A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Who is Responsible?


The reality and horror of war is evident in these two letters, written in the fall of 1861. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff took place in Virginia on 21 October, and the 20th Massachusetts Infantry participated in the fighting. Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight, a member of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry stationed nearby, describes his feelings about that battle and its aftermath in a letter to his mother. On 16 December, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew writes to the President urging him to secure the release of Union prisoners of war through a prisoner exchange with the Confederacy.


Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: Letter from Wilder Dwight to Elizabeth A. Dwight, 24 October 1861.

Questions to Consider


  1. What happened to the Union troops at Ball’s Bluff? In Dwight’s opinion, what went wrong, and who is to blame?
  2. What does Andrew want Lincoln to do? Why? How does he want him to do it?


  1. What types of men made up the 20th Mass. Infantry? What did this battle do to the North’s moral and reputation?
  2. Who are Colonel Lee and Major Revere, and where were they captured? Bowman and Rockwood? What was the current system for releasing prisoners, and why did Andrew find it insufficient?


  1. What does Dwight mean when he says "Does it awaken you to the fact that politicians are not generals?" What does he think should have happened in the battle? Could he have publicly expressed the thoughts he shares with his mother? Why or why not?
  2. Why does Andrew draw attention to the officers and their social status? Why does he think their class makes their treatment especially egregious? Why does he highlight how the Union treats Confederate prisoners?


  1. Do you think Dwight's intended audience is solely his mother? How would his mother have felt when reading this letter?
  2. What do you think Andrew's true thoughts and feelings are regarding the conditions of the prisoners of war? Why does he use such polite and respectful language in this letter? How does this letter shed light on the relationship between a governor and the president?


  1. How does the Wilder Dwight letter enlarge our understanding of the role politicians play in war? How does the Governor Andrew letter do that?
  2. Who does Dwight hold accountable for the disastrous outcome of the battle? Who does Andrew hold accountable for the plight of the prisoners? In both cases, can more than one person or group be held responsible for the situation? Defend your answer.