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    The Battle of Balls Bluff - a Union account. Letter by Benjamin D. House, Co. D, 15th Mass. Infantry, with an amazing full-page hand-drawn map.
    Benjamin was a 20 year old student living in Worcester, Mass. before enlisting in July of 1861. Little did he know upon enlisting that his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, would be perhaps the most tragic loss of life in the entire war. The 15th Mass. was assigned to guarding the Potomac prior to leading the advance on Ball's Bluff where it lost over 300 men, with many drowning in the Potomac. House writes a graphic, descriptive letter, 12 pages in easy to read ink with 3 patriotic letter sheets. Most amazing is the full page ink map that House draws. The letter is headed, "Camp Foster Poolesville, Md. Head Quarters 15th Regt. M. V. Nov. 8th, 1861". Reads in part:

    "Since I last wrote I have seen and exchanged cards with several of the Jeff Davis Faction. The cards were of a new style known as minnies."

    "I have stood face to face with Azrael [Angel of Death], and yet he did not see fit to foreclose the mortgage which he holds upon my life. As you request me to give you an account of the battle, I will do so to the best of my ability."

    "On the night of the 20th of Oct. at about half past eleven, we were awakened from our slumber by the drums beating to arms. After being equipped, we started double quick for Conrad's Ferry, a distance of about nine miles from Poolesville. We traveled double quick about three miles and then marched the rest of the distance at quick time. We were on the road about two hours and a half. After reaching Conrad's Ferry we halted until daylight upon the low paths of the Ohio and Chesapeake Canal. As soon as we halted, I lay down upon the ground and endeavored to get a little sleep. I had not laid long before Dr. Haven came around and told me to put my rubber blanket under me. I did not thank him much for disturbing me, but the next day I changed my mind for what little time I was on the ground without my blanket made me quite stiff and sore."

    "Five Co's of the 15th Regt. were already in Va. on a reconnaissance. They had been on picket on the banks of the river for nearly two weeks and had crossed the river about the time we started from our camp. At about daylight we heard frequent volleys of musketry which led us to suppose that our Co's had met the enemy and were skirmishing with them, which supposition afterwards proved to be correct. They had met and repulsed a body of Rebel Cavalry with a loss of 4 killed and 14 wounded. Loss of the Rebels unknown."

    "Accordingly we proceeded to cross the river with all possible dispatch. We had only two old mud scows that would not hold over 40 men apiece. We landed upon Harrison's Island and there left our coats and blankets. Loaded our guns and marched across the island the distance of about 100 rods and again embarked on the other side for the sacred soil of Va."

    "On this side we had but one scow and a small skiff. We landed at the foot of a precipice known as Ball's Bluff up which we had to climb in an old disused bridle path, choked by water, logs, and stumps over which we had to clamber in all sorts of ways and shapes."

    "At last we struck into an old cart road where we could proceed with greater rapidity and with arms fueled, we crept cautiously but rapidly forward. We passed two Co.s of the Mass. 20th Regt. that were stationed as Bidet Guard. We had proceeded to within about three fourths of a mile of Leesburg when we came up with the five Co.s that had proceeded us in crossing the river where we halted partly in a small cleansing of about an acre and partly in the cart road in the woods."

    "Co. A and Co. B were in advance from the right and left as skirmishers. It was not long before a sharp irregular firing was commenced which skirmish lasted perhaps 30 minutes without much effect upon either side, when our Col. Camp Foster Poolesville Md. Head Quarters 15th Regt. M.V. Nov. 8th 1861. l!r finding our ground untravelable, we retreated slowly and in good order about half a mile and made a stand to wait for reinforcements upon the field where the battle was fought."

    "We were not immediately followed by the Rebels. We were soon reinforced by the late Genl. Baker with his California Regt. or rather a part of it. Also by two Howitzers and one six pound field piece, the Howitzers under command of Lieut. French of the Regular Service, and the field piece under command of Lieut. Bramhall of the New York 9th Battery."

    "The Ball was opened by throwing a few shells in the direction of Leesburg by way of a challenge. Soon our pickets gave notice of their approach by few scattering shots and then the action became general. The men that manned the Howitzers and field piece were soon shot down. The report that they deserted their guns is a gross fabrication and entirely unfounded."

    "Seven men were shot at one gun under charge of Lieut. Bramhall and there he loaded and fired the piece himself when he fell wounded."

    "We were in an open field of about 5 acres entirely surrounded by woods upon three sides and upon the other, the Bluff and at the foot of that, the river."

    "The Rebels took full advantage of the cover and did not often show themselves. When anyone of them showed themselves, he by so doing signed his own death warrant and our boys were not slow to execute it. Co. D and Co. F were stationed in the front line and were constantly exposed to a galling fire. The rest of the Co.s were stationed upon the right flank in the edge of the woods. The Co.s of the 20th in the rear as reserve and the Cal. and part of the Tammany Regt. of N.Y. under Col. Cogswell on the left flank in the edge of the woods on that side."

    "After it became evident to our commanders that the battle was lost, the order was given to retreat which we did, still disputing the ground inch by inch. At best it was a dear bought field for the Rebels."

    "When we reached the banks of the river, we had orders from our Col. to throw our guns into the river and for all that could swim to take care of themselves. Among those who were fortunate enough to reach the Md. Shore after a hard swim and at the expense of nearly all my clothes, your humble servant can be numbered."

    "Many would attempt the passage and reaching the middle of the river, their strength failing would throw up their arms and supplicating for aid that could not be rendered them, would sink to rise no more."

    "More were drowned I think than shot. The grand old Potomac performed upon that fearful night the right of sepulture for many a noble form."

    "I walked to camp on that night with several other members of our Co. barefoot. The next day when the roll was called for the first time, we were a sad group. We missed the response of "Here" from many a familiar voice."

    "We deeply feel the loss we have sustained by the death of Willis Grout. We have all lost a dear friend and a gallant Officer. But he died a noble death, and his country will not allow him to be forgotten. I am, thank God, alive and well and anxious to meet the Rebels again upon something like an equal footing, when I hope the issue will be different..."

    "I have written by a bad light and with my fingers about frozen. It is not intended for any one's perusal but your own..."

    "Show this to no one. My Dear Billy, believe me to be your sincere friend, Ben D. House"

    From top of front page: "We have the best Col. in the service. The boys all love him."
    A fine letter. From the Calvin Packard Civil War Battlefield Letter Collection.


    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    December, 2020
    6th Sunday
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