October 21, 1861: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff #krnl_vic #amwriting #ammarketing

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Ancestry ∗ Biography ∗ History

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

By the morning of September 21st, most of the troops planned for the offensive had been transferred to Harrison’s island, a 400-acre island located in the middle of the Potomac River, a result of a canal that had been dug on the Maryland side.

At 6:00 a.m. General Charles Stone ordered an initial force of 300 men to cross the Potomac into Virginia and the Confederacy. The 300 were selected from the Fifteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts, including Henry’s Company A, and placed under the command of Colonel Charles Devens, a native of Charlestown and a Massachusetts state senator. Devens’ orders were to determine whether it was safe enough to move the rest of Stone’s forces. Devens and his men embarked using four small boats, the only means available, each of which could accommodate at most ten men with gear at a time. The current in the river on the Virginia side of Harrison’s Island was very swift, the water deep, and the soldiers labored mightily. It was a lengthy process, after which it was necessary to scale the 100-foot Ball’s Bluff, described by Captain William Bartlett (20th Mass.) as steep, rocky, and overgrown.

When Colonel Devens and his men reached the top of the bluff, he noted that there was no sign of the  Confederate camp that Captain Philbrick had reported the previous night. Devens surveyed the terrain that lay before him, a large open field surrounded by thick woods, and he immediately deployed pickets from the Fifteenth Massachusetts forward and to the right of the bluff. The remainder of the Fifteenth was deployed further forward of the center-left, towards a location known as the Jackson House. Five companies of the Twentieth Massachusetts, all under the regimental commander, Colonel William Lee, remained stationed on the center of the top of the bluff to provide an avenue of retreat if needed.

With no resistance encountered Devens concluded that the opportunity to move on Leesburg was still there, so he sent word back to Stone to send the rest of the Union force across the river. Stone sent elements of the First California and Forty-Second New York regiments, which would raise the total number of men to about 1700. Colonel Edward Baker, a sitting U.S. senator, was ordered by Stone to take command of the entire field. When Baker arrived, he deployed companies from the First California to protect his left flank and held the Tammany Regiment, under the command of Colonel Milton Cogswell, in reserve.

All the Federal activity had not gone unnoticed, and the Confederate commander, Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans, had already called for reinforcements. Evans was a capable commander and had already earned a reputation for bravery and as a solid battlefield tactician in the First Battle of Bull Run.

Around 8:00 the battle began when an under-strength company (about 40 men) from the Seventeenth Mississippi attacked the pickets from the Fifteenth Massachusetts on the Union right and a small skirmish ensued. Skirmishing intensified throughout the morning as reinforcements began to arrive for both sides, but the Confederates were able to bring more men more quickly to the battlefield over land or rail, while Union troops had to continue to use the slower process involving crossing the river in the small boats. Around noon, nine infantry companies plus three companies of cavalry, all from the Eighth Virginia Regiment, joined the battle around the Jackson House and smashed into the Fifteenth Massachusetts. By 2:00p.m. Devens gave the order for the Fifteenth to fall back towards the bluff.

At 3:00p.m. the Eighteenth Mississippi Infantry arrived under the command of Colonel Erasmus Burt who wasted no time in hurling his regiment against the Union center on the bluff itself. The Twentieth was engaged in fierce, bloody fighting before the Confederates were repulsed, but each time the Confederates would reform their lines and attack again. The battle was chaotic, disorganized, and fighting was often at the company or even the squad level. Somewhere between 4:00 and 5:00pm Colonel Baker was mortally wounded by a volley of musket fire that riddled his upper torso, the only sitting U.S. senator to have ever been killed in battle.

The Confederates continued to gain the upper hand as the Union force was forced back to the bluff; Colonel Cogswell and the Forty-Second New York attempted to break out, but were unsuccessful. Suddenly the combined Seventeenth and Eighteenth Mississippi mounted another attack, a hellacious screaming charge at the bluff, and this time the Union troops could not withstand the onslaught and were overrun. The rout was on, 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 were not enough boats, and those that were available were quickly swamped or sunk by the men trying to escape the terror. Many who tried to swim across the river drowned or were shot. Henry later wrote a letter home of these particular moments that read:

“The river was at this time was full of swimming and drowning men—a dozen would go below the surface at the same time calling for help. The bullets falling on the river were so thick that the stream resembled a sheet of water during a heavy shower. For my part I expected to be hit every moment and would have been perfectly satisfied to have sent home a few kind words to you that I preferred dying on the field to deserting my men.” [1]

Over 500 Union soldiers, including Colonel Lee, regimental commander of the Twentieth Massachusetts, were still on the Virginia side of the river when the last of the meager supply of boats was lost. All they could do was press their faces so hard against the dirt so as to burrow into it if they could, while hellfire rained down upon them.

An “embedded” newspaper reporter from the New York Herald also wrote:

“Just after sunset a horrible scene occurred in this tragedy of blood. The only boat now available was filled with wounded, who endeavored to gain the friendly shore of Maryland; but the enemy fired volley after volley upon those poor, miserable men, until the boat was perforated with balls, and midway in the rapid current it sunk, with all on board, every one of whom drowned.” [2]

Henry was also among those trapped on the Virginia shore and realized that the chances of being killed, wounded or captured were increasing with every passing minute, so he gathered three other officers from his regiment, Captain William Bartlett, Lieutenant Henry Abbott, and Lieutenant Charles Whittier, along with about eighty soldiers mixed from the Fifteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts, the Forty-Second New York, and the First California regiments. Daylight was fading, and they slipped away carefully, making their way upriver on foot, always fearful of ambush at any moment from having so many men in tow. Their efforts were rewarded when they discovered a boat, which was damaged and hardly seaworthy, but they repaired it.

The boat was only large enough to transport five at a time, once again an arduous, time-consuming task, but it was eventually accomplished with all souls saved, Henry and Captain Bartlett being the last ones across. Again, in the same letter home previously mentioned, Henry wrote:

“… [Captain William] Bartlett and myself had made up our minds to see the men safe across before going ourselves. George [probably Captain Bartlett’s Lieutenant George Macy] was very loth [sic] to go indeed, preferring to remain with me. About 9½ p.m. we all got across and shall not very soon forget my moonlight paddle across the Potomac.” [3]

Henry had experienced his first combat. He had survived by luck and by his wits physically unhurt, and he had avoided capture; and he exhibited bravery and resourcefulness under fire in the process of saving some eighty lives. As regimental surgeon Dr. Nathan Hayward noted,

“All our officers of the 20th behaved bravely without one exception. Some showed more than personal bravery—endurance, caution and a power of command. Captain Tremlett rescued his whole remaining company.” [4]

Ball’s Bluff was not a large battle, more of a skirmish compared to many American Civil War battles to come, but it was another early Confederate victory and another ugly Union defeat at a time when Washington was growing more and more impatient over the lack of military success.

After Ball’s Bluff, the Twentieth Massachusetts returned to Camp Benson back at Poolesville. Members of the regiment that survived the battle were assigned once again to picket the Potomac and guard against any Confederate movement on Washington. They would remain there for the rest of 1861 and through the first few months of 1862. During that time, Henry was sent back to Boston to perform recruitment duty with a request to enlist 200 men in order to replenish the Twentieth Massachusetts’ depleted ranks.

[1] : Letters from Henry M. Tremlett, Reports, Letters & Papers Appertaining to 20th Mass. Vol. Inf by Association of Officers of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Boston Public Library Rare Books Collection; 165:168.

[2] : “The Fight at Ball’s Bluff,” Our Poolesville Correspondence, New York Herald, 28 Oct. 1861; 5.

[3] : Letters from Henry M. Tremlett, Reports, Letters & Papers Appertaining to 20th Mass. Vol. Inf by Association of Officers of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Boston Public Library Rare Books Collection; 165:168.

[4] : Letters from Nathan Hayward, Reports, Letters & Papers Appertaining to 20th Mass. Vol. Inf by Association of Officers of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Boston Public Library Rare Books Collection; 347-348.

Next: Aftermath

Find out more about Colonel Henry Martyn Tremlett and his cousin, the Rev. Dr. Francis William Tremlett during the American Civil War in my book, The Colonel and the Vicar, available on Amazon.com.

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