Last night I watched a production of the civil war on cable station AHC (American Heroes Channel) called “The Civil War”. I was especially interested that the series prominently featured the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, an important subject of my forthcoming book, “The Colonel And The Vicar”.
However I was quickly disturbed by inconsistencies in the portrayal of the regiment, particularly at Ball’s Bluff and during the Peninsula Campaign. The story was told by re-enactors who portrayed Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Lt. Henry Abbott. These were not the men who led the Twentieth at Ball’s Bluff. Holmes was first lieutenant to Captain Henry Tremlett, Company A; Abbott was first lieutenant to Captain William Bartlett. The Captains (of course) were the ones initially in charge of covering a retreat across the top of the bluff.
The Twentieth was joined by the Fifteenth Massachusetts, 42nd New York and 1st California regiments. The battle lasted about 12 hours, from dawn to dusk. Holmes was indeed wounded at the outset of the retreat and carried from the field to a hospital. It’s also true that it was a debacle for the Union and the Confederates won in a rout.
There was nowhere to retreat; just a hundred foot drop down Ball’s Bluff where hundreds of men tried to burrow into the dirt. Others were not so lucky. The four meager boats that were used to transport reinforcements were now quickly swamped or shot to pieces. Some men tried to swim. Some drowned. All true. Some were shot in the water (they left that out). Bodies floated down the Potomac as far as the Capital (true).
They also left out the part of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff where Captain Tremlett, Captain Bartlett, Lieutenant Abbott, and Lieutenant Whittier led 80 Union survivors up the Potomac shore at nightfall until they found a boat, whereupon they transported all the men back to the safety of the Maryland side of the Potomac. Tremlett and Bartlett went last. Tremlett wrote in a letter home, “About 9½ p.m. we all got across and shall not very soon forget my moonlight paddle across the Potomac.”. (according to Letters of Nathan Hayward, MD, surgeon, 20th Mass., in Reports, Letters & Papers Appertaining to 20th Mass. Vol. Inf by Association of Officers of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1868, Boston Public Library Rare Books Collection, 1:347–348).
The numbers were pretty close. Union casualties numbered over 1,000, including 223 killed, 226 wounded, and over 550 captured or missing; but they didn’t even mention that the revered (no pun intended) Colonel William Raymond Lee, commander of the Twentieth was among those taken prisoner and spent time in the infamous Libby prison.
I know that they usually warn you about “fictionalized” accounts, but if you’re shootin’ for authentic, leave things like the civil war alone unless you hire better researchers.
If you’re interested in the true story of Captain Tremlett and the Twentieth Massachusetts at Ball’s Bluff and the Peninsula Campaign, you might be interested in my forthcoming book, “The Colonel and The Vicar” (currently in final edit). I hope to have it published and on the market by Spring.
Join the blog and follow me along the wonderful road of self-publishing until the day I tell ya it’s “on Amazon”.
Careful out there…