covered with foam and informed Captain Bowman to have his company get ready as soon as they could,” Greenwood wrote in his diary. “We packed our knapsacks quicker than they was ever packed before, as we were eager to be in an engagement. Soon after Col. [Charles] Devens came down and asked us if we were ready for a ‘brush.’ He was answered that we were. He then said, ‘We should have some before morning.’ ” 
 They didn’t by morning, but they sure did by the next afternoon. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was a minor battle in terms of numbers — the 82 men killed and 1,070 total casualties (921 Union, 149 Confederate) pales next to the 23,100 casualties at Antietam or the 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg, where the Confederate train of wounded measured 14 miles long. But Ball’s Bluff is viewed as “a small battle with a long shadow” by historians, a Union attack that could not have been more mismanaged or at a worse place.


Poetry and death

‘What of my husband?’
Of the 1,720 Union soldiers engaged at Ball’s Bluff, 200 were shot and 49 died. (Dozens who drowned were. listed as missing, not killed.) The first three Lancaster soldiers killed in the Civil War listed on a marble plaque in the Thayer Memorial Library — George Cutler, Walter Lawrence and James Warner — died at Ball’s Bluff. 
 Two Clinton men, John Kirchner and William Walker, also died, drowned or shot while trying to swim across the Potomac. Five other Clinton men were wounded in the battle. Greenwood and 14 other Clinton men, including Bowman, were held in a Richmond prison until they were paroled or exchanged months later.
 “At home, as soon as the news of the battle was reported, the most intense excitement prevailed,” wrote Andrew Ford in his History of Clinton (1896). “White lips asked: ‘What of my husband?’ ‘Have you heard anything of my boy?’ In most cases, long days passed before any answer came, except that he was among the missing.”   
 It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and the Civil War only got worse. Co. C and the 15th Massachusetts Volunteers were in the thick of dozens of battles over the next three years. At the battle for Antietam Creek, Sept. 17, 1862,  which has the distinction of being the single deadliest day in the war, the 15th suffered more casualties than any other regiment, 56 percent, and Co. C suffered more casualties than any other company while gallantly obeying suicide orders to hold an indefensible position.
 “In 20 minutes,” Ford wrote,  “from the 68 members of Co. C, three had been killed, two taken prisoner and 41 [including Isaac Cutler] wounded. ... Although the victory at Antietam was afterward ours, the 15th and especially Co. C had again been sacrificed to a mistake.”
 The following morning, Sept. 18, 1862, just 17 members of Co. C including the drummer and bugler, made roll call. By 1864, after Fredricksburg, Gettysburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, the entire 15th Massachusetts Regiment was reduced to a platoon.
That mismanagement, much of it by Harvard-trained attorney Devens and a romantic 50-year-old colonel and U.S. Senator from Oregon named Edward Baker, had placed several companies from the 15th, including Co. C, along with two other regiments in a precarious position. The Union soldiers had crossed the Potomac on small boats, 25 at a time, under cover of night. They had then climbed up a winding cow path on a steep, rock-covered 80-foot-high bluff — picture the hill from the pump station at the bottom of the Wachusett Dam up to Route 70 — and formed a line at the brow of the hill. A larger, better-armed, better-led and experienced Rebel force with better cover faced them on higher ground across a field.   
 Baker, a friend of Lincoln and eager to be a hero, was just happy to be there. When he spotted reinforcements from New York climbing the bluff toward his troops, he shouted to their leader, Col. Milton Cogswell, a quote from “Lady of the Lake:” “One blast upon your bugle horn is worth a thousand men.”
 “The New York colonel — a West Pointer and the only professional soldier on a field in charge of lawyers and politicians — was amazed to find Baker so confident and buoyant over a situation in which, to the military eye at any rate, the danger in front was exceeded only by the confusion at the rear,” wrote Civil War historian Shelby Foote. “The Confederates, holding high ground beyond the brush and timber, where their snipers were picking off men in the glade almost at will, obviously were building up to launch an attack; whereas the federals, backed up to the rim of a steep drop, were doing little more than dodging bullets and listening to their senator-colonel sing out quotations from Sir Walter Scott.”
 Meanwhile, George Cutler and Henry Greenwood and the rest of Co. C were finding out what the North was quickly learning — this war was not going to be the picnic they envisioned back home in Central Mass.   
 “A perfect hurricane rattled among our boys,” Greenwood wrote in his diary, which is now owned by the Clinton Historical Society. “During the greater part of this time we were in line, we were ordered to reserve our fire by Col. Devens, when I think we could have been doing greater execution had we been allowed to fire. The enemy would come out and dare us to meet them which to us was very humiliating indeed, but when we did get the order to fire, the way the balls rattled among the enemy was a caution. There was a perfect stream of fire going the whole length of our line, and the enemy was returning it with vigor, causing some of our boys to drop dead and wounded. George Cutler, who was on my left, received a ball through the head, the ball entering his forehead, passing entirely through, killing him instantly, causing his brains to spatter over me.” 

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Ball's Bluff in the Illustrated London Times

Ball's Bluff as shown in the Illustrated London Times, 1862.

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