Battle of Ball’s Bluff; First City Class Gunboats Launched: October 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

As the Civil War moved into its first autumn, neither army had any immediate plans for major offensive operations. In Washington, General George McClellan busied himself with organizing and training the Army of the Potomac. On both sides, generals were assigned to commands of various departments. In Louisville, Kentucky, Brigadier General William T. Sherman took over command of the Union Army’s Department of the Cumberland from Brigadier General Robert Anderson on October 8th. Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the war, had been in declining health and was reassigned to duties in the north until he retired from the army in October 1863.

Skirmishing and small scale actions took place in various locations in Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. A somewhat larger  affair took place on Santa Rosa Island, Florida, near Pensacola. A Confederate force of about 1,000 landed on the island on October 9th and attacked Union artillery. Reinforcements from nearby Fort Pickens drove the Confederates out.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff

The most significant land action of the month took place at a location on the Potomac River near Leesburg, Virginia called Ball’s Bluff, and it had far reaching effects. A Union Army division under the command of Brigadier General Charles P. Stone  was encamped near Poolesville, Maryland, across the Potomac from Leesburg with the purpose of observing the river fords in the area.

Across the river, 1,700 Mississippians and Virginians  under Colonel Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans were in a defensive position. Stone was unsure of the location of the Confederate troops, or if they were even still there, so he sent a small scouting party across the river on the night of October 20th to gather intelligence. In the dark, the scouting party’s commanding officer thought he saw an unguarded confederate camp, returned across the river and reported his findings. Stone saw an opportunity to take out the Confederate camp, and ordered Colonel Charles Devens and about 300 men from the 15th Massachusetts Infantry to cross the river and destroy it.

At daylight on the 21st, Devens discovered that there was no Confederate camp, and sent word back to Stone for new orders. Stone ordered the rest of the 15th Massachusetts to cross the river and when they arrived, Devens was to conduct a reconnaissance of Leesburg. Stone also sent Colonel Edward D. Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon, to assess the situation and reinforce or withdraw the troops in Virginia.

Baker sent more troops across the river, but they stayed near the high bluffs on the shoreline and did not advance inland. Meanwhile, the 15th Massachusetts encountered and  skirmished with one company the 17th Mississippi Infantry. After some additional fighting with an increasingly large Confederate force, Devens ordered the 15th to withdraw about 2 P.M.

The Union forces gathered on the river bluffs. Evans gathered his Confederates and launched a counterattack about 3 P.M. The Federals were trapped between the river and the attacking Rebels. With only a few boats available, additional reinforcement was prohibitively slow.  Eventually, the counterattack drove the Federals down the bluffs to the shoreline. Men were shot while trying to escape; some fell to their deaths, and others drown trying to make it back to the Maryland side. The few boats available went back and forth carrying as many as they could before they sank, either from Confederate gunfire or by overloading. Over 500  trapped men surrendered. The firing continued until well after dark.

The official count of the Union dead was 49, but that number is considered wildly inaccurate and is believed to actually exceed 200. Total Union casualties were around 900, compared to approximately 150 for the Confederates. One of the dead was Col. Baker, the only U.S. Senator ever killed in action. Baker was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln; the president’s son Edward Baker Lincoln had been named after the senator. Over the next few days, bodies of those who died in the river and were carried downstream washed ashore at various points.

The defeat at Ball’s Bluff led to the formation of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. This powerful committee, chaired by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, was controlled by Radical Republicans. It was in existence for the remainder of the war and its members spent much of their time looking for scapegoats and assigning blame for military defeats. It began with General Stone. He was blamed for the defeat at Ball’s Bluff and  imprisoned without trial for six months. He was then released and returned to active duty, but his career was never the same.

Naval Operations

On October 12th, the Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Manassas steamed down the Mississippi River along with three other ships and attacked the Union blockading ships at Head of the Passes, near the mouth of the river.  In this Battle of the Head of the Passes as it was called, Manassas rammed and seriously damaged the steam sloop U.S.S. Richmond.  The ramming also damaged the Manassas, forcing the vessel to break off the attack.

On the same day, the U.S.S. St. Louis, the first of seven “City Class” ironclad shallow draft river gunboats, was launched near its namesake city. Designed by Samuel Pook and built by engineer James B. Eads, these gunboats each armed with 13 guns would be a key part of the Union fleet on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The Mississippi Squadron, as the western fleet was later called, was an essential component of the Federal success in the west. The second City Class ship, the U.S.S. Carondelet, was launched ten days later.  The other five vessels under construction were the Cincinnati, Mound City, Cairo, Pittsburg, and Louisville. The name of the U.S.S. St. Louis was later changed to U.S.S. Baron DeKalb.

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