Battle on the Potomac River

Confederates commanded by Brig. Gen. Nathan Evans on Monday, Oct. 21, stopped a badly coordinated attempt by Union forces under Brig. Gen. Charles Stone to cross the Potomac River at Harrison’s Island and capture Leesburg. Forces numbered about 1,700 on each side.

A timely Confederate counterattack, in which Col. William Barksdale of the 13th Mississippi established his reputation as a fierce combat fighter, drove the Federals over Balls Bluff and into the river. Lost were 49 killed, 158 wounded and 714 missing and presumed drowned. A large number of the bodies were swept downstream in the current. Among the Union dead: Col. Edward Baker, U.S. senator from Oregon and a close friend of President Lincoln – the only sitting U.S. senator to be killed in battle. (Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, was named for Baker).

Confederate losses were 36 killed, 117 wounded and two missing. The Union rout had severe political ramifications in Washington and led to the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which became a thorn in Lincoln’s side throughout the war. Gen. Stone was vilified in the press, which accused him of friendliness to the Confederates, ineptness in command and treason. Lincoln was crushed by the death of Baker. The South was overjoyed at the victory at Leesburg, and Gen. Evans became a national hero.

There were two other battles on the same day: a Union victory at Camp Wildcat in Kentucky, and a Union victory at Fredericktown, Mo., the latter cementing Union control over southeastern Missouri. 

On Oct. 22, major changes were made in the Confederate Army in Virginia. The Department of Virginia under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was organized with Gen. Beauregard in command of the Potomac District; Brig. Gen. Theophilus Holmes, of the Aquia District; and Brig. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, of the Valley District in the Shenandoah Valley. In Richmond there was concern over military affairs in western Virginia and some doubts about the generalship of Robert E. Lee. Western Virginia was not Gen. Lee’s finest hour. 

Given impetus by the war, work on the first transcontinental telegraph was completed on Oct. 24 by Western Union. Though often broken by wind, weather, buffalo and Indians, the telegraph represented a giant leap in communications. The last segment to be completed connected Denver to Sacramento across the Rockies, joining earlier completed lines. This same day, the citizens of western Virginia voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a new state by ratifying the action of the Wheeling Convention.

In Washington, President Lincoln attended the funeral of his friend, Col. and Sen. Edward Baker, and directed Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis to deliver orders to Maj. Gen. John Fremont and Maj. Gen. David Hunter, relieving Gen. Fremont of command and placing Gen. Hunter temporarily in Fremont’s place. Curtis was instructed not to deliver the orders if Fremont fought and won a battle or “should be in the presence of the enemy, in expectation of a battle.”

In one of the few instances of Southern press suppression, Tennessee’s Knoxville Whig, published by pro-Unionist Parson William Brownlow, was forced by Confederate forces to suspend publication, and Brownlow was charged with treason. On Friday, Oct. 25, the keel of the ironclad USS Monitor was laid at Greenpoint, N.Y. A Federal force under Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelley left New Creek in western Virginia in a drive towards Romney. Knowing that orders were on their way to remove him from command, and hoping to delay delivery of those orders, Gen. Fremont occupied Springfield, Mo., after a brief fight, hoping to drive Confederates from the state. It was a hollow plan; the Confederates under Gen. Sterling Price were moving farther away from Fremont’s command. Gen. Kelly’s men occupied Romney the next day, Oct. 26, suffering small losses. The Federal gunboat USS Conestoga carried Union troops up the Cumberland River for a successful attack on Saratoga, Ky.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 534 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.