Camp Benton, Maryland Along the Potomac River October 1861
On the morning before my first battle, I awoke to find a rime of frost on the moss-covered ground under my tent. Although it was only mid-October, the weather had grown markedly colder every day.
At around eight o'clock, a Rebel sharpshooter shot and killed one of our pickets down at the river. It was the first death in the regiment, and I wondered how many more there would be before the war was over.
We had spent five weeks trying to turn the six hundred men of the Twentieth Massachusetts into fighting soldiers. The regimental drummers would beat reveille every morning at six. After the first roll call there were squad drills, then breakfast, followed by sick call. We had company drill until dinner, followed by combat drill, dress parade, roll call, supper, and, finally, tattoo at nine o'clock. Along with the other officers, I would then work until one or two in the morning to prepare for the next day.
Our camp was situated on a low mountaintop near Poolesville, Maryland. At night the sky was so clear that we could actually see the signal fires in the Blue Ridge Mountains nearly fifty miles to the west where Confederate scouts were monitoring the movements of our army in the Shenandoah Valley. Just across the Potomac, the landscape was lit by the gleaming campfires of the Confederate brigade bivouacked around Leesburg, Virginia.
Every Saturday, we joined our sister regiments in Colonel Baker's new brigade for parade drills. They were the Nineteenth Massachusetts, the Seventh Michigan, and the Forty-second New York, also known as the Tammany Regiment. Those men impressed me as the toughest group in the bunch. Based on the number of brawls they kept getting into, it seemed they were definitely spoiling for a fight.
On the night before the battle, Major Fred Wheelock strode briskly into my tent right after tattoo sounded. He had been at brigade headquarters all evening and could barely suppress his excitement.
At thirty, Major Wheelock was much older than the other junior officers, but like me he had no prior military experience. On the day Fort Sumter fell, I was in the middle of my last term at Harvard. Major Wheelock was then a Massachusetts state senator. Like thousands of others, we had both enlisted as soon as we learned the news.
"The Twentieth is going into action tomorrow, Lieutenant McKittredge," he said. "General Stone has ordered our brigade to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Colonel Baker has given us the honor of going in first, ahead of the main force."
I was thrilled that we were finally moving into action. Major Wheelock unfolded a map and spread it on the camp table His index finger went directly to a spot on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
"This will be our point of attack. It's called Ball's Bluff," he said. "They say the river is fairly wide there ... well over a man's head most of the way. Between the Maryland shore and the Virginia side there is a small island."
I could see the island on the map. Someone had scribbled the name Harrison s on it.
"How high is Ball's Bluff?" I asked Major Wheelock.
"Close to two hundred feet, I understand," he said.
Just the thought of it took me aback.
"But why there?" I blurted.
The hard stare Major Wheelock gave me reflected his obvious exasperation at the idea that a twenty-year-old lieutenant was questioning important military strategy.
"Colonel Baker is confident that the Rebels will never expect a force of this size to attack there," he said coldly. "He told us to think of this movement like the gambler who stakes his whole fortune on one bet."
"How are we getting over?" I asked in a chastened voice.
"They are sending a small fleet of barges up the river to us," he said. "Because you were once an island lad yourself, I thought you might want to lead the first element across tomorrow night."
I immediately volunteered for the job. Major Wheelock showed his approval with a terse smile. In spite of the chill, he was sweating profusely, and I wondered whether he was ill.
"After making sure there are no Rebels on Harrison's Island, you will lead the advance element across to the Virginia side, there to secure the high ground above the bluff for the main force that will follow you in the morning," he said. "Colonel Baker will be in tactical command of the whole operation."
I had met Colonel Edward Baker just once on the parade ground, although I had read about him since I was a boy. One of the great men of the Republic, he had enjoyed a brilliant political career before the war and been elected as a U.S. Senator from two different states. Many men claimed to be a friend of Abraham Lincoln, but the president had actually named one of his sons after Baker. Although he had no more military experience than Major Wheelock or me, he certainly looked the part of a fine military leader.
"Well, you have a lot to do," said Major Wheelock, folding up his map and placing it inside his uniform coat. "Don't let me down, Kit."
"I won't, sir," I replied.
As soon as he left, I went straight to the tent of my first sergeant, Harlan Colfax. He was a bull-necked farrier from western Massachusetts and knew more about soldiering than any man in the regiment. In the Mexican War, he had fought as a private and come back with two promotions for gallantry under fire.
Sergeant Colfax was forty-six years old, with the weathered face of a downcast lobsterman. Although his manner toward most junior officers was as rough as a December cob, he had seemed to take a liking to me from the first day I had been assigned to the company. Maybe it was because I was the same age as his youngest son. Whatever the reason, his adroit handling of the men, in spite of my own ineptitude, had turned our company into the best in the regiment.
I told him the details of Colonel Baker's plan for the attack and repeated Colonel Baker's words about the gambler who was willing to stake his whole fortune on one bet. Harlan removed his battered pipe from his mouth and spat tobacco juice on the ground.
"It may be his bet," he said, clearly unimpressed, "but it's our lives."
We spent the rest of that night as well as the next morning preparing and equipping the men I would be leading over. Our advance group moved out late in the afternoon, arriving at the Maryland side of the Potomac River with two hours of daylight left.
Ball's Bluff was visible through the haze across the river, and I took a moment to examine the terrain through my binoculars. It was very imposing; but unlike the rocky cliffs of Maine, the bluff was completely covered by trees and vegetation. I couldn't even tell if there was a path leading to the top. In the setting sun, the opposite shore was on fire with red-and-gold foliage.
Sergeant Colfax, who had gone ahead to meet the unit that was bringing the barges up from Washington, came toward me waving his arms in disbelief.
"No boats, no barges," he said.
The thought that we would have no means of crossing the river had never occurred to me, and I silently berated myself for not having considered the possibility. At the same time, I tried not to show my misgivings to the men who were crowded around me.
"Well, we had better find some," I said, trying to keep my voice even. "Take ten men upriver and come back with anything that floats. I'll take another group downriver with me."
"Goddamn it, sir, the whole brigade has to get across that river tomorrow," growled Harlan.
"Don't worry, Sergeant," I replied in front of the men. "I'm sure the barges will be here in time for the main force."
Darkness had fallen by the time I returned from the foraging expedition. We had found two small rowboats, neither bigger than a Maine dory. Harlan arrived back ten minutes later. He had enjoyed better luck, finding a large rowboat that could carry ten men. Unfortunately, it had been out of the water for some time, and the seams leaked so badly that constant bailing was required just to keep it afloat.
I went across with the first group to make sure that Harrison's Island wasn't occupied by Confederate pickets. We found a small, abandoned farmhouse there, and I ordered the men to secure it as a command post for Colonel Baker. By then the main attack force was starting to come across from the Maryland side. As they arrived, each regiment was deployed in one of the pastures that covered most of the island.
The barges had still not come, and it took six more hours for the main body to be rowed over in the three boats. Shortly after midnight, Colonel Baker came across with the last of his troops and immediately went to the farmhouse. There were four tiny rooms inside, and each one was packed with officers straining to listen to the colonel as he made his final dispositions. In the reflected glow of the oil lamps on the kitchen table, his smiling, handsome face exuded total confidence.
"Believe me, gentlemen, we will enjoy a glorious victory tomorrow," he said in a deep baritone voice. "This brigade is ready to fight."
A robust man of around fifty, Colonel Baker was tall and well formed, with a prominent nose and a firm, clean-shaven jaw. He had removed his hat, and the ring of silver hair crowning his shiny head gleamed in the lamplight. He slowly pivoted in a full circle to face all the officers who were peering at him through the doors of the three other rooms. A cloud of moths swarmed above his head.
"Tomorrow we have a chance to square the books on Bull Run and strike an important blow for freedom," he went on, as if orating on the floor of the Senate. "I expect us to emulate Caesar's Tenth Legion ... to smite them a real lightning blow!"
With those words, his right fist slammed down on the kitchen table. There was a pause, and then another voice rose from the back parlor.
"What about those barges, Colonel?" asked one of the regimental commanders, with sarcasm in his voice. "At dawn, we've got to ferry more than two thousand men over there to the cliffs of Dover. We'll need to move fast if we're to have any chance of surprising them."
A look of minor annoyance came over Colonel Baker's face, as if someone had complained about one of the men's shoelaces being untied. He waved a hand at the host of moths hovering around his head.
"That's a very good point," he replied, with an elegant smile. "But why don't we just leave that to General McClellan. He has all the resources of the United States at his disposal. I'm sure they are on their way as we speak."
At three o'clock that morning, my advance group was ready to cross over to Ball's Bluff. I had ordered Sergeant Colfax to have the three boats carried over to the Virginia side of the island for us to use in the next crossing. Just before we moved out, Colonel Baker came down to the shoreline to see us off.
"I understand they call you Kit," he said, shaking my hand and patting me on the back as if I was a favored constituent. In the darkness I could only see the outline of his massive head.
"That's right, sir," I said.
"So you have the honor of going in first," he said next, his voice filled with confidence. "I'm told you grew up on an island off the coast of Maine."
"Well then, I'm sure you are not intimidated by that little beak over there."
Actually, Ball's Bluff was about the same height as the tallest cliff I knew in Maine. I had tried to imagine two thousand soldiers attempting to climb it as part of a full-scale attack. It would have been impossible.
"No, sir. I will do my best."
"Yes, of course you will," he said.
My small force set off into the black, starry night. Aside from the boat poles swishing in the water, there was no sound of movement from any of us. Of course, there could have been a thousand rebels waiting for us on the bluff, and we never would have known. I just stared forward into the void until the bow of the boat scraped up on the Virginia shore.
The riverbank was as slippery as axle grease. Mature trees grew right down to the edge of the water. The current was stronger than on the Maryland side, and it was hard for the men to find their footing. As one of the boats swung away from the bank, it struck a man who then fell back into the river with a loud splash. I nervously awaited the shout from a Confederate picket on the bluff, but the only sound I heard came from the branches swaying above us in the wind.
Using a masked lantern, I finally found an opening in the trees that disappeared into the darkness and sent Sergeant Colfax up to reconnoiter. He returned ten minutes later, out of breath and excited.
"The path leads to the top, but it's no wider than a horse's ass, Lieutenant. We'll have to go up single file."
After sending the boats back for the next load of men, we started toward the top. It soon became obvious that the path curled back and forth like a coiled snake from one end of the bluff to the other as it wound its way upward. With no break for a rest, it took us twenty minutes to get to the summit. There was another short rise at the top of the bluff, and then the ground leveled off into what appeared to be an open field. I immediately put out scouts in every direction and ordered the rest of the advance group to come up.
The scouts reported back that the field ran for more than two hundred yards toward a tree stand that ringed the far end of the field. There was no sign of the enemy. As the rest of my men came across from Harrison's, I deployed them in a line along the near edge of the field.
As dawn paled the sky, I could make out a wagon lane that led inland through the trees on the left. Straight ahead of us and to the right was the large field. I sent four scouts to again reconnoiter the woods beyond it.
While I waited for them to return, the first elements of Colonel Baker's main attack force began coming over the summit of the bluff shortly after daylight. They were from the Fifteenth Massachusetts, and after forming up, they headed off down the wagon lane. Their officers were taking very few precautions about keeping the men quiet any longer. We could hear their nervous chatter a long way down the road. It was no more than ten minutes later that scattered musket fire broke out from the direction they had taken.
"I'd say someone knows we're here," growled Sergeant Colfax, spitting out a dark glob of tobacco juice.
I sent word back to the command post on Harrison's that the Fifteenth had made contact with the enemy. Then we sat down to wait for the rest of the main body to come over. I watched as two wounded men from the Fifteenth were carried back on litters to the crest of the bluff. By then there was no way for them to get back down the path because it was choked with men working their way to the top.
Excerpted from Unholy Fire by Robert J. Mrazek Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Mrazek
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.