|25 November 1892, p.7|
An Interesting Account of the 15th Mass. Regiment at Ball's Bluff
In today's Boston Journal, Charles F. W. Archer gives the following interview with Gen. J. W. Kimball of this city:
"Give us a memory picture, general," said the reporter, approaching the old major of the famous 15th, "Your story of the battle that followed the dawn."
State Auditor Kimball looked up from his desk in some surprise, but readily complied.
"I can give you the key to the whole of it," said he. "Lieut. Col. George H. Ward of the 15th Mass., with the five companies of the left wing of the regiment, who was under explicit instructions from Gen. Charles P. Stone to do so, never occupied Smart's Mill on the Virginia shore, as he was ordered. Had he done so, the disaster at Ball's Bluff never could have happened, though of course we might have lost some men.
Col. Ward was not to blame, either, for not doing so, being justified by a later order, which he received to report to Gen. Devens, but, if ever there was a wronged man, that man was Gen. Charles P. Stone."
For so good-natured a man as our present state auditor the general was very emphatic.
"The instance I am about to relate will prove what I say," he continued. "Col. Chase Philbrick of Lawrence, captain he was then, with eight or ten men, possibly (xxx) from the 15th, had crossed the river the night before and had made a reconnoissance over the bluff toward Leesburg, as you already know.
Their encampment proved subsequently to be literally all in the air, though it could be readily seen how they were deceived when one looked at those spaces under the trees, and saw the way they appeared afterward in the moonlight. Capt. Philbrick declared he could have sworn they were tents.
The Long and the Short of It.
Colonel Devens was ordered across the river with five companies of the 15th to advance in the direction of Leesburg, to ascertain what might be developed, while Lieutenatn Colonel George H. Ward, afterward killed at Gettysburg, was ordered to proceed with the remaining five companies across the river to occupy Smart's mill, an old brick flour mill to the right of the bluff, looking from the Maryland shore, towards Conrad's Ferry.
Now, this mill was directly in the range of guns which could be easily brought to bear on our side of the river, and consequently covered by them. If you will study the man you will find that the foot slopes of Ball's Bluff are merged in the ordinary shore level, and that Smart's mill is on very low ground.
It would have been perfectly possible for a very small number of men to have held that mill for any length of time, for no rebel could have approached it under the fire of our guns.
It was the intention of Gen. Stone, it is plain, to make that mill the basis of operations on the Virginia side; in case of necessity a safe point for the men to fall back upon and wait for reinforcements.
But Lieut. Col. Ward did not go with his men where it was intended he should for the reason stated above, and there Gen. Stone's plan failed from no fault of his.
That Camp a Myth.
Col. Devens crossed first, as I stated, soon after midnight. In the early morning he sent forward Capt. Philbrick's company, H, through the woods to skirmish toward the supposed camp in the direction of Leesburg. The company advanced until they came up to the suspicious line of trees, and ascertained that Major Philbrick's supposed camp was a myth.
But behind those trees was another open field rising to a slight elevation. The colonel said to Philbrick: 'Captain, take your men and skirmish to that next elevation and see what you develop.'
Captain Philbrick did so, and beyond the ridge came upon a cornfield. Here his skirmishers developed the rebels concealed in the corn, and there was quite a sharp fight here, the company losing several men. This was quite early in the morning.
Lieut.-Col. Ward, with four companies, crossed to Harrison's Island with the intention of finding the nearest route to 'Smart's Mill.' I was left with the last company to superintend the crossing under orders to rejoin Lieut.-Col. Ward at that mill.
But when we got upon the island we heard the firing on the Virginia shore and knew our men were engaged.
Lieut.-Col. Ward, by reason of the new order, changed his intention of going to the mill, and actuated by the belief that Col. Devens was in peril and in danger of being cut off, decided to disregard Gen. STone's express order, and to go at once to the relief of his chief and his outnumbered comrades. He did so.
When I came up with the rear company I asked the way that Lieut. Col. Ward had taken for 'Smart's Mill,' and was told that he had not gone there at all. I could hardly believe it at first, but was convinced of the fact. It was my duty to report to Col. Ward whenever I could find him, and I crossed my company at once and followed him over the bluff.
The Colonel Glad to See Us.
We crossed the open field on top of Ball's Bluff and found Col. Devens and Lieut. Col. Ward in the belt of woods on the farther side. Of course the colonel was very glad to see us -- to have his whole regiment with him. He was in no immediate peril, however.
Upon the withdrawal of Capt. Philbrick, after his hot flight in the morning, Co. B, Fitchburg Fusiliers, was advanced to the crest of the ridge as skirmishers. I went across the field to the right and saw Capt. Simonds near the Jackson house. I then went down the line to the left and saw Sergeant May, afterward colonel of our 10th militia regiment.
I saw indications there of an attempt by the rebels to get around on our left, and reported back immediately to Col. Devens. He formed his line of battle in the woods. The Johnnies did turn the flank of our skirmish line, and went where Capt. Simonds and so many of our boys were gobbled. George C. Taylor, the first soldier from Fitchburg killed in the war, was shot there.
The rebels came down upon us and we had a very smart engagement, but repulsed them.
Between 1 and 2 o'clock we received word that Gen. Baker had come upon the field and assumed command of all the (xxx) to the bluff.
We came out of the woods by a cart path and crossed the open lot to where the 20th Massachusetts, the 'California Regiment'(so-called), and the New York Tammany boys were drawn up to support us.
I was near Col. Devens when he reported to Gen. Baker. The latter said: 'Colonel, your regiment has done splendidly today. I will give you the post of honor, the right of the line,' and he added, 'if we fight, we will make the battle right here.' That was on the edge of the bluff.
Col. Devens said, 'Major, what time is it?'
I looked at my watch. It was a quarter pat two. That watch went to the bottom of the Potomac, that evening.
The 15th formed the right angle of a triangle, a portion of the regiment facing down the line of battle, while the remainder faced directly forward. I did not see Gen. Baker mounted on the field. There were no horses that I saw there on our side except a small body of cavalry, 'two fours,' we would say, which came over in the morning and then went back, doing us no good at all.
He certainly could not have had a horse. There was no opportunity for him to use him in front of our line, and he could not have ridden him behind the 20th without going overboard off the edge of the bluff. (xxx)in the saddle is wholly erroneous.
There were two mountain howitzers in our front, facing at an angle to the main line toward the cart track, and a rifled gun farther along the line, possibly in front of the 20th, to our left. These cannon were brought up by drag ropes. I saw no horses about them. The only man I saw that day on a horse was a fellow who rode out of the woods in front of the Tammany regiment (42d New York), and shouted, 'Come on, boys!' The Tammany fellows responded, and that's where they were terribly cut up before they discovered their mistake.
The man who claims to have done that is living in Leesburg, today, and his name is E. Z. White. He says he shouted, 'Come on boys!' and that 'the Yankees rushed up toward me and received a terrible fire.'
The Forty-second New York was on our left. It was as late as 4.30 when that happened.
Smart's Mill the Key
The last time I saw Gen. Baker was when he gave me an order to take two companies and deploy to the right as he believed that the rebels were moving down through the woods to turn our flank. I took Company A, 15th, and another company, found the rebels, and was successful in repelling them.
There were no Confederates then between my men and the river, and had that old mill been occupied as Gen. Stone intended, and at the time no doubt supposed it was, it would have been perfectly possible to have moved out by the right, and reached the flour mill by the flank. There we would have been in comparative safety, for our batteries on the Maryland shore would then have come into play. As it was those guns were silent all day.
It was impossible to use them on Ball's Bluff, for the range was so high that the shells would fall clear beyond the rebel line.
The howitzers were fired several times, but the cannoneers were especial marks for the Mississippi riflemen, and were shot down at the guns. It was there that Baker was killed.
He was always very impulsive, and went where no commanding officer was entitled to be. He rushed out to see why those howitzers were silenced, and, conspicuous in his full uniform, was immediately shot down and killed.
The last time before the battle that I saw him mounted was in the morning quite early, when I met him on the Maryland side, with his staff, and told him that the shortest way to reach Gen. Stone was to ride down the tow path of the canal. I was waiting then to cross to the island.
After he was killed, Col. Coggswell, 42d New York, assumed command. He claimed seniority as ranking officer.
He said to Colonel Devens, substantially: 'Colonel, I direct you to withdraw your men to the foot of the bluff.'
Colonel Devens in some surprise replied: 'Do I understand you, colonel, to order a retreat?'
He did not believe that such a step was necessary. We had held the rebels very well, and had been successful in repelling their flank movement on our right.
Colonel Cogswell said that was what he meant.
Col. Devens then said: 'Colonel, I want somebody else here to hear what you say. Just repeat that in the presence of my major.' Lieut.-Col. Ward had been wounded just before that, and he summoned me. When I came up Col. Devens said:
'Now, Col. Cogswell, I will receive that order.'
He did so, repeating it about as I have said. The only way for us then to get out was by the left flank down through the depression to the plateau beneath. I don't think there was any pell-mell jumping over the edge of the bluff. If there had been it was so steap the casualties would have been far greater.
Col. Devens was perfectly cool, and I think somewhat vexed, for he was very much opposed to the order. He encouraged our boys, and the old 15th fell back, fighting as it went, moving out by the left in good order.
When we got down on the plateau our colonel wanted to rally, and said to me, 'Let us reform and try to go back.'
But the rebels had then rushed to the edge of the bluff and were firing right down into us. It was impossible to rally the men, and then Col. Devens shouted, 'Boys, throw your guns into the river and save yourselves.'
How We Swam the River
With him I went down to the water. The only scow had sank. The river was full of struggling men. There was a metallic lifeboat, but it was so riddled with shot as to be useless.
All the time the rebels kept up their murderous fire and the men were dropping all around us. Capt. Moses Gatchell was shot and killed while swimming the river, and so was Lieut. Willie Grout of Worcester.
I never saw Gen. Devens more cool. Lieut. C. H. Eager, Frederick H. Sibley, with W. A. Eames, A. A. Simonds and George L. Boss, all of Company B, had a branch of a tree, some 20 feet long, with an (xxx) piece of something about 12 feet long.
They were supporting themselves upon them in the water, and called to us, 'Come, colonel, come major, we will take you across.' Devens was in indifferent swammer; some of the others could not swim. I was a good swimmer. When we got out in the stream we found our load too heavy, and I bade the boys good-by and struck out alone. Three times I went down. The shots wer spatting the water all around me, and oh, how numb I was! The water was icy cold and the current swift.
The last time I went down my feet touched bottom, and I remember the supreme effort I made to rise above the surface. I cam up beside an upturned stump about eight rids from the shore. From that I waded to land, the water being shallow. I met a soldier on Harrison's Island who immediately went to work on me to restore circulation.
As soon as my blood began to flow naturally I was all right, but I could not have gone much farther. Later, I rejoined my comrades, who landed farther down the stream than I did.
Fugitives were coming in from the Virginia shore for two, three or even four days after the battle. Capt. Simonds was reported killed, but after the battle, when the rebel pickets became more fiendly, one of our fellows, talking across the river learned that the Johnnies had captured a long, lean Yankee captain with a handkerchief tied round his head, and that he had gone to Richmond.
That identified the captin, who had gone into the fight with an accidental sword cut back of his ear, and wound the handkerchief about it to stop the blood. He was afterward killed at Antietam. That's the true story of Ball's Bluff, for which Gen. Stone was unjustly imprisoned in Fort Lafayette and refuse a trial when he asked for it."