Review: A Little Short of Boats by James Morgan III

With the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff coming up, I wanted to take a minute to plug James Morgan’s fantastic little book about the battle, A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Balls’ Bluff & Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861. I’ve written before about the huge impact of this little battle, and last year, I was lucky enough to have Jim show me around the battlefield. He’s a man who not only knows his stuff, but he’s passionate in the way he shares it. A Little Short of Boats is a tale well told.

“In the pre-dawn hours of October 21, Charles Devens was not a happy man,” Jim writes:

he had been ordered to lead his first combat mission on virtually no notice, with 300 green troops, at night, across a swollen and swiftly running river, into an area about which he had little information, and he had to get started immediately.

Jim immediately establishes the high stakes on the field for “the scratch force that fought at Ball’s Bluff.” Some 1,700 soldiers would get embroiled in the fight, which would deteriorate into a fiasco: 1,002 of them ended up killed, wounded or missing—most of them driven off the bluff into the Potomac River by Confederates.

One of those casualties was Colonel Edward Baker, U.S. Senator from Oregon and commander of the Union forces on the battlefield. “His command was…as accidental as the battle in which he died,” Jim writes. “In the end, he became the only U.S. Senator ever to be killed in combat.”

Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone

Baker’s death—due largely to his own mishandling of his troops—triggered a hunt for scapegoats, and fingers all pointed to Baker’s commander, Brigadier General Charles Stone. “Phil Kearny, who was a serious soldier himself, called Stone ‘the ablest man in the army,’” Jim told me last year.

The battle, relatively tiny in the large scope of things, had huge repercussions because it triggered the formation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which spent the next three and a half years staring over everyone’s shoulder, armchair generalling from the safety of Washington and creating a hyper-political element that was as damaging as anything the Confederates did.

Jim’s book offers an outstanding chronicle of the events leading up to the battle and of the battle itself (as well as the side action at Edward’s Ferry). Events played out in a way that confused the participants of both sides, but Jim unravels them all and clearly lays them out. Readers can not only follow what happened but understand why each side misinterpreted the confusion the way they did.

As a guide at the battlefield, Jim knows the terrain intimately, which gives his interpretation of events insight and accuracy. He also pulls on hundreds of primary sources to flesh out his narrative.

Fortunately, he doesn’t just stop with the battle itself and its immediate aftermath. He also spends time exploring the ramifications of the battle: the fate of Charles Stone,  the formation of the Joint Committee, the battle’s unfortunate legacy. “That cursed Ball’s Bluff haunts the souls of our chiefs,” a Union general later remarked.

Check out Jim’s book. A Little Short of Boats is a great piece of history.

7 Responses to Review: A Little Short of Boats by James Morgan III

  1. Along with the death of Colonel Edward Baker; was the wounding of a young officer who became very important in his later life – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

  2. This is a great book–recommended to all. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff also left a legacy in Civil War music. A mother of a soldier killed there wrote a poem called “The Vacant Chair.” It went little noticed until a over year later when George Root set it to music. The piece became one of the most poignant mourning songs for the remainder and aftermath of the war.

    1. Ms. Warren,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book and I’m grateful to Chris Mackowski for posting very complimentary review.

      One small correction, however: “The Vacant Chair” was not written by the mother of Lt. John William Grout (Co. D, 15th Massachusetts) but by a family friend and poet, Henry S. Washburn. As you note, it was later set to music by George Root, one of the most prolific songwriters of the day.

      best regards,
      Jim Morgan

      1. Thanks for your great talk on cspan! No doubt you were a fan like me of Laurel Brigade Inn in Leesburg. Was that brigade at Ball’s Bluff?

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