October, 19th & 20th, 1861: Ball’s Bluff – Prelude to Battle #krnl_vic #amwriting #ammarketing


Ancestry ∗ Biography ∗ History

Second in a series commemorating “The Battle of Ball’s Bluff”, first action for Henry and the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry.

Two more weeks would pass on the Maryland side of the Potomac River with very little action worth mentioning. Perhaps an occasional cannon or musket shot across the river would remind the majority of as yet untested soldiers of the danger not far away.

Henry’s regiment, the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, along with the Nineteenth Massachusetts Infantry, the Seventh Michigan Infantry, and the First Company of Massachusetts Sharpshooters formed First Brigade under Brigadier General Frederick Lander. First Brigade, along with two additional brigades, plus unassigned regiments, cavalry, and artillery all comprised a division under the command of Brigadier General Charles Stone.

Stone was a native of Massachusetts, a graduate of West Point, and had served with distinction during the Mexican-American War. In addition to his military exploits he had been a civil engineer and surveyor. Now in command of a division called “The Corps of Observation”, his orders were to protect Washington from any Confederate incursion.

On October 19th, Stone’s original orders were vaguely updated by a telegram from General McClellan to “keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement [several Union reconnaissances] has the effect to drive them [Confederate forces] away. Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”[1] Besides the propaganda value, Leesburg was also a Confederate transportation hub, and therefore a significant military objective.

On that night a deserter from the Thirteenth Mississippi Regiment was captured by Union pickets and brought to General Stone. “General Stone, on examining a deserter, a colored teamster of the Thirteenth Mississippi, was told that the rebels in Leesburg were in alarm because they expected General Stone to attack them, and had sent back their heavy baggage, evidently expecting to be driven back to Carter’s Mills and Manassas.” [2] This suggested to General Stone that this might be a good opportunity for an attack in the direction of Leesburg. By now, part of the Union force at Poolesville had occupied Harrison’s Island by crossing the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal using four small boats, an arduous, time-consuming task.

With McClellan’s wire fresh in his mind, taken together with the deserter’s report, on the night of October 20th General Stone ordered twenty men under the command of Captain Chase Philbrick of the Fifteenth Massachusetts to cross the Potomac before dusk in the same small boats to ascertain intelligence about Confederate troop locations and movement in the area. Philbrick returned with information that he had found a deserted Confederate camp, which further encouraged Stone to consider an offensive movement across the Potomac and at least gain some strategic presence in Virginia. However Captain Philbrick, an inexperienced officer, had misinterpreted a line of trees as a line of tents, and his report back to General Stone that he had discovered an unguarded Confederate camp was inaccurate.

Moreover, General Stone wasn’t the only one with newly-acquired intelligence. On the same night, Confederate cavalry was ordered to conduct reconnaissance for Union positions; they returned early on Sunday morning with “… a federal soldier as prisoner, and when he was searched dispatches from McClellan to Gen. Meade were discovered. His dispatches were of course seized, which revealed the fact that the enemy was advancing in the direction to the number of ten or twelve thousand, the object of whose mission was to ferret out a route by which a successful flank movement could be made upon Manassas.” [3]

General Stone, oblivious to this, spent the night planning for battle the next morning.


[1] : Scheel, Eugene, With Leesburg in their Sights, Union Troops Caught By Surprise At Ball’s Bluff; History of Loudon County, Virginia; http://www.loudounhistory.org/history/loudoun-cw-balls-bluff.htm, last access: 10/18/2016

[2] : Bruce, Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel George A., The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861–1865, 24.

[3] : Newspaper account originally published October 1861 from the Loudon Times Mirror;  B. F. Sheetz, Editor & Proprietor – Civil War and Historical Edition, Vol. 162, No. 46, 11/16/1961.

Next: First Blood

The story of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment is part of my book, The Colonel and the Vicar, available on Amazon.com.

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