I wonder if anyone slept.
At 6:00am on October 21, 1861 General Stone sent about 300 men drawn from the 15th and the 20th Massachusetts regiments across the Potomac River from Harrison’s Island into Virginia under the command of Colonel Charles Devens.
Upon arrival, Devens determined that the field was unoccupied and deployed the men from the 15th Massachusetts well forward and to the left of the bluff with pickets out in front. The men from the 20th Massachusetts, including Captain Henry Tremlett, were situated at the center of the top of the bluff to cover any retreat if necessary. Devens concluded that the immediate locale was safe and that the opportunity was there to move towards Leesburg, a short distance away, however that would require a larger force, so he sent for reinforcements.
Around 8:00am Devens’ pickets encountered Confederate pickets from the 17th Mississippi commanded by Colonel Nathan Evans stationed along the tree line and a skirmish began.
Evans had already demonstrated a reputation for bravery and as a solid battlefield tactician in the Battle of First Manassas. Having encountered Union troops in Virginia and the possibility of a larger battle, Evans also requested reinforcements.
Back on the Maryland side of the Potomac, General Stone ordered Colonel Edward Baker, a sitting U.S. Senator, to head the Union reinforcement and ultimately take command of the Union forces at the bluff but at the time Baker and the needed reinforcements were still on Harrison’s Island or the east bank of the Potomac. What was worse, Union reinforcements would have to be made by use of just four skiff-like boats, and it would take four hours to do so. In the meantime, Confederate reinforcements began to arrive by rail or march, and Evans’ men were more quickly reinforced by elements of the 13th and 18th Mississippi and Virginia Cavalry.
Shortly after noon, significantly outnumbered, Colonel Devens and the 15th Massachusetts retreated back towards the bluff. Colonel Baker arrived with Union reinforcements from the 1st California and the 42nd New York as the battle see-sawed back and forth. Command was disorganized and chaotic, particularly for the Union side; most of the Union troops were experiencing their first taste of battle, and their officers were gentleman soldiers as well.
Around 5:00pm the advantage began to turn in favor of the Confederates, and Colonel Baker suffered a mortal wound, the only U.S. senator to have been killed in battle. The combined 17th and 18th Mississippi mounted a hellacious charge at the bluff but are repulsed amidst bloody fighting. They reformed and attacked again, and this time the Union troops could not withstand the onslaught, and a general retreat was ordered… but to where? The only thing behind the Union lines was a 100-foot drop to the Potomac.
There was no retreat. There were not enough boats and those which were available were quickly swamped or sunk by the men trying to escape the terror. Many who tried to swim the river drowned or were shot. Over 500 men surrendered and were captured on the Potomac’s western flood plain, including Colonel William Raymond Lee, commander of the 20th Massachusetts.
Captain Tremlett was among those trapped. In an attempt to escape he gathered three other officers from the 20th Massachusetts, Captain William Bartlett, Lieutenant Abbott, and Lieutenant Charles Whittier, along with about eighty soldiers comprised of men from the 15th and 20th Massachusetts, the 42nd New York, and the 1st California. They carefully made their way upriver, always fearful of ambush at any moment from having so many men in tow, though daylight was fading. Their efforts were rewarded when they discovered a boat which was damaged and hardly seaworthy, but they repaired it. Using this one boat they transported their whole party, five at a time. Lieutenant Whittier was sent over in the second load to take charge of the men as they arrived, while the other officers waited for the last trip. All reached Harrison’s Island in safety, the last about 9:00pm.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was over.