Loudoun Magazine Fall 2011

Page 24

STARTLED AWAKE Loudoun County and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff


long the Potomac throughout the day. A River stands Confederate soldier later a park where wrote,“Friend and foe were the walking trails are accommodated alike with beautifully kept and whatever the Confederates the views of the river, had, and the ladies were busy gorgeous. Seated less in their various offices of than 3 miles northeast mercy and kindness.” of downtown Leesburg, As the battle raged on, Balls Bluff Park is worthy the Union soldiers found of a day trip under any themselves more surrounded circumstances, but beneath and less able to win ground. its quiet surface lies a But if they gave up, they faced heavy history: a steep cliff, a small patch of Here, on the morning ground below, and a deep of Oct. 21, 1861, around and dangerous river. The 1,700 Federal soldiers skiffs could only take so many under Union Brig. Gen. men at a time and would be BY MEREDITH BEAN McMATH Stone faced around 1,700 exposed to enemy sniper fire Confederate soldiers from the bluff. Col. Edward under Col. Nathan Evans. Stone wanted the battle to be fought Baker, a U.S. Senator and good friend of President Lincoln’s, was in up river along a shallow portion of the Potomac, but a group of charge of the Union Army. Baker decided it was best to press on in inexperienced, nervous and rash Union commanders had rushed hopes of eventually breaking the Confederate line. ahead, placing the Union soldiers in an untenable position: on one But around 5 p.m., Baker was shot and killed, and confusion side, a well-organized Confederate force; on the other, a 70-foot cliff followed as Colonel William R. Lee and Colonel Milton Cogswell and a deep, treacherous river. What happened next was a complete argued over who should assume command. If Lee won the disaster. argument, he planned to call for an orderly retreat across the river. Coming right on the heels of the Union defeat at Bull Run, Cogswell wanted to fight on. Cogswell won the argument for the defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff was a wake-up call to the seniority, and the troops were ordered forward, only to be thwarted Federal Government. Soon after, Congress initiated the Civil War’s and repelled once more. Now their backs were to the cliff. first Inquiry on the Conduct of War, ostensibly for the purpose of If only the boys in blue had known the Confederates in front of guaranteeing this particular history would never be repeated. them were on their last round of ammunition. But the Confederate For the residents of Loudoun, the fight was a different sort of commander in charge of that portion of the troops, Col. Winfield S. wake-up call: the first time they would deal with a large battle and Featherston, determined to make the most of a bad situation. He its gruesome aftermath. ordered his soldiers to advance without firing, stand and fire the “We were startled awake on the 21st by a sharp, brisk last volley together, and then charge with fixed bayonets. When the cannonading,” wrote 18-year-old Virginia Miller, and “… about 9 Union soldiers heard Featherston’s shout above the fray,“Charge, o’clock, there was a great cry that the Yankees were within a mile of Mississippians, charge! Drive them into the Potomac or into town.”Virginia, a guest at Harrison Hall (now Glenfiddich House) eternity,” complete chaos followed. on North King Street in Leesburg, rushed upstairs to the attic Pvt. Randolph Shotwell of the 8th Virginia recorded what the windows to watch Confederate cavalry charging across the fields. Union soldiers did next: “A kind of shiver ran through the huddled “Soon after,” she records,“several wounded prisoners were brought mass upon the brow of the cliff; it gave way; rushed a few steps; into town—some wounded frightfully, one poor man with the blood then, in one wild, panic-strickened herd, rolled, leaped, tumbled streaming from his face, some with arms and legs wounded and over the precipice! The descent is nearly perpendicular, with ragged, another with his jaw bone crushed.” jutting crags, and water laved base. Screams of pain and terror filled The women of Leesburg quickly created makeshift hospitals the air. Men seemed suddenly bereft of reason, leaped over the bluff within churches and homes as the wounded streamed into town with muskets still in their clutch, threw themselves into the river 22

10-23 FALL2011.indd 22

L o u d o u n

M agazine

8/26/11 3:20 PM