A member of the 15th Massachusetts reports on the action at the Battle of Ball's Bluff: "the men fell right side of me, and the ground looked as though springs of blood gushed..."Union Soldier Alfred F. Waite of the 15th Massachusetts Letter Reporting on the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Eight pages written on two bifolia of different sizes, 5" x 8" and 7.75" x 10". Pooleville, October 25, 1861. After the Battle of Manassas, the next major engagement occurred at Ball's Bluff. Offered here is an astounding 2000+ word account written by Alfred F. Waite, a member of the 15th Massachusetts. This highly descriptive and extremely well-written dissertation may be the most detailed and complete report about the battle remaining in private hands. Prior to the war, Waite, a sailor, resided in Providence, Rhode Island. He mustered in to Co. "G", Mass. 15th Infantry on July 12, 1861. He was discharged for disability on September 24, 1862, and died three weeks later in Baltimore, Maryland.
Ball's Bluff was a wooded hill on the south bank of the Potomac, thirty miles upstream from Washington. Confederate infantry was camped in the area, and in October General McClellan ordered a subordinate to make a reconnaissance in force and see what the Rebels were doing. Several inexpertly led regiments crossed the river, and blundered into a better organized force of Confederates. They were routed with heavy losses.
Congress made an issue of the battle. Edward D. Baker, a prominent member of the Senate, was among the killed. Enough fuss was raised to make it clear that any general who stumbled into defeat might be in for a rough time in Washington.
Waite writes, in part:
"... The Col. called his men around him and addressed them in a few words what his mission was. He said it was his intention to cross into Virginia & surprise a rebel encampment, situated 1 1/2 miles from the banks of the Potomac in the direct vicinity of Leesburg. But he little knew what his gallant Reg't had got to suffer. He then told us if a man halted or disobeyed an order he should be instantly shot dead... We soon commenced crossing in an old scow and as soon as I touched the Vir. shore a feeling of insecurity crept over me, which I thought would be our destruction. As no Rebel pickets had been seen for quite a distance abreast the [outer] island it was supposed we could cross without being seen or heard. But while we were trapping them, they were setting a fatal one for us...when daylight came the rebel camp proved to be a cornfield and not a rebel could be seen, or a drum heard...I heard a yell I never want to hear again. At the same the Hell Hounds rushed upon us firing as they came, a perfect shower of balls fell among us throwing us into confusion... In this rally I got my hat riddled & fought the rest of the day with my head bare... The Rebel troops were now coming into Leesburg by the thousands, we could hear their yells as they came in. Col. Baker now came to our aid with a portion of his brigade and rest of my Regt from Pooleville. I felt cheered to see Col. Baker. He soon placed us in a position to receive their fire in any point. We now lay down to wait for the Hell Hounds which were flanking us, or surrounding us on all sides. Pretty soon that unearthly whoop of theirs broke the stillness, & then commenced that bloody scene I sicken to describe. For 2 hours it was Bang Bang, no cessation, we loaded & fired & dropped & loaded. It seemed as though the heavens had opened a perfect storm of leaden hail, and I expected every minute to drop to rise no more. The rebels now had 10 men to our one, and it was their intention to drive us down the bank into the river & drowned us... Just at this time two Howitzers one rifled cannon arrived when we gave them four rounds of grape & cannister which told with deadly effect inspiring us with hope against such fearful odds, Col. Baker then rallied us when we drove them back at the point of the bayonet. We repulsed them three different times, when I saw Col. Baker fall pierced with 6 balls... the men fell right side of me, and the ground looked as though springs of blood gushed from its surface. We soon saw 300 Rebel cavalry getting ready to come down on us, when we formed in solid ranks to receive them at the point of the bayonet... The wildest excitement prevailed, the rush of men the yells of the enemy & the shrieks of the wounded, with our friends on the other side wringing their hands, but could not get over the river to help us, is a scene that no language can depict. The boat was swamped filled with wounded, and they were all drowned. I threw off my clothes took my pocket book in my mouth, plunged into the stream which was cold as ice water, and with the balls hissing around I barely gained the opposite shore, while 2 out of my own tent sunk beside me. After gaining Harrisons Island I dare not rise to run the balls struck so thick it was most as dangerous as the bloody field I left behind me. I lay here 1/2 an hour until the firing stopped a few minutes, when I started as though the devil was after me for the middle of the island where our wounded was being carried, here I saw several boys in the same predicament with myself, half froze to death when we piled into the knapsacks for shirts & coats, we took anybody's we could find, and when got back to Pooleville we had a half dozen different uniforms... Col. Devens of our Regt threw away his uniform & gold watch to swim the river; he had to be pulled out of the water he was so near gone. He wept like a child when he spoke about his men; he said 'I love I love you, you obeyed every command & God bless you my noble boys.' At this time we all expected that not over 200 of us was left out of the whole Regt. The Col. says boys there is no more 15th Regt. Our loss is in this Regt alone, 500 wounded, dead & taken prisoners..."
The first four pages are written on the smaller sized bifolium, with a patriotic dash of color at the very edges and blind embossed seal at top right. Light soiling, and flattened folds. The larger sheet is more tightly filled with writing, as Waite is anxious to be able to complete his telling. This larger sheet has a few large spots of foxing, and some wear along the external folds, with tiny pinholes. The ink remains dark, and Waite's script is very legible. No doubt, this letter was read and shared repeatedly upon initial receipt.
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