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Chapter 11:

  • What the enemy did when our forces had left Leesburgh
  • -- Plots of Union traitors during our absence -- threatened approach of the enemy from Drainsville upon our right flank -- we march out to the attack, Sunday, October twentieth -- capture of a Federal courier -- the ruse discovered -- plans of Stone, Baker, and Banks -- Countermarch to the Ferry road -- watching the river -- shell-firing by the enemy -- the enemy cross in force at Ball's Bluff on Sunday night, and at Edwards's Ferry, Goose Creek, and other Passages on Monday morning -- details of the battle of Leesburgh -- General Baker killed -- Colonel Coggswell, with eight hundred men taken prisoners -- great slaughter -- victory of the Confederate forces -- retreat of the enemy to Maryland -- our reenforcements arrive.

While our brigade was away from Leesburgh, and pickets were no longer at the river, many negroes crossed the stream, and informed the Yankees of our whereabouts. Several Unionists, also, had conferred with their friends, and every acre of the vicinity had been accurately mapped out by their engineers. We had long suspected old farmer Trunnell of treachery-his only son had joined the Northern army, and was a brigade commissary in it. It was to his knowledge of localities that the Yankees chiefly trusted when placing their batteries, and he had often been seen directing artillerists in their efforts to shell the town. His father was extremely wealthy, and had an extensive plantation near the river, adjacent to Ball's Bluff. He had large dealings with our army, and was paid thousands of dollars for supplies. His negroes frequently ran away to Maryland, but invariably returned after a few days' absence; a circumstance which rendered it highly probable that the old man corresponded with his son. He himself and his whole household were peculiarly insulting to our soldiers, and I myself have frequently seen signal lights at his house answered from the hills in Maryland. Yet he lived undisturbed in his homestead, and was neither insulted nor annoyed by any one.

Our return to Leesburgh caused some speculation, but the answer to all inquiries was, that “we were to hold the place [95] until the enemy appeared, and then retire.” Unlooked for by any, the remainder of our brigade marched into town late on Saturday evening, and pitched tents in the accustomed place. Having had but little rest during the past week, I congratulated myself on the prospect of a long nap now that our whole force was come to relieve us; but it fell to my lot to be ordered on guard, and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible round a camp-fire, little dreaming of the stirring events in which we were about to act a principal part.

One company of the Thirteenth Mississippi had been detailed to picket the river on our left from Carter's Ferry to the head of Harrison's Island; one of the Seventeenth picketed to Edwards's Ferry on our right; horse pickets were on duty still lower down the river, watching the ferry,, where Goose Creek flows into the Potomac; another company of horse were watching Goose Creek bridge and the Drainsville road on our right flank and rear; a company of horse were also on our extreme left up the river, and one of the Eighteenth Mississippi occupied Fort Evans midway between the river and town. This was our disposition on Saturday night, October twentieth. Our active lieutenant-colonel had gone out to examine the posts along the river, but had not visited the woods around Ball's Bluff. It was a wild desolate place, and the guards disliked duty in the neighborhood. The Bluff so called was about thirty feet above the level of the river, and not more than one hundred yards from Harrison's Island, the level of which was some twenty-five feet lower than the Bluff. The island, however, was fringed with timber, and could conceal thousands of men. Little notice had been taken of this cheerless looking place, and few guards of either party were seen in its vicinity, although the island was in undisputed possession of the enemy. It was at this point that the enemy's spies and engineers had crossed a few days previously, and seeing only a few tents on the outskirts of Leesburgh, had reported that three companies held the town.

About three A. M., Sunday morning, our lieutenant-colonel rode into camp hastily, and in a few minutes every man was under arms; tents disappeared without noise, and we were drawn up in line of battle. We knew not what to surmise, unless another retreat was contemplated-perhaps to Goose [96] Creek, through mud, two or three feet deep, as usual! The doubt was soon resolved. Evans and his staff were seen approaching through a dense mist, and our men being formed in columns of division at half distance, the old gentleman addressed us almost in the following words: “Gentlemen, the enemy are approaching by the Drainsville road, sixteen thousand strong, with twenty pieces of artillery! They want to cut off our retreat! We must fight!-you need not expect any reenforcements, for none can arrive in time if they were sent. I am going to lead you out to meet them, and if you obey orders we shall give the Yankee rascals a sound thrashing! You have met them before, so have I-we both know of what they are made. I shall be as economical of human life as possible, and shall not sacrifice one man unnecessarily. Gentlemen, I fully rely upon you, and have unbounded confidence in your courage and patriotism! Gentlemen, good-morning.” Before the General rode off, some few essayed to cheer, but the prevalent feeling was despondent. None cared so much about a fight on equal terms — if any thing, they would willingly have accepted a challenge from any two regiments the enemy could produce; but, much as we all admired our commander's pluck, it appeared hazardous for a brigade of two thousand seven hundred men, with four guns, to meet in mortal strife not less than sixteen thousand of the enemy, with twenty pieces of artillery!

The die was cast, however; all the baggage had moved many miles to the rear, and we marched across Goose Creek bridge and along the Drainsville road to meet the enemy under General McCall. As the sun had not yet risen we approached the mouth of Goose Creek, crossed it, and passed near the guns of the enemy commanding these points without being observed; had they perceived us defiling from the woods along the road, a finer target for their rifled pieces could not have been desired. We proceeded towards Drainsville some two miles and halted, just as the sun rose; and, as our haversacks were empty, smoked our pipes with great gusto in lieu of breakfast. A courier came down the road and informed Evans that the enemy were six miles away, but had not stirred since six P. M. the previous evening. We marched back to await their approach, and bivouacked in the woods. Presently two of our mounted troopers came up with a Federal courier, who had been [97] captured proceeding on his way with despatches from McCall to Stone. His papers betrayed little, yet sufficient to reveal that it was designed to draw us from Leesburgh along the Drainsville road, while Stone crossed-and occupied the town. Evans was the very last man to be deceived by such a transparent trick, and as we marched back across the creek and halted in the woods along the Edwards's Ferry road, he drily observed, showing his teeth, as usual: “They won't come that way, boys; but had they done so, we would have given them what they never yet had a d — d good whaling!”

As we lay in the woods all Sunday, the church bells were sweetly ringing, and nature seemed to sleep in the glorious sunshine of the Indian summer-all around us wore an unnatural calm, and every man as he quietly sat or slumbered beneath the. leafy shade seemed lost in reverie. We had nothing to eat, our wagons and stores were far away towards Manassas, and every half hour reports would come in that the enemy seemed very busy at the river, while the glittering of long lines of bayonets could be plainly seen moving to and fro. As if from intuition all the cottagers left their humble dwellings and farms, and hurried away to town, while the soldiery, half famished, despoiled the gardens, and feasted on raw vegetables, or stole a few ears of corn from the barns, eating it raw. The stillness was oppressive, and all complained of thirst; a few unslung their knapsacks and hurriedly wrote letters home, sending them by couriers passing to town.

As the sun began to decline, the enemy's batteries at Edwards's Ferry furiously shelled in every direction, aiming particularly at Fort Evans, the red earthworks of which could be plainly discerned dotting the green hill, and overlooking a bend in the road near the town. Shell were screaming over our heads through the air in great numbers, even when darkness covered the scene; and bursting in all directions, they presented a rather pretty pyrotechnic display — the white circles of luminous smoke seeming to hang with great sensitiveness and delicacy in the air.

When all was quiet again reports came in that the enemy were bringing up many boats from various creeks below, and shortly afterward a courier arrived post haste and reported that seven hundred men had landed at the Old Ferry at the foot of [98] our road. Three right companies of the Eighteenth Mississippi were sent down there-one went into the timber round the Ferry House, with orders when the enemy advanced to fire and fall back; the second was to act similarly, and the third to protect the retreat and entice the enemy on. They had returned, however; and soon afterward their tattoo was sounded, and we could plainly hear the men answering roll-call. We were ordered away lower down stream to the mouth of Goose Creek — the enemy had been at both places trying their boats; We picketed all night, nearly frozen to death, had nothing to eat, wore light summer clothes, and had no blankets or fires.

Why these three companies were detached so far from the main body I could not tell; we were immediately under the guts of Edwards's Ferry, and were not informed how to retreat. When the sun rose next morning, (October twenty-first,) we anxiously awaited orders of recall; but receiving none, the captains determined to fall back. Seeking the banks of the creek, we followed a hog-path by the water's edge up-hill, and were particularly fortunate in not tumbling over the precipitous banks. We kept to the woods, and had not crossed the hill five minutes when the heavy guns at Edwards's Ferry began to shell furiously, many of their missiles falling in close proximity to our halting-place. Within ten minutes more we heard the music of fife and drum, and, looking over the hill, saw a strong force of the enemy issuing from the lane where we had picketed all night, with cavalry in front, and guns. Their infantry followed in martial array, and turned up the stream toward Edwards's Ferry. Their appearance was martial and imposing. “At last,” thought we, “now comes the tug of war!”

Not being more than a mile distant in the plain, our companies enjoyed a fine panoramic view of every thing passing. When the enemy had formed line of battle, and artillery was placed in the road, a squadron of cavalry were sent out to reconnoitre. They galloped gaily toward Leesburgh, and passed a company of the Eighteenth ensconced in the woods. The gay-looking horsemen had not proceeded far, when they suddenly came upon the Eighteenth, drawn up across the.-road behind some timber, and, receiving a withering volley, turned [99] and fled, having to run the gauntlet of the company, who, from their covert, fired heavy loads of buck-shot into them as they passed. From our position on a hill to the right, we clearly saw the discomfiture of the cavalry; their officer commanded them to move forward a second time, but they were so discouraged that no persuasion could induce them to stir.

Fresh troops now began to pour across the river from the mouth of Goose Creek, and from Edwards's Ferry, until at last there were many regiments drawn up in line of battle, well supplied with artillery. The position of the Eighteenth being known, the enemy began to work their batteries with great vigor, firing twenty-four-pound spherical case-shot, and shelling the woods in all directions. The Eighteenth then fell back towards town, and formed line to the left, with the Seventeenth to the right of the road, and at the foot of a hill on which the artillery was placed in Fort Evans--the first regiment having its left on a bank of the Potomac, while the right of the second regiment lay on Goose Creek, In the rear were the Thirteenth Mississippi and the Eighth Virginia, and still farther beyond was a masked battery in the woods designed to sweep the road, should we be forced back. Skirmishers were sent out to our front, but no enemy appeared; scouts reported them ten thousand strong, with twelve pieces drawn up at the Ferry, but there were no indications of an advance. They still kept shelling the woods vigorously, and their percussion shell fell very close to us, as we lay waiting an attack, smoking, laughing, and eating raw cabbages to assuage hunger.

To our left and rear, however, about two miles up the stream, things began to assume a lively aspect. One company of the Thirteenth, on picket there, had been surprised and driven in by a regiment which had unexpectedly marched out from the woods around Ball's Bluff. The company fought well, and, once getting the enemy on broken ground, began to deal destruction among them with a rapid and accurate fire. The captain was in his shirt-sleeves, and the men not much better attired. “Halt and surrender!” roared the Federal commander, galloping towards our men, as they were falling back; “don't fire, we are friends!” Our men, however, had jumped into a field, and each man, taking refuge behind a sheaf of corn, kept [100] on “popping” away with great rapidity and precision. The Yankee colonel ordered his men “forward,” but they did not stir, and seemed inclined to fall back for protection to the woods. Then our bare-headed captain of the Thirteenth ordered his men to reserve their fire, and advance at the charge! Strange to tell, these eighty brave boys, with a yell, boldly advanced at a run towards the beautiful line of the enemy, suddenly halted, delivered a murderous volley, and then charged. The enemy did not stand, but retired to the woods, and kept up a desultory fire from their covert. A cavalry company hearing the musketry, when far up the river, advanced, dismounted, and used their Maynard rifles with fine effect, and drove the enemy still farther into the woods.

The Federals, however, were pouring across at Ball's Bluff in great force, and two companies of the Eighteenth being ordered there to sustain the pickets, the battle commenced in earnest. At one time the enemy were driven in, but, being shortly afterwards reenforced, they drove our men completely out of the timber into the open ground. When they essayed to advance still farther, however, our gallant boys reserved their own, but drew the fire of the enemy, and when within seventy yards blazed away with awful precision, and with a yell charged them through the woods, loading and firing rapidly as they advanced.

It was now midday, and still our brigade, with few deductions, remained idly on the Edwards's Ferry road, and had done nothing, except eat raw vegetables. The sudden falling back of our small force at Ball's Bluff, about one P. M., told plainly that the foe were in great force, and soon afterwards their cannon began to roar. The Eighth Virginia (four hundred strong) were ordered to proceed to the spot, and drive in the enemy. Their arrival greatly relieved the wearied pickets, and the firing became lively, but it was plain that the enemy outnumbered us at all points, and we heard their long volleys with great anxiety and impatience. It was not known at what point the enemy meant to make their most vigorous attack. Our great strength had been reserved for the defence of Fort Evans, and, finding the enemy were not inclined to advance, Evans determined to do so. Our orders were to attack the [101] enemy, and “make the business short.” “Forward, boys,” said our General; “if they won't come to us, we must go to them, and in less than an hour we'll make them wish they had never been born.”

The Eighteenth led, and following came the Seventeenth and Thirteenth, with four howitzers. As we reached the highest point in the road, we saw the enemy drawn up in beautiful order, in columns of companies, with many pieces of artillery and some cavalry; above them, on the other side of the river, were three batteries placed on a hill, and all ready for action! Several brigades had not crossed, and we could plainly see them with arms stacked! As we silently moved forward, an Adjutant galloped to the front, and the column halted. The enemy plainly saw our whole force, but reserved their fire. “They have nearly surrounded us at the Bluff,” he said, “and the Eighteenth is to countermarch to their relief” So the Seventeenth and Thirteenth countermarched to their old position, and after pulling down the fences, we began our race of two miles to turn the tide of battle. As we left the road a strange sight was presented, and which caused many a hearty laugh. Some hundred or more of our regiment who were sick, had escaped from. the hospitals, knocked over the doctors and parsons who tried to prevent them, and marched out to participate in the fight, and now fell into rank with great good humor! As many more had left the hospitals in the morning contrary to orders, and not knowing the whereabouts of their respective regiments, had directed their steps to the line of fire, and fought manfully. As we ran towards the scene of battle, the roar of the enemy's musketry and cannon was deafening.

“Lige” White, who had been very active all day, rode up to us and confirmed the statement that our small force was nearly surrounded: he knew every inch of the ground perfectly, and piloted us into a position immediately in front of the enemy's centre. The enemy did not expect us in that direction, and a lull in the firing immediately ensued. Our fatigued comrades seemed with one accord to leave the battle entirely to as; and we did not disappoint their flattering expectations. Advancing through the woods in good order, we at last came in sight of a large open field where the centre of the Yankee [102] semicircular line of battle was supported by four howitzers. Knocking down the fences, we jumped into the open and reformed, as coolly as if on parade. The four right companies instantly dashed up a rising ground to the right, and dispossessed the foe of a patch of woods that commanded their centre. Though vigorously assailed with shot and shell, our right companies fired so quickly, and with such murderous accuracy, that the guns were soon deserted; but the fire of the enemy's infantry at the same time was so well sustained that had. we not been wise enough to load and fire on all-fours, not a man of us would have escaped. We had the advantage of a full view of every movement made by the enemy, and all their advances were chastised with such heavy loss that they contented themselves with the cover of the timber on the Bluffs and could not be induced to advance.

Such a roar of musketry, for the numbers engaged, I never heard. Many fell on our side. The four right companies had over one hundred killed or disabled; but though two thousand men — some of the very best in the Federal army, and under Baker — were opposed to them and kept up a semicircle of fire, our men held on like bloodhounds, and neither threats, commands, nor entreaties of officers could induce them to fall back and re-form the regiment. The men would not do it; the enemy were before them; they would advance, if ordered, but no falling back for any thing. In fact, these four companies were fighting the battle alone, and the enemy were losing scores every moment. Our men had bought large quantities of buckshot, and reserved them for “close quarters,” as they termed it, and were now using them with terrible effect. Besides the ordinary musket cartridge, they put in from eight to sixteen buckshot, and kept up the fire with so much effect that the enemy's front and all around the guns were strewn with the dead and wounded in hundreds.

General Baker having been killed shortly after our fierce onset, Colonel Coggswell now commanded the enemy, and thought to make good his retreat by a flank movement to Edwards's Ferry. While he deliberated, the Seventeenth came in on our left flank, and the rest of our regiment assailed him on the right. For some time the battle raged with great fury, and it seemed to us there was no end to the stream of fresh [103] troops relieving the enemy. But Colonel Coggswell had succeeded to the command in a luckless hour. Endeavoring to move by the left flank, in order to effect a junction with Stone at the Ferry, he was intercepted by our lieutenant-colonel, who advanced against him with six companies, and having surrendered, we had the satisfaction to see eight hundred prisoners, with the chief in command, marched to the rear.

The fighting still continued in the centre, as if the troops were unaware of Coggswell's surrender, but as it was not our object to shed blood unnecessarily, we all ceased firing for a few moments. Our company was detached from the regiment, and rested on the right of the Virginians, who lay in the woods. We were soon ordered to advance across the open ground at the double-quick, to join the regiment drawn up in the woods at the edge of the river, and as we did so, up rose the enemy on the Bluff, and poured a heavy volley into us; but we dropped in time, rose up instantly, rushed on, discharged our pieces in their faces, and drove them over the Bluff on to the bayonets of their friends, thirty feet below. Such slaughter, such havoc and mangling of living men, it has never been my lot to witness in any battle. Our men were wrought up to fury, and fought like fiends; no unfair advantages were sought, nor did any act contrary to the rules of war; but, greatly outnumbered at all points, they eagerly seized upon every opportunity to inflict chastisement, and from their masterly use of the musket, killed and wounded twice as many as their own number actually engaged.

The centre of the enemy was now completely broken, and the remnant driven over the Bluff into the river; the guns were ours, and dragged off; the right was captured to a man; and the left had disappeared under the high banks of the river, and dispersed in small parties, endeavoring to cross. As we lay in line of battle, expecting a fresh attack, I plainly saw the wrecks of three large flats, on which hundreds had perished. They had been used for bringing over reenforcements, and returning with wounded, but such was the consternation among the troops, that large numbers rushed on board, trampling upon the wounded, until they all sank together amid frightful screams. Colonels and captains had deserted their commands, and throwing off [104] their clothing, escaped by swimming; at one time the river seemed covered with heads, and when, being ordered back, refusing to return, nearly all were shot by our men. On the island we saw several regiments drawn up, but the rout and destruction of their comrades appalled them: they would not advance, and, to prevent loss from our accurate fire, they were led off from the island into Maryland. Several houses on the island had been converted into hospitals, and the hundreds of suffering beings who lay around the field presented a harrowing sight.

The sun had now set, the battle was over, and various companies of men were detailed to bear off the wounded, bury the dead, secure arms and prisoners, and hold the field. Our right was still threatened, and every available man marched to support the Thirteenth, who held Fort Evans. The enemy, indeed, had not advanced an inch, but there was no certainty regarding their movements.

At night I went to the Bluff to look after the wounded. The sight was an awful one; the groans in every direction fearful to hear. Burial-parties were busy with spades, and many a noble boy might be seen consigned to his last resting-place. Crowds of carriages and conveyances were on the ground, bearing off the wounded, while the hospitals in town were thronged by ladies, young and old, lending their tender aid in all manner of offices. Indeed, while the battle was progressing, crowds of women gathered on a neighboring hill, and wept and bewailed, while many a good sturdy fellow kept in-doors, ready to shout for either party, and did not stir out till victory had saluted our banners.

The Yankees who had hid themselves along the bank of the river were 10th to come forth, but after much persuasion, they voluntarily came forward in a body, threw down their arms, and marched to town very good-humoredly, and, after being refreshed, were sent towards Manassas that same night. The quantities of arms we found along the banks surprised me — all being of English manufacture, having on the plates, “Hall, London ;” “Bond, London;” “London Tower,” etc. The stream at the crossing appeared to be literally choked with broken boats, dead bodies, and arms — not less than one [105] hundred dead being piled up under the Bluffs in dozens, and scores in other places, and the sand all gory. The woods around the Bluffs were all cut down or splintered by shot, the trunks of the larger trees looking as if millions of rats had been gnawing them. The number of arms captured was near two thousand, four howitzers, much clothing, a few stores and ammunition, eight hundred prisoners, twenty officers, two colonels, one or two stand of colors. The killed and wounded were about two thousand, not including the three large boatloads that sank, or numbers that fell on the island from stray shot, and from our fire late in the evening. Our loss was not more than from two to three hundred killed, wounded, and missing.

It surprised me at the time, and is still sufficiently remarkable to be worthy of note, that General Evans was not upon or even near the field until the last shot had been fired. Then, however, he came galloping upon the ground, and highly complimented us, saying that he had been anxiously watching us, at the same time observing the enemy's movements along the Edwards's Ferry road. If the truth must be told, he directed our movements from his office in town, two miles away — or between that point and Fort Evans--and was swearing lustily all the afternoon; yet, although he fondly expected the enemy to approach the fort, they did not do so; hence every disposition was made at Ball's Bluff by Colonel Burt, of the Eighteenth, who fell while cheering on the four right companies in their headlong massacre of the enemy. Another remarkable fact: when the Yankees had safely reached the shores of Maryland, they began to cheer like madmen, but for what, will ever remain a mystery. One of the boys dryly remarked, that “the darned fools cheered because they got back safely!” Others said, “they cheered because they felt so mighty big over another victory!” Both were probably near the truth!

Our whole force now lay in the woods round Fort Evans, anxiously looking for the morrow, for all expected the enemy to advance, and endeavor to retrieve their fallen fortunes. Morning came, and scouts reported them strongly fortified, with large reserves, about to cross. We waited until noon, and although the rain poured in torrents, Evans was anxious to entice them forward. The Thirteenth was ordered to open the [106] fight, and draw the enemy out; for this purpose the right wing of the regiment was used, to counterfeit weakness, the left being held in reserve. The Yankees accepted battle, and a large regiment advanced to the attack; the right of the, Thirteenth seeing this, were maddened, (because not called in at the Bluff,) and assailed the New-Englanders with such fury that they broke and ran, the Thirteenth chasing them through ploughed fields, over their breast-works, and past their guns. The guns would have been brought in, but being so far from all support, the men fell back without them. It was in vain that all kinds of expedients were used to entice the enemy on, for, although our small force was too much exhausted and insufficient to attack, we all desired the enemy to advance and try their fortunes. The rain fell in torrents all day, and at midnight three guns and loud cheers were heard from the other bank of the river; the enemy, twelve thousand strong, with twelve pieces, had successfully recrossed the river, and were cheering in consequence Fearful that other forces would move down from Drainsville, and cut off his communication, Evans once more fell back to Goose Creek, where a South-Carolina regiment, a Louisiana regiment, and four guns of the Washington Artillery, reenforced us. Here we anxiously awaited battle from McCall, or any one else who dared to approach. Our reenforcements were eager for the strife, and could a hundred thousand dollars have purchased a battle, they would willingly have subscribed that amount. The Louisianians in particular were fretful for a fight; they had marched from Centreville in a very short time, and in order not to delay, kicked over their barrels of flour, and journeyed with empty haversacks. This regiment was entirely composed of Creoles and Irish--a splendid lot of men, and highly disciplined by Colonel Kelly. They have since greatly distinguished themselves in “StonewallJackson's division, having turned the tide in many battles.

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