The Battle of Ball's Bluff
Report of Col. Charles Devens, Fifteenth Massachusetts Infantry

 

HDQRS. FIFTEENTH REGIMENT MASS. VOLUNTEERS,
Poolesville, Md., October 23, 1861.

        GENERAL: I respectfully report that about 12 o'clock Sunday night, October 20, I crossed the Potomac by your order from Harrison's Island to the Virginia shore with five companies, numbering about 300 men, of my regiment, with the intention of taking a rebel camp, reported by scouts to be situated at the distance of about a mile from the river, of destroying the same, of observing the country around, and of returning to the river, or of waiting and reporting if I thought myself able to remain for re-enforcements, or if I found a position capable of being defended against a largely superior force. Having only three boats, which together conveyed about 30 men, it was nearly 4 o'clock when all the force was transferred to the opposite shore. We passed down the river about 60 rods by a path discovered by the scouts, and then up the bluff known as Ball's Bluff, where we found an open field surrounded by woods. At this point we halted until daybreak, being joined here by a company of 100 men from the Twentieth Massachusetts, accompanied by Colonel Lee. who were to protect our return.
        At daybreak we pushed forward our reconnaissance towards Leesburg to the distance of about a mile from the river, to a spot supposed to be the site of the rebel encampment, but found on passing through the woods that the scouts had been deceived by a line of trees on the brow of the slope, the opening through which presented, in an uncertain light, somewhat the appearance of a line of tents. Leaving the detachment in the woods, I proceeded with Captain Philbrick and two or three scouts across the slope and along the other line of it, observing Leesburg, which was in full view, and the country about it, as carefully as possible, and seeing but four tents of the enemy. My force being well concealed by the woods, and having no reason to believe my presence was discovered, and no large number of the enemy's tents being in sight, I determined not to return at once, but to report to yourself, which I did, by directing. Quartermaster Howe to repair at once to Edwards Ferry to state these facts, and to say that in my opinion I could remain until I was re-enforced.
        The means of transportation between the island and the Virginia shore had been strengthened, I knew, at daybreak, by a large boat, which would convey 60 or 70 men at once, and as the boat could cross and recross every ten minutes, I had no reason to suppose there would be any difficulty in sending over 500 men in an hour, as it was known there were two large boats between the island and the Maryland shore, which would convey to the island all the troops that could be conveyed from it to the Virginia shore.
        Mr. Howe left me with his instructions at about 6.30 a.m., and during his absence, at about 7 o'clock, a company of riflemen, who had probably discovered us, were reported on our right upon the road from Conrad's Ferry. I directed Captain Philbrick, Company H, to pass up over the slope and attack them, while Captain Rockwood, Company A, was ordered to proceed to the right and cut off their retreat in the direction of Conrad's Ferry, and accompany Captain Philbrick as he proceeded to execute the order. Captain Philbrick's command proceeded over the slope of the hill, and the enemy retreated down on the other side, taking the direction of a corn field in which the corn had lately been cut and stood in the shocks. The first volley was fired by them from a ditch or trench, into which they retreated. It was immediately returned by our men, and the skirmish continued hotly for some minutes. I had ordered Captain Forehand, Company G, to re-enforce Captain Philbrick, but a body of rebel cavalry being reported on our left, I directed Captain Philbrick to return to the wood, lest he might be cut off from the main body of the detachment. This he did in good order.
        In the skirmish 9 men of Company H were wounded, 1 killed, and 2 were missing at its close, although the field was carefully examined by Captain Philbrick and myself before we left it. They probably were wounded and crawled into the bush, which was growing in portions of it.
        On returning to the wood I remained waiting for an attack for perhaps half an hour. At the end of this time, as my messenger did not return, I deemed it prudent to join Colonel Lee, which I did; but after remaining with him upon the bluff a short time, and having thoroughly scouted the woods, I returned to my first position.
        I was rejoined at 8 a.m. by Quartermaster Howe, who reported to me that I was to remain where I was, and would be re-enforced, and that Lieutenant-Colonel Ward would proceed to Smart's Mill with the remainder of the regiment, that a communication should be kept up between us, and that 10 cavalry would report to me for the purpose of reconnoitering. For some reason they never appeared or reported to me, but I have since learned they came as far as the bluff. If they had reported to me, they could have rendered excellent service. I directed Quartermaster Howe to return at once and report the skirmish that had taken place, and threw out a company of skirmishers to the brow of the hill, and also to my right and left, to await the arrival of more troops.
        At about 10 o'clock Quartermaster Howe returned and stated that he had reported the skirmish of the morning, and that Colonel Baker would shortly arrive with his brigade and take command. Between 9 and 11 o'clock I was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Ward with the remainder of my regiment, making, in all, a force of 625 men, with 28 officers, from my regiment, as reported to me by the adjutant, many of the men of the regiment being at this time on other duty.
        About 12 o'clock it was reported to me a force was gathering on my left, and about 12.30 o'clock a strong attack was made on my left by body of infantry concealed in the woods and upon the skirmishers in front by a body of cavalry. The fire of the enemy was resolutely returned by the regiment, which maintained its ground with entire determination. Re-enforcements not yet having arrived, and the attempts of the enemy to outflank us being verb: vigorous, I directed the regiment to retire about 60 paces into an open space in the wood, and prepare to receive any attack that might be made, while I called in my skirmishers. When this was done I returned to the bluff, where Colonel Baker had already arrived. This was at 2.15 p.m. He directed me to form my regiment at the right of the position he proposed to occupy, which was done by eight companies, the center and left being composed of a detachment of the Twentieth Massachusetts, numbering about 300 men, under command of Colonel Lee. A battalion of the California regiment, numbering about 600 men, Lieutenant-Colonel Wistar commanding; 2 howitzers, commanded by Lieutenant French, and a 6-pounder, commanded by Lieutenant Bramhall, were planted in front, supported by Company D, Captain Studley, and Company F, Captain Sloan, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts.
        The enemy soon appeared in force, and, after sharp skirmishing on the right, directed his attack upon our whole line, but more particularly upon our center and left, where it was gallantly met by the Twentieth Massachusetts and the California battalion. Skirmishing during all the action was very severe on the right, but the skirmishers of the enemy were resolutely repulsed by our own, composed of Companies A and I, Captains Rockwood and Joslin, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, and Company--, of the Twentieth Massachusetts, under the direction of Major Kimball, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts.
        The action commenced about 3 p.m., and at about 4 p.m. I was ordered to detach two companies from the left of my regiment to the support of the left of the line, and to draw in proportionately the right flank, which was done, Companies G and H, Captains Forehand and Philbrick, being detached for that purpose. By this time it had become painfully evident, by the volume and rapidity of the enemy's fire and the persistency of his attacks, that he was in much larger force than we. The two howitzers were silent and the 6-pounder also. Their commander came from the field wounded.
        Soon after I was called from the right of my regiment, there being at this time a comparative cessation of the enemy's fire, to the center of the line, and learned for the first time that Colonel Baker had been killed, and that Lieutenant-Colonel Ward, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, had been carried from the field severely wounded. Colonel Lee supposing it his duty to take command, I reported myself ready to execute his orders. He expressed his opinion that the only thing to be done was to retreat to the river, and that the battle was utterly lost. It soon appeared that Colonel Cogswell was entitled to the command, who expressed his determination to make the attempt to cut our way to Edwards Ferry, and ordered me, as a preliminary movement, to form the Fifteenth Regiment in line towards the left. The Fifteenth Regiment accordingly moved across from the right to the left of the original line. Two or three companies of the Tammany New York regiment, just then arrived, formed also on its left. While endeavoring to make the necessary disposition to retreat, confusion was created by the appearance of an officer of the enemy's force in front of the Tammany ;regiment, who called on them to charge on the enemy, who were now in strong force along the wood occupied formerly by the Fifteenth Massachusetts during the former portion of the action. The detachment of the Tammany re, merit, probably mistaking this for an order from their own officers, rushed forward to the charge, and the Fifteenth Massachusetts, supposing that an order had been given for the advance of the whole line, rushed with eagerness, but was promptly recalled by their officers, who had received no such order. The detachment of the regiment was received with a shower of bullets, and suffered severely. In the disturbance caused by their repulse the line was broken, but was promptly reformed.
        After this, however, although several volleys were given and returned and the troops fought vigorously, it seemed impossible to preserve the order necessary for a combined military movement, and Colonel Cogs-well reluctantly gave the order to retreat to the river bank. The troops descended the bluff, and reached the bank of the river where there is a narrow plateau between the river and the ascent of the bluff, both the plateau and the bluff being heavily wooded. As I descended upon this plateau, in company with Colonel Cogswell, I saw the large boat, upon which we depended as the means of crossing the river, swamped by the number of men who rushed upon it.
        For the purpose of retarding as much as possible the approach of the enemy, by direction of Colonel Cogswell I ordered the Fifteenth Regiment to deploy as skirmishers over the bank of the river, which order was executed, and several volleys were given and returned between them and others of our forces and the enemy, who were now pressing upon us in great numbers and forcing down furious volleys on this plateau and into the river to prevent any escape. It was impossible longer to continue to resist, and I should have had no doubt, if we had been contending with the troops of a foreign nation, in justice to the lives of men, it would have been our duty to surrender; but it was impossible to do this to rebels and traitors, and I had no hesitation in advising men to escape as they could, ordering them in all cases to throw their arms into the river rather than give them up to the enemy. This order was generally obeyed, although several of the men swam the river with their muskets on their backs, and others have returned to camp, brining with them their 'muskets, who had remained on the Virginia shore for two nights rather than to part with their weapons in order to facilitate their escape.
        Having passed up along the line of that portion of the river occupied by my regiment, I returned to the lower end of it, and at dark myself swam the river by the aid of three of the soldiers of my regiment. On arriving at the island I immediately gathered a force of 30 men, who had reached it with safety, and placed them at the passage of the river to prevent any attempt of the enemy crossing in pursuit, but soon learned that Colonel Hinks had arrived with the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment, and would take charge of the island.
        Our loss, in proportion to the numbers engaged of the regiment, is large, as will be seen by the list of the killed, missing, and wounded, which I annex. A large proportion of those reported missing are probably prisoners in the hands of the enemy.
        Although the result of the day was most unfortunate, it is but justice to the officers and men of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment, as well as to the other troops engaged, to say that they behaved most nobly during the entire day, and that the nation has no occasion to blush for dishonor to its arms. The loss of the regiment in arrest equipments, and clothing is necessarily heavy, the particulars of which I will immediately forward.
        In conclusion, it may not be improper for me to say that, notwithstanding the regiment mourns the loss of the brave officers and soldiers whose names are borne on the list I annex, its spirit is entirely unbroken and its organization is in no way demoralized. It will answer any summons from you to another contest with the foe, although with diminished numbers, with as hearty a zest as on the morning of October 21.

I remain, general, respectfully,
CHAS. DEVENS,
Colonel.

Source:  Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

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