Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ball's Bluff: October 21, 1861

After the Union defeat at First Manassas, George Brinton McClellan rose to command the Union forces in the East. Upon his arrival, McClellan set about to reorganize the troops under his command, hoping to defend Washington from the Confederate threat on the other side of the Potomac. As a part of this defense, McClellan placed the 6,500 man division of Brigadier General Charles Stone near Poolesville, Maryland, to guard fords across the Potomac near the city of Leesburg.

For most of October, Stone’s division was encamped near Poolesville. Their site was known as Camp Observation. The first few weeks of that month at Camp Observation saw mainly drilling and other tasks of army life. Excitement was found in camp games and adjusting to army life for the new soldiers. Picket duty along the Potomac River offered the chance to see Johnny Rebs in person, quite a treat for the new soldiers of Stone’s command. Across the river in Leesburg sat Nathan (Shanks) Evans’s brigade.

Stone’s division was comprised of three brigades. Willis Gorman’s brigade contained the 2nd New York Militia, 1st Minnesota, 15th Massachusetts, and the 34th and 42nd New York Infantries. The brigade of Frederick Lander was comprised of the 7th Michigan, the 19th Massachusetts, and the 20th Massachusetts. The most prestigious of these three brigade commanders was Colonel Edward Baker, a United States Senator from Oregon. Baker oversaw the California brigade, comprised of Pennsylvanians primarily from the Philadelphia area. Baker was close personal friends with President Lincoln; in fact, Lincoln named his second born child after his friend Edward. It is worth noting that many of the regiment’s in Stone’s division which were engaged at Ball’s Bluff, and at Edward’s Ferry as well, were those of John Sedgwick’s division at Antietam less than one year later. The 15th and 20th Massachusetts, 42nd New York, 71st Pennsylvania, and 1st Minnesota were all in the West Woods on the fateful morning of September 17, 1862.

Desperate for a victory of some sort, in mid October, McClellan devised a plan to retake several crossings over the river. He ordered a division of Pennsylvania Reserves to march to Dranesville, 14 miles south of Leesburg on the Potomac. McClellan was hoping that Evans’s brigade would fall back from Leesburg to Joe Johnston’s main force outside of Manassas. In combination with this, on October 20, McClellan sent word to Charles Stone to watch for Confederates on the Leesburg side of the river, and that should it be necessary, he was authorized to put on a “small demonstration” of his force to aid in the endeavor. While McClellan most likely did not intend for Stone to send a force across the river, that is exactly what his division commander did. Bad intelligence and poor decision making was about to lead Stone’s men into a terrible situation along the Potomac. Willis Gorman’s brigade was sent to Edward’s Ferry to distract Confederate attention, while elements of the 15th Massachusetts were sent on a reconnoitering mission towards Leesburg near Ball’s Bluff along the Potomac. The companies of the 15th Massachusetts who undertook the scouting mission informed General Stone of unguarded Confederate camps on the other side of the river, ultimately giving Stone cause to order the camp’s destruction the next day. What those men saw is not entirely certain, but it is clear that they did not see a vulnerable Confederate camp. That evening, Stone sent orders to Colonel Edward Baker to take his First California Regiment (later the 71st Pennsylvania and Stone’s original regiment before brigade command) to the banks of the river at sunrise and to await further orders there.

On October 21, elements of the 15th Massachusetts were sent across the Potomac to fulfill Stone’s orders regarding the Confederate camp. Orders were also sent to Gorman’s brigade at Edward’s Ferry to continue its demonstrations so as to take attention away from the efforts at Ball’s Bluff. In support for the 15th Massachusetts was the 20th Massachusetts, also on Harrison’s Island in the middle of the river. The 15th Massachusetts soldiers, much to their surprise, encountered resistance from companies of the 17th Mississippi Infantry and the 4th and 6th Virginia Cavalry. Simultaneously, Gorman had crossed the 1st Minnesota into Virginia at Edward’s Ferry and had begun encountering Confederate forces there as well. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff had begun.

As the fighting picked up and the situation appeared drastically different than Stone had anticipated, he placed Colonel Edward Baker in command of the actions around Harrison’s Island and Ball’s Bluff. Stone would stay near Edward’s Ferry to coordinate movements between Baker and Gorman. Baker arrived on the scene and began crossing his brigade onto Harrison’s Island, with his First California Regiment in the lead. Shortly after noon, a significant portion of the regiment had crossed the river and reached Harrison’s Island. Rather than reconnoitering the position as he should have, Baker occupied himself with the tedious task of getting his men across the river, wasting valuable time which could have been spent determining the severity of the situation on the other side.

With Baker’s arrival on the field, the situation became much more complicated. He greeted the Colonel of the 20th Massachusetts by congratulating him on the battle which was occurring at the moment. As the men of the 15th and 20th Massachusetts were falling back toward the river from their encounter with unexpected Confederate infantry, Baker formed a defensive position on the bluffs above the Potomac. He brought across the 1st California (71st Pennsylvania), as well as portions of the 42nd New York and several artillery batteries. As Baker’s men were forming on the bluffs, the fighting began to intensify. The 8th Virginia and 18th Mississippi advanced against the Federal line, trapping Baker’s men between Confederate fire and the Potomac River. While several initial attacks were repulsed, Confederate reinforcements committed to the fight made it difficult for Baker’s men to stay in their vulnerable position. An attack by Company H of the 18th Mississippi threatened the Federal flank, and likewise severely wounded Colonel Isaac Wister of the 1st California and mortally wounded Colonel Edward Baker. Baker’s death signaled the breaking point for the Union forces at Ball’s Bluff. The men were trapped against the Potomac. Many fell back, trying to swim to safety. Others simply surrendered to the Confederate attackers. Still others found their deaths in the cool waters of the Potomac. For weeks afterwards, Federal dead could be seen floating down river, some as far as Washington and Mount Vernon.

While Ball’s Bluff was a skirmish by later standards, its impact was quite immense. Colonel Edward Baker, a United States Senator, had been killed in combat, a tremendous blow to northern morale. Abraham Lincoln, Baker’s close friend, was devastated by the loss. Of the 1,700 Federal troops who were on the field of battle, over 1,000 were killed, wounded, or captured. Confederate losses totaled only 149 men. Brigadier General Stone, while far from being the only one responsible, was assigned the most blame for the embarrassing defeat. A new Congressional committee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, arose in the aftermath of Ball’s Bluff, lambasting Stone for the defeat there. Stone was relieve of command and arrested for his role in the debacle. Yet, Stone was far from the only one responsible for Ball’s Bluff. For Edward Baker, perhaps death and martyrdom helped him escape the finger of blame for his role in the battle. Much of what happened at Ball’s Bluff can be attributed to his poor command decisions. McClellan himself had authorized the movement by telling Stone to conduct a small demonstration, yet the Young Napoleon effectively avoided all significant blame and censure for the defeat in its aftermath. By proving to be such a debacle for Union forces and so close in proximity to Washington, Ball’s Bluff signified another low point early on for the Union armies during the war.

As for Elwood Rodebaugh and the 106th Pennsylvania, or at that time the 5th California Regiment, October 21, 1861 was a relatively quiet day. The men were assembled and made ready for battle, yet they spent their day awaiting further orders. Reports from the front lines filtered back to them, telling of Union advances and retreats. In the late afternoon hours of the 21st, the regiment sadly learned of the death of its brigade commander. The men returned to their camp by midnight in a torrential rain. As Josiah Ward wrote in his regimental history, “the loss of General Baker cast a gloom over the Brigade…. Many were the expressions of sorrow and regret, which were in some measures overcome by the gallantry of his death” (Josiah Ward, History of the 106th PA, 9). Following the death of Baker, Brigadier General William Burns, a US Regular, was appointed commander of the California Brigade. For Private Elwood Rodebaugh, Ball’s Bluff led to a new designation for his regiment. No longer would Elwood fight under the banner of California. In mid-November, his regiment became the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The men of the California Brigade had now reverted back to the designation of their home state. The 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania Infantries now composed the Philadelphia Brigade.

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