Historians have characterized the Battle of Leesburg/Ball’s Bluff in different ways since it was fought on Oct. 21-22, 1861. But all agree that it was a disaster for the Union—a particularly embarrassing one coming three months after their losses at First Manassas/Bull Run—and that it shocked the Northern public and had lasting political repercussions.
But, for all that, it was, as independent historian James A. Morgan III wrote in his 2004 history A Little Short of Boats: The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry:
“a small [Union] reconnaissance [become] a small raid that became a larger reconnaissance that became a battle. Ball’s Bluff was an accident.”
For the 13th, it all began six days early, on Oct. 15, in the first of a series of orders for a confusing number of marches and counter-marches. The Seventh Brigade’s commander Col. Shanks Evans, charged with guarding the narrow Potomac River crossings north of Washington, was reacting to scanty intelligence. But he also was responding to Gen. Beauregard’s orders. Both men were trying to counter what initially looked like the second great Union attack on the Rebel armies.
The map above, from the Thomas Balch Library at Leesburg, shows the relationship of the places the 13th and the rest of the brigade marched, to and from their camps at Ball’s Mill and Carter’s Mill, to Leesburg and, eventually, to Edwards Ferry at the mouth of Goose Creek on the Potomac.
From the diary of Private Albert Wymer Henley of The Spartan Band:
“Though heavy cannonading was of a daily occurrence along the Potomac river, yet nothing of an alarming nature transpired to excite attention. On the 15th of October however, it seems that the enemy contemplated an early advance and to this end, threatened us at different points at the same time. Harper’s Ferry and Fairfax seemed destined to be the first places of attack. We accordingly set about preparing to meet them at whatever point our services might be required. We were ordered to cook two rations and be ready to march in the morning.”
Quartermaster clerk William H. Hill wrote in his diary the next day:
“Wednesday. Clear and cold frost this morning. The Regiment left [its Ball’s Mill camp] this morning according to orders and marched [nine miles north] to Leesburg… Heavy firing all day in the direction of Fairfax C.H.”
The 13th and the rest of the brigade had left their tents and baggage behind at Ball’s Mill and so spent Oct. 16, an uncomfortably cold day, waiting near Leesburg for something to happen. A courier from Gen. Beauregard arrived about 9 p.m. with news that his army was retreating from Fairfax in the face of Union Gen. Archibald McCall’s division. Col. Evans told his brigade to get ready to march to Carter’s Mill, on the southern boundary of Oatlands Plantation, about eight miles southwest of Leesburg.
The Spartan Band’s Henley again:
“….expecting to be ordered off every minute we slept none and rested but little. Early in the morning [Thursday, Oct. 17] another courier arrived with orders to march immediately. Long roll was accordingly beat and about 2 o’clock a.m. we arose, cold and weary, fell into line and started on the march [seven miles]….camped on Goose Creek near Carter’s Mill. The 17th and 18th Miss. regiments, a small detachment of cavalry and three pieces of artillery camped close by. Under strict orders that, upon no account, should anyone leave his quarters, here we remained until Saturday, the 19th.”
Historian Jason Silverman, in his 2010 biography Shanks: The Life and Wars of General Nathan G. Evans, C.S.A., said Evans ordered the move to Carter’s Mill “believing a flank movement by the Northern army was forthcoming along the Aldie turnpike (which ran from Alexandria to Snickersville Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains)….” The turnpike (see the map) was just south of Carter’s Mill.
Evans notified Beauregard of the move, which drew a protest from the general about abandoning Leesburg. Nevertheless, he allowed the brigade to remain at Carter’s Mill, as long as one regiment “without baggage or tents, and to be relieved every three or four days,” stayed in possession of Leesburg. Evans already had left the 8th Virginia Regiment near Leesburg on picket duty.
It rained that night. On Friday morning more couriers took the muddy roads to the Carter’s Mill camp with news of what was going on near Fairfax.
From Quartermaster clerk Hill:
“The enemy are in possession of Fairfax C.H. and advancing on Manassas. They are burning and destroying everything in their line of march. The citizens are following our Army in large crowds for protection. The part of our Army being compelled to fall back from Fairfax C.H. cast a shade and gloom over the camp. The troops here feel they are cut off from the main Army, but a settled resolution marks the countenance of every man to fall fighting on the field rather than being taken alive by the enemy.”
Actually, McCall’s division was advancing on Dranesville, about fourteen miles southeast of Leesburg, under orders from Gen. George McClellan. Little Mac wanted the engineers to draw maps of the area and also hoped to intimidate Col. Evans into withdrawing from Leesburg without a fight, according to the U.S. Army History Center:
“….giving McClellan an easy victory and satisfying a Congress anxious for the Union Army to take the initiative.”
Instead of withdrawing, however, Evans had the brigade move from Carter’s Mill, on Saturday, Oct. 19, back to Leesburg. All but the 13th regiment, which Evans ordered farther downstream on Goose Creek to the brigade’s old camp at Ball’s Mill.
The Army History Center:
“By midnight on the nineteenth, Evans was alerted to McCall’s advance when a Union courier carrying instructions to McCall’s command was captured. Instead of evacuating the area, Evans moved his brigade to a defensive position on the Leesburg Turnpike and along the north side of Goose Creek.”
That night, as federal batteries on the Maryland shore began to shell Evans’s entrenchments at Fort Evans, his earthwork headquarters on Leesburg’s east side, Hill recorded in his diary:
“Mr. Woods, a citizen of Loudon Co. came into [the Ball’s Mill] camp…and stated that the enemy, in large force, are advancing on us along the Alexandria road, and that they were then within eight miles of camp…[Col. Barksdale] immediately doubled the pickets on all roads and sent [Quartermaster Sgt. Robert C. Topp] to Leesburg with the intelligence to Gen. Evans. The men are ordered to sleep on their arms and be ready to move at any moment.”
The next morning, Sunday, Hill recorded that the regiment received orders from Col. Evans “to march to Leesburg in haste. They left camp at daybreak and got there in 2 hours.”
About the same time, according to the History Center:
“…a Union signal station at Sugar Loaf Mountain [MD], now unable to see Evans’ force, reported to McClellan that the enemy had apparently moved away from Leesburg.”
The observation prompted McClellan to order Gen. George P. Stone’s division to keep a lookout on Leesburg and, then, in what turned out to be the instigating factor of the Battle of Leesburg/Ball’s Bluff, Little Mac added, “Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”
Meantime, the 13th had arrived in Leesburg in a drizzling rain and, yet again, received new orders. Pvt. Thomas D. Wallace of the Winston Guards wrote in his diary:
“When we got there we got orders to go down to the mouth of Goose Creek, which is about 4 miles east of Leesburg.”
Henley, of the Spartan Band, added:
“On our way, we were met by [Col.] Evans, who halted us and in a few words exhorted us to be valiant, heroic and brave, after which [Col. Barksdale] proposed three cheers for the South and three more for [Col.] Evans, both of which were cheerfully given. Then we right faced and proceeded on our way.”
Near Edward’s Ferry, they stayed for the rest of the day and all that Sunday night, with no blankets and nothing to eat, undoubtedly hoping that, after several days of exhausting and inconsequential marching on slick and muddy roads, something was finally going to happen.
Indeed, the battle of Leesburg/Ball’s Bluff was about to begin.