A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861

A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861

by James Morgan




“[P]erhaps a small demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them,” wrote Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone on October 20, 1861. This simple telegram triggered a “demonstration” by General Stone that same afternoon that evolved into the bloody subject of James Morgan’s A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff & Edwards Ferry, October 21–22, 1861.

Opposing the Union effort was Brig. Gen. Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ small Confederate command at Leesburg. Reacting to the news of Federals crossing at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, Evans focused on the former and began moving troops to the point where Col. Edward D. Baker’s troops were gathering. The Northern troops were on largely open ground, poorly organized, and with their backs to the wide river when the Southern infantry attacked. The twelve fitful hours of fighting that followed ended in one of the worst defeats (proportionally speaking) either side would suffer during the entire Civil War, wrecked a prominent Union general’s career, and killed Baker—a sitting United States senator and one of President Abraham Lincoln’s good friends. The disaster rocked a Northern populace already reeling from the recent defeats of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek.

A Little Short of Boats sets forth the strategy behind the “demonstration,” the fighting and the key command decisions that triggered it, and the many colorful personalities involved. The bloody result, coupled with the political fallout, held the nation’s attention for weeks. The battle’s most important impact was also the least predictable: the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Ostensibly formed to seek out the causes of the string of defeats, the Joint Committee instead pushed the political agenda of the “Radical Republicans” and remained a thorn in Lincoln’s side for the rest of the war.

Gracefully written in a conversational style, Morgan’s study is based upon extensive firsthand research and a full appreciation of the battlefield terrain. This fully revised and expanded sesquicentennial edition of Morgan’s A Little Short of Boats includes numerous photos and original maps to make sense of the complicated early-war combat. Seven appendices offer an order of battle, discussions of key participants and controversies, and a complete walking tour of the battlefield at Ball’s Bluff. This special edition will please Civil War enthusiasts who love tactical battle studies and remind them once again that very often in history, smaller affairs have important and lasting consequences.

About the Author: Born in New Orleans, Jim Morgan grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and now lives in Lovettsville, Virginia. A former Marine, Jim is a past president of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable, a member of the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, and a volunteer guide at Ball’s Bluff for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611210668
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Publication date: 08/19/2011
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Born in New Orleans, Jim Morgan grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and now lives in Lovettsville, Virginia. A former Marine, Jim is a past president of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable, a member of the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, and a volunteer guide at Ball’s Bluff for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

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All Quiet along the Potomac

The late summer and early fall of 1861 — the period between First Manassas and Ball's Bluff — is accurately described in the opening line of a popular song of the period as being "all quiet along the Potomac tonight."

Things were so quiet, in fact, that one Confederate later wrote, "During this period of three months there was, practically, a suspension of active hostilities between the Confederate army of the Potomac and the Federal army of the Potomac." Likewise, a diarist in Company C of the 1st Minnesota rather blandly described the entire time between Manassas and the Peninsula campaign of the following spring when he said, "our principal business through the fall and winter of 1861 and 2 was picket duty along the north bank of the Potomac and nothing very remarkable occurred to me or the regiment except the slaughter at Ball's Bluff."

The reason for this extended lull, similar to the static period described as "sitzkrieg" or "phony war" during the early days of World War II, was quite simple. Neither side really knew what hit it at Manassas. That battle, on July 21, was the largest battle in which any American army ever had participated. The Confederates, though victorious, were as disorganized and confused and in need of restructuring as were the defeated Union troops. Sensibly, both armies realized this and pulled away from each other in order to regroup.

The dividing line, of course, was the Potomac River, a defensive moat to the Federals and an international boundary to the Confederates. The Union army had two tasks that had to be undertaken simultaneously, both of which demanded the intelligent use of the protection afforded by the Potomac. It had to defend the capital and it had to get ready to fight again. While the Confederates were in no shape to invade the north or cross the river in an assault on Washington, President Lincoln could not be sure of that. The Potomac became the North's first line of defense.

Major General George McClellan's ever-growing army was deployed south of the river in the area around Washington, D. C., and north of it upriver to the northwest. The Confederate army collected itself more or less along its previous Bull Run–Centerville line and extended eastward along the Occoquan River to the Potomac some 30 miles south of and broadly parallel to the Federal line.

This 30-mile separation did not, however, lessen the need for either army to keep track of the other, so the Confederates established a series of outposts close to, indeed often in sight of, the Union lines. The westernmost of these outposts for the Southern army in this part of Virginia was 35 miles upriver from Washington at Leesburg.

Leesburg was important because of the junction of militarily significant roads and the presence of several usable river crossings nearby. The roads were the north-south running Old Carolina Road (more or less present day Route 15) and the east-west running Alexandria-Winchester Turnpike (Route 7). The intersection of these two roads in Leesburg was, and still is, the center of town, with the in-town portions known as King Street and Market Street respectively.

Two working ferries had been in business before the war. These were Edwards Ferry, just south of the town, and Conrad's, now White's Ferry just north of the town. White's, in fact, remains to this day the only working ferry on the Potomac. Moreover, there were several fords in the area at which the river bottom was firm enough to allow the crossing of large armies with their artillery and heavy wagons. In addition to these features, there was high ground in the area that afforded excellent points from which to observe the Union forces less than three miles away on the other side of the Potomac. For all of these reasons, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston sent the Seventh Brigade of his Army of the Potomac to Leesburg shortly after the Battle of Manassas.

Commanded by Col. Nathan Evans, the brigade numbered approximately 2,800 men. Its primary mission was to watch, though it was expected to resist energetically should the Federals attempt a crossing in force. Indeed, Evans was ordered, if necessary, "to make a desperate stand, falling back only in the face of an overwhelming enemy."

* * *

Nathan George Evans was an 1848 West Pointer who, after graduating 36th out of 38 in his class, spent half of the decade before the war fighting Indians with the elite 2nd U. S. Cavalry in Texas. From mid-1856 until his resignation, Evans was Captain of Company H of the 2nd Cavalry. He had an enviable reputation as a hard fighting horse soldier, later enhanced by his solid performance at Manassas. Unfortunately, he also had a not-so-enviable reputation as a hard drinker. That reputation followed him as well and later would cause him some significant problems.

From at least his days on the plains with the cavalry, Shanks (as he was often called) was known to enjoy his whiskey. During the summer of 1856, after listening to Captain Evans' report of a reconnaissance he had made of a potential bivouac area for the regiment, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee asked him if he had tasted the water in the area to make sure it was good. Evans replied, "By Jove! I never thought to taste the water." This apparently gave all present a good laugh. The author of the regimental history, in reporting the conversation, wrote "those who remember 'Shanks Evans' will appreciate the quiet joke at his expense."

Evans later was accused of being drunk at Ball's Bluff though Captains Albert Gallatin Brown and Otha Singleton, both of the 18th Mississippi and both later members of the Confederate Congress, strongly denied it. In an 1863 letter to President Jefferson Davis in connection with another alcohol-related accusation against Evans, Senator Brown and Representative Singleton wrote, "It has been asserted that Gen'l Evans was drunk at the battle of Leesburg. This we flatly contradict on our personal knowledge and observation." It certainly can be said that, even if Evans were drinking during the battle, it seems not to have affected him to any great degree. He directed his troops well, putting them where they needed to be at the right times.

John C. Tidball, Evans' West Point classmate and later one of the Union's most renowned artillerists, remembered him from their plebe year as being very argumentative in political discussions. He also noted how Evans came by his nickname:

Well do I remember the ranting of one N. George Evans, a nimble-jointed youth from South Carolina, a typical son of his sunny clime, who from his knockneedness was dubbed "Shanks" Evans. With his vehemence he downed every adversary, and even sought among his more silent companions new fields in which to press his conquests.

Brevet Major General and Union cavalry division commander William W. Averell somewhat more respectfully called Evans a "bold dragoon." The author of the 2nd's regimental history similarly dubbed him a "thoroughbred dragoon."

Evans held a Confederate commission as a major of cavalry by June of 1861 and was serving as adjutant-general to the military forces of South Carolina. Both his rank and the level of his authority would soon be the subjects of some confusion.

On June 18, Evans received orders to "conduct (the Fourth South Carolina) to Leesburg, Va., to report to Col. Eppa Hunton, Provl. Army C. S., who will employ it to the best advantage in defending that important position." This order logically seemed to have made Major Evans subordinate to Colonel Hunton, yet Hunton believed that Evans had been sent "to take command of all the forces in Loudoun." Others had the same impression. The Leesburg newspaper reported on July 3 that "Brig. General Evans, late of the U.S. Army, has command of the forces at this point." The Federals also were confused about this command situation. In a report to army headquarters on September 2, General Stone wrote, "General Evans was in command at Leesburg on Saturday."

Whether or not Major Evans had actual operational command of a force that included Colonel Hunton and the 4th South Carolina's Col. J. B. E. Sloan, he clearly did have some loosely defined authority over those officers. This is evident from a letter sent to him from General Beauregard's headquarters on June 26:

The General was much pleased to hear of the course of Colonels Hunton and Sloan. He feels assured too that you will so exercise the delicate function devolved upon you by the patriotic conduct of these gentlemen, and maintain such relations with them, so as to put out of sight the anomalous position you are placed in.

Evans remained in Leesburg and in this "anomalous position" until shortly before the battle of Manassas. At that fight, he was an acting colonel commanding a small temporary brigade that included, among other units, Colonel Sloan's regiment and Maj. Roberdeau Wheat's colorful battalion of Louisiana Zouaves. Shortly thereafter, now-Colonel Evans returned to Leesburg in formal command of the newly organized Seventh Brigade, one regiment of which was Colonel Hunton's 8th Virginia.

Questions about Evans' rank apparently were not clarified fully until he was promoted to brigadier general shortly after Ball's Bluff, his promotion to be effective as of the day of the battle. The somewhat strange command relationship between Hunton and Evans in June and July may have been at least partly responsible for the later friction between the two men.

Serving under Colonel Evans at Leesburg were Hunton's Virginians, three Mississippi infantry regiments, a battery of artillery, and, depending on the source, four or five small companies of cavalry.

The 8th Virginia, about 450 strong, was the smallest infantry regiment in the brigade. Six of its ten companies were from Loudoun County, the other four from neighboring Fauquier, Fairfax, and Prince William counties. At Manassas it was part of Philip St. George Cocke's Fifth Brigade that fought on Henry Hill toward the end of the day.

The three Mississippi regiments, averaging about 600 men each, were from central and northern Mississippi, had been organized during the first flurry of recruiting after Fort Sumter, and had been in Virginia since mid-June. All three were present at Manassas, though not serving together. At that battle, the 13th was part of Jubal Early's Sixth Brigade while the 17th and 18th were with D. R. Jones' Third Brigade and were not heavily engaged until late in the day.

Evans' infantry was supported by the First Company of the Richmond Howitzers (five guns and about a hundred men) and a mixed cavalry force of some 300 men. This consisted of at least four, and arguably all five, of the following units: the Chesterfield Light Dragoons (Co. B, 4th Virginia Cavalry), the Loudoun, or Leesburg, Cavalry (Co. K, 6th Virginia Cavalry), the Madison Invincibles (Co. C, 4th Virginia Cavalry), the Powhatan Troop (Co. E, 4th Virginia Cavalry), and the Wise Dragoons (Co. H, 6th Virginia Cavalry).

Commanding Evans' troopers was an officer with whom Evans had served in the pre-war 2nd Cavalry, Lt. Col. Walter Hanson Jenifer of Maryland. Jenifer was a first lieutenant in Co. B of the old 2nd when the war came and, like Evans, was an experienced Indian fighter.

Though his state did not secede, Jenifer resigned and offered his services to the Confederacy. At Manassas, he commanded a small cavalry force attached to Richard Ewell's brigade. Shortly thereafter, he again was serving with his old comrade, Shanks Evans.

The defenses of Leesburg at the time of Ball's Bluff were centered around Fort Evans, a trapezoidal earthwork of an acre and a half in extent located just off the Edwards Ferry Road about two miles northeast of town on the north side of the Alexandria–Winchester Turnpike (Route 7). Two other major earthworks, Forts Beauregard and Johnston, and a series of minor works were begun during the summer. Construction proceeded sporadically but the fortifications remained incomplete in the Spring of 1862 when the Confederates abandoned the area.

Fort Beauregard was located some two miles southeast of Leesburg, on high ground south of the turnpike, between it and today's Sycolin Road. Forts Beauregard and Evans together were positioned so that they could lay an effective crossfire onto any force approaching on the turnpike from the east.

Fort Johnston was about two miles west of town, overlooking the pike from that direction. All three forts were four-sided, bastioned earthworks of standard period design. Fort Evans and parts of Fort Johnston still exist today though both are on private property and permission is required in order to visit them.

* * *

The Union troops in the area outnumbered the Confederates by more than four to one. For the time being, however, that did not matter as both sides had the same relatively passive assignment. They were there to watch the enemy. The division under Brig. Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone was even named the Corps of Observation, though in fact it hardly differed from any other Union division in that regard. Like its Confederate counterpart, it spent the post-Manassas months observing. Unlike its counterpart, however, it was constantly growing.

Like Evans, Stone was a West Pointer. Graduating seventh out of 41 in the Class of 1845, he served in Winfield Scott's ordnance train during the Mexican War and impressed Scott with his performance during the siege of Vera Cruz and while in command of heavy artillery at the battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec. He won brevets for his conduct at both of those engagements and left Mexico as a brevet captain. After the war, he served as Chief of Ordnance for the Department of the Pacific in San Francisco before resigning from the army in late 1856 to go into private business, first as a banker and gold broker in Marysville, California, then as an engineer and surveyor in the Mexican state of Sonora. While working in the banking business he became good friends with another soldier-turned-banker named William Tecumseh Sherman.

Stone claimed to be, and may well have been, the very first official United States Volunteer of the Civil War. Shortly after a discussion with General Scott on the evening of December 31, 1860, at which Scott asked him to reenter the army and put together a plan for the defense of Washington, Stone was commissioned a colonel and named Inspector-General of the District of Columbia. As he later wrote:

I was mustered into the service of the United States from the 2d day of January, 1861, on the special requisition of the General-in-Chief and thus was the first of two and a half millions called into the military service of the Government to defend it against secession.

Stone did create a plan for the defense of Washington. He also effectively purged secessionists from key positions in the District of Columbia Militia, turning it into a dependably loyal force, and directed the security arrangements for President Lincoln's inauguration ceremonies on March 4. On April 21, nine days after Fort Sumter, he met with General Scott to finalize some plans relating to the defense of selected strong points in the city. That same day, Oregon's Senator Edward Baker and a number of other men with west coast connections met in New York to organize a "California Regiment" in order to symbolically tie California and, more generally, the entire west coast, to the Union. Stone could not know it, but Baker's meeting would have profound consequences for him.

In early June, Colonel Stone was given command of the so-called "Rockville Expedition," a month-long operation designed to protect the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and guard the river crossings as far north as Harpers Ferry. This assignment familiarized him with the part of Maryland across the river from Leesburg and Loudoun County. On August 12, now a brigadier general, Stone assumed command of the brigade that gradually grew into the division-sized Corps of Observation. Though he had no battles to fight for the moment, he stayed busy organizing his command and dealing with problems such as Washington's absurd insistence on openly sending classified information to him through the postal system.

In an August 26 letter to Major Seth Williams, Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of the Potomac, Stone wrote, "It seems to me that sending envelopes through the P.O. marked 'confidential' is the most certain means that could be adopted of making our countersigns known to the enemy." He then positively refused to use any countersigns received in the mail. Apparently, this stopped the practice because the record contains no further reference to it.


Excerpted from "A Little Short of Boats"
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Copyright © 2011 James A. Morgan, III.
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Table of Contents

Author's Preface, Revised Edition x

Acknowledgments xi

Foreword (original edition) Edwin C. Bearss xv

New Foreword George E. Tabb, Jr. xix

Introduction: Then and Now xxi

Chapter 1 All Quiet Along the Potomac 1

Chapter 2 A Slight Demonstration 15

Chapter 3 At the First Symptom of Light 28

Chapter 4 None Too Good to Die In 44

Chapter 5 A Little Short of Boats 67

Chapter 6 With the Steady Tread of Veterans 106

Chapter 7 No Lizards Ever got Closer to the Ground Than we Did 137

Chapter 8 Where All was Lost Excepting Honor 172

Epilogue: Success to the Right 196

Appendix 1 Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry: Annotated Order Of Battle (October 21-22, 1861) 209

Appendix 2 Lieutenant Church Howe 214

Appendix 3 Lieutenant Francis G. Young 218

Appendix 4 The Death of Colonel Baker 223

Appendix 5 The Memorials 232

Appendix 6 Why was There a Battle at Ball's Bluff? 240

Appendix 7 A Walking Tour of the Ball's Bluff Battlefield 248

Bibliography 259

Index 273

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