It was a battle that wasn’t really supposed to happen, and one combat that is often overlooked, though it had notable effects in 1861. A Union reconnaissance mission gone wrong launched the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, and throughout the day, the Confederates hurried more regiments to scene of action, determined to protect Leesburg, Virginia, and taking advantage of the situation of push the Union troops literally back into the Potomac River. Although Union reinforcements, including the California Brigade commanded by Colonel Edward Baker, attempted to hold the position, series of mistakes and the terrain itself worked against them.
Robert A. Moore, a soldier in the 17th Mississippi Infantry Regiment kept a pocket diary of his war experiences and left insightful commentary on the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
In June 1861, the 17th Mississippi Infantry had mustered at Corinth, and they transferred to Virginia in time for the First Battle of Manassas. From Seven Pines during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign to Cold Harbor in 1864, the regiment would fight in the Army of Northern Virginia, except from the brief period in 1863 when they went with Longstreet’s Corps into Tennessee and fought at Chickamauga and Knoxville. They finally battlefield actions would be in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 and in the Appomattox Campaign in 1865. The regiment’s second major engagement took place at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, outside of Leesburg, Virginia.
On Sunday, October 20th, Moore wrote “in the bushes on Goose Creek,” describing his day and hinting that something was about to happen. After noting that a Union courier had been captured and the unit starting on a march before eating breakfast, he wrote that Evan (Nathan G. Evans, commanding Confederate troops in the region) and the regimental colonel made speeches while the regiment ate lunch. “The Gen. said if we died here he would die with us…. We are not expecting a fight today but would not be surprised if something was done tomorrow.” By evening the regiment was near Edward’s Ferry, and “We all thought we were going into battle when we were going down to the Ferry. The boys all tore up their letters this evening thinking they were going into battle. I laughed at them.”
Moore wasn’t laughing the next day, Monday, October 21st. Near Edward’s Ferry, the regiment got “a bomb in our midst” which prompted them to “stationed ourselves out of range of their guns & waited patiently for them to advance but they would not.” However, upriver, more Union soldiers did cross and throughout the day, Moore and his comrades heard the cannon and the rumors that the 13th and 18th Mississippi Regiments had gone to assist the 8th Virginia. In the late afternoon—Moore says at 4:30 P.M.—”the orders came for us…to double-quick up to the field of battle & were very near run down when we got there.” He noted that the distance of their march was about two miles and that they covered the distance in approximately 20 minutes.
“We made a charge through the woods as soon as we got to the battlefield & formed a line of battle. We formed about five o’clock when the firing was very heavy. When we were formed we advanced[,] firing as we advanced & when we had gotten within about 60 yards of a 12 lb. cannon, orders were given by Col. Featherston to charge & drive the enemy into the river or drive them into eternity…. The cannon was taken & the enemy driven back under the bluff of the river & when we arrived at the brink of the bluff & fired down on them they cried out that they would surrender. Col. told them to send up their officers but they answered that they had none as they had all abandoned them & crossed the river.”
Hundreds of prisoners were taken that evening, along with cannon, and stands of weapons. Moore summed up the battle as “a glorious victory.” Then his thoughts and his journal entry turned to the cost of the triumph and the fierce fighting that he had previously glossed over in his summary. Although the casualty number seems incredibly small compared to future fights, these were his comrades, and these were lives cut short.
“In our Regt. there were but two killed and three wounded. Our Co. had three wounded, one of them mortally. I think, the other two slightly. Robert Ivy fell in the charge, shot through the head. He was among the foremost in the charge & though we sincerely regret his death, we are proud that he fell as a true Mississippians—at his post. Clark Stevens killed the Yankee that Mr. Query by thrusting his bayonet through him three times. Mr. Flippin who was wounded & whose leg has been amputated will recover, it is thought.”
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was a Confederate victory and the casualties were lopsided with Southern losses around 155 and Union casualties totaling just over 1,000. The reconnaissance mission gone awry was not a good beginning for Union General George McClellan’s troops, and that commander monitored the fight by telegraph wire from miles away while the officers on the ground struggled with command decisions and troop position as they fought against a cliff, a river, and an island. While the Confederates rested easy after driving back the Union raid and increased their confidence, Federal authorities worried about the conduct of the war and established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate what “really” happened and to continuously review the performance, failures, and successes of their officers for the duration of the war.
As for Private Moore, he ended the day contently. He finally got to eat. “Have partaken of a fine supper since leaving the battlefield. It was composed of a slice of raw bacon & a piece of loaf bread. A better supper I never ate.”
The 17th Mississippi arrived toward the end of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, but their race to the battlefield and charge into the fight was likely the final straw for the Union regiments still trying to defend the top of the bluff. They arrived under heavy fire and helped to take the artillery position. It was an early laurel for the regimental history.
Robert A. Moore. A Life For The Confederacy, As Recorded in the Pocket Diaries of Robert A. Moore. (Papamoa Press, 2018, digital edition.) Accessed via Google Books. Diary entries from October 20-21, 1861.
James A. Morgan, III. A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edward’s Ferry. (El Dorado: Savas Beatie, 2011).