Updated: Nov 10, 2018
Recently, I nearly wiped out, or was wiped out in a storm. There are dangers in a Virginia battlefield that have nothing to do with sharpshooters and cannons. My husband, Woody, and I were in The Great State of Virginia -- he to help teach ethics to fellow actuaries, me for research on our nation’s history. We both visited the great battlefield at Gettysburg and came away with understanding how the high terrain offers advantages. We learned about strategies of the battle-field generals of that time.
But during our visit, sadness grew on us. So many men feared, sweat, starved, and died in such bloody and mundane little fields and groves; so many were mown down in that final charge across what amounts to two football fields in corn and wheat; and so many stood firm only to lose their lives, when others ran. The day after our Gettysburg visit, the sun created radiant possibilities for life. I wanted to be somewhere in Virginia with nature as the focus. Virginia can be beautiful, a beauty not entirely obscured by the deaths of the Civil War. However, on the maps, I found no park, arboretum or even rose garden within distance for the time available, but I did find a small memorial battlefield about twenty miles
from our hotel. On the map, I notice a stream running next to the park, and what appeared to be the close lines indicating a bluff on the battlefield side of the map. Across the stream, farmland. I decided to go, and think of it as a day in the woods, not in history. So, I bid goodbye to Woody and his ethics class. I climbed into our rented car, and with the aid of a GPS sporting an incongruously bubbly voice, I drove past shopping malls toward the north. The day grew bright. The air warm and the sun on the wet pines made iridescent sparkles. Virginia in its rain and sun season can be lovely.
On my entrance into the park, I discovered a completely empty parking lot. No other historic site we’d visited had been this devoid of human activity, or lacking gift materials for sale. At Ball’s Bluff, there was nothing but the path and the signs.
A curious robin followed my moves, chirruping and hopping, swooping and eyeing me. I may have threatened her nest. She determined to see me out.
I have no familial connections to this or any other battle field in Virginia. Both of my father’s grandfathers, the Williams and the Wheeler grandfathers, fought battles further south. The big grandfather Chester A. Williams, rode as a cavalry officer for the Union under General Sherman. The little grandfather, Albert Wheeler, was a blacksmith for the Army of the Confederacy. They had been, and later again were neighbors, across a road from each other. The war history of my mother’s Stamps and Chaplain grandfathers in Arkansas, is less known.
So, though I did not search for roots in my battlefield visit, I did search for perspective. At Gettysburg, I gained awareness of the horrific stupidity when proud generals send hundreds across an open field in the slim hope that numbers will overwhelm large-bore, well-aimed guns. At Ball’s Bluff, I began to see the great losses caused by what some think is courage, but appears more like impetuous lack of communication and lack of planning.
As I entered, the park, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield, settled into quiet save for my footsteps and the robin's angst. The battle here was small, but significant – and an accident. This is a Virginia forest, open spaces, a mix of birch, catalpa and pine trees – wet, sunny wildness after yesterdays’ downpour.
Another bird welcomes me with whippoorwill softness. Robin continues to urge me onward.
I begin to follow what happened here in that fall of 1861. Reading signs that poke above the underbrush, I soon leave the sad whippoorwill behind. I see where Confederates camped to rest over there on the meadow. I imagine the night, the tents, the campfires kept low because the soldiers know that the Union has troops across the stream, the Potomac River.
Here, Confederates are within thirty miles of Washington D.C. and in the no-man’s land contested by both armies. Several times during this war, the Army of the Confederate States threatened the Union capital. This small Confederate contingent is poking in that direction again, perhaps the vanguard, or maybe the rearguard of a larger force. The Union soldiers aren’t sure which.
At the same time, the Union’s U.S. Army of Northern Virginia, if they cross the Potomac, might capture Leesburg, Virginia, an important crossroads for the Confederate. Only these sixteen hundred Confederates lie between the Union troops and Leesburg.
Leesburg is to the west. Between Confederate and Union troops lies the Potomac River and a very steep bluff, about fifty feet of difficult climb up from the river. Confederate guards, and probably over there on the far side of the river, Union guards, watch the riverbank for any activity.
The robin who first greeted me hops from branch to branch as I approach the bluff and the depression in which the guards made themselves safe on this side from snipers of the other persuasion. The energy of the robin’s chirruping belies the memory of these woods.
Downstream and around a bend, the Union leaders sent a reconnaissance of a few boats and several dozen troops. The bluff is less steep around the bend, the waters, slower. The scouts discerned an opportunity and sent back for more troops.
The attack on the Confederate camp came through here, from the northeast, taking the few guards by surprise and catching the main confederate group in their tents. But soon the guards along the stream rallied and gave the others a chance to arm and get into action.
Here died a Union leader and U.S. Senator from Oregon, Edward Baker – Oregon’s first senator and a friend of President Abraham Lincoln. There died a Confederate guard. Over there, several Union men lay in the underbrush, raking the camp with rifle fire before the Confederates were able to escape and regroup.
The camped confederates were out-numbered by the Union, and surprise had almost won in the initial moments. I walk down into the hollow where the Union mass entered the area. Now my following robin seems more curious than angry at my intrusion.
I see where, in the dark, the Union soldiers could not tell they were on the low ground in a long path worn into the land by the occasional overflow creek of flood times. Yesterday’s rain has left this hollow a soggy waterway.
During that night of invasion, when the Confederates escaped the light of their own fires and the strafing fire of the invaders, they were on the high ground above this small depression. Confederates were a mere seven or so feet higher than the Union men, but enough to have the advantage. Plus, they had camped here for three days, and so knew the hollow and the soggy ground that caught at boots and slowed attack or escape.
The surprise by the Union lasted maybe twenty minutes, and then, the greater knowledge of the land and the greater numbers resulted in death, here in the bog, over there in the copse of trees. Escape back to the Potomac River, meant tumbling down the bluff, or stumbling north, retreating in darkness to the boats still moored around the bend.
Behind that boulder, lay a Confederate sharp shooter. Death to the man who had shiny metal upon him in the dark. Within four hours, the remnant of the Union sortie had stumbled back to the boats, or was lost or captured in that general direction. But a Union contingent of seven hundred out of the three thousand original group, had scrambled down or fallen to the narrow land, the crumbling river bank at the bottom of the bluff. They held out down there, hiding behind rocks and scraggly trees, but their remnant spent the rest of the war in the same prisoner of war camp as my Williams great-grandfather – Andersonville.
I follow the men running north, and then turn back to learn more about what happened to the Union troops in the bluff area. About a thousand Union men died in this route, and around one hundred fifty Confederate soldiers. All alone, I had to calm my anger at imbecilic leadership. I recognize the regrowth of a gun-shattered land, and I understand the mistakes of night and of difficult communication.
At that moment, the sound of the robin stops suddenly. The robin who has accompanied me in my wanderings through this underbrush, flashes away with a rush. Her wings thump the air and then stop.
I feel a change I can’t identify – a cold moment on my neck, a tightening of my scalp. I know I must get out of here, though why, I cannot explain to myself. And I am about a half mile from my car. I run, nearly tripping on tree roots, avoiding the low-land bog which makes my escape a ragged zigzag.
I don’t look back, I just flat out run. I pass the markers of Union and Confederate death, I pass the birches, the boulders, the pine trees. I race to my car, keys in hand, beeping the driver’s door. I slam inside, pull the door after me and lock it. I start the motor and at that moment, lightning strikes the parking lot twenty feet away, between where I am
and where I was.
Clouds roar into the Potomac Valley, covering the sun. Rain sheets down.
After a sweating, fear-filled minute, I back out of my lonely space, head for the entrance and glance behind me at another flash of lightning.
Forty minutes later, I have followed the brake lights of a line of cars, the only thing one can see in the heavy waves of rain. At last, I am parked in the hotel lot. The rain and wind continue to whip the trees, but the lightning seems to be behind me, back in the direction of the battlefield and the shopping malls.
I decide to brave the rain, and race from car to hotel. Once inside, I text my husband, who is teaching. “I am in the hotel and safe.” Woody texts back, “Tornado winds expected, we’ve been moved away from windows and into the interior bar. Come down to level B.” Level B. Such a modern phrase to wrench me from the past to the present.
Facts of the Event at Ball’s Bluff, (Other Names: Harrison’s Landing, Leesburg) Location: Loudoun County Campaign: McClellan’s Operations in Northern Virginia (October-December 1861) Date(s): October 21, 1861 Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward Baker [US]; Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans [CS] Forces Engaged: 3,600 total (US 2,000; CS 1,600) Estimated Casualties: 1,070 total (US 921; CS 149) Description: Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan “Shanks” Evans stopped a badly coordinated attempt by Union forces under Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone to cross the Potomac at Harrison’s Island and capture Leesburg. A timely Confederate counterattack drove the Federals over the bluff and into the river. More than 700 Federals were captured. Col. Edward D. Baker (a U.S. Senator from Oregon) was killed. This Union rout had severe political ramifications in Washington and led to the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
blog from December 2, 2014