In the Wake of Ball’s Bluff

The Federal defeat at Ball’s Bluff was small in scale but large in its repercussions. (LOC)

In his diary on October 22, 1862, John Haley of the 17th Maine recounted his experience camping near the Ball’s Bluff battlefield a year after the battle:

“[W]e were sent on picket on a strip of land between the Potomac and the Baltimore & Ohio Canal, nearly opposite Ball’s Bluff, a place of most unhappy memory so far as we are concerned…” he wrote….

Never were such weird sounds heard at this spot in the blackness of night—moans, groans, growls, and screeches. Perfect blood curdlers! A neighborhood of felines engaged in an Ethiopian concert couldn’t have added anything to the racket. Those men who were nervously inclined or superstitious were tremendously agitated. Their imaginations ran riot and they heard very much more than circumstances warranted. Some of them heard the splashing of oars, and strained their eyes nearly out of their sockets to see who was coming. It was only the Potomac’s tiny billows lashing the shore. But there was something weird and ghostly about this place, where so many good men were murdered, that almost stopped our hearts. At no other place have we experienced so much timidity without any real cause. The noises could all be traced to natural phenomena—the sighing of the wind through the trees, the hooting of owls, sounds made by coons and sundry other animals—but all seemed doubly loud and fearful because of associations of the place….

In the morning we discovered some of the causes of the sepulchral sounds of the night and concerned ourselves no further with ghosts, ghouls, loons, or Rebels.

The 17th Maine had, in 1862, recently been mustered into the army and were marching on their way from Washington to join the Army of the Potomac in the wake of its Maryland Campaign. The Mainers would see their first action at the battle of Fredericksburg in December.

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