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Letter from Caspar Crowninshield to Harriet Sears Crowninshield, 22 October 1861

Letter from Caspar Crowninshield to Harriet Sears Crowninshield, 22 October 1861


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    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    In this letter to his mother, written the day after the battle, Caspar Crowninshield describes the Battle of Ball's Bluff, which was fought in Loudon County, Virginia, on 21 October 1861.

    Intended as a "slight demonstration" on the south bank of the Potomac, the Battle of Ball's Bluff was a cruel introduction to war and its blunders for soldiers from Massachusetts. Bay State soldiers had died in the Civil War before Ball's Bluff, but there for the first time they played a major role in a battle. Two Massachusetts regiments made up part of the reconnaissance of Confederate positions along the upper Potomac near Leesburg, Virginia: the 20th Infantry Regiment--known as the "Harvard Regiment" because of its well-educated, socially-elite officers--and the 15th Infantry, recruited primarily out of Worcester County, Massachusetts. From the outset, almost everything that could go wrong did. Ball's Bluff was a natural trap--the Northern soldiers formed at the top of a steep cliff with their backs to the Potomac River, with only a few small boats to move reinforcements to the south bank, and to rescue survivors after the Union rout.

    The 15th and 20th Massachusetts Infantry regiments were all but destroyed in the battle, together losing more than 500 men, including 84 killed or mortally wounded. Losses in the 20th included two grandsons of patriot Paul Revere who were taken prisoner, and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was wounded. The deaths of two young Massachusetts officers in particular came to symbolize the tragic cost of the war. Lieutenant William Lowell Putnam, the "Boy Soldier" of the 20th, was an ardent abolitionist eulogized as a "pure soul sacrificed in a struggle with evil." The death of 18-year-old John W. Grout, a student from Worcester, Massachusetts, who was a lieutenant in the 15th, inspired "The Vacant Chair," a song by George F. Root that became immensely popular in both North and South during the war, although with different lyrics. See an online presentation of the lyrics.

    "Does It Awaken You to the Fact that Politicians Are Not Generals?"

    The bloodletting at Ball's Bluff was on a small scale by the standards of later Civil War battles, but it cast a long shadow over the Union army. Colonel Edward D. Baker commanded the forces on the field at Ball's Bluff and his impetuosity contributed to the disaster, but his gallant death in battle--and the fact that he was both a sitting senator from Oregon and a close personal friend and political ally of President Lincoln--shifted blame and suspicion of incompetence, or worse, to his superiors.

    Who was Caspar Crowninshield?

    When the Civil War began, 23-year-old Caspar Crowninshield of Boston, an 1860 graduate of Harvard College with influential family and political connections, sought a commission in the cavalry, but when no opening appeared, he accepted a commission in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. Although Crowninshield had no formal military training, he was an intelligent and resourceful officer and a keen-eyed observer and reporter of all that happened around him. He escaped the disaster at Ball's Bluff by swimming the Potomac and found himself in temporary command of his regiment; all the senior officers present had been killed, wounded, or captured.

    In addition to writing long, detailed letters--almost formal reports--to his mother, Crowninshield made extensive entries, illustrated with manuscript maps and battle plans, in his diary. Soon after Ball's Bluff, Crowninshield left the 20th Regiment for the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. A year later, he was promoted to the rank of major in the newly formed 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. He ended the war as the colonel of his regiment, with the brevet rank of brigadier general "for gallant and meritorious services during the war."

    Charles P. Stone, the American "Dreyfus"

    Ball's Bluff claimed one more victim from Massachusetts who was not even present on the battlefield--Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone. Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Stone was a professional soldier who had graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican War. He rejoined the United States Army in 1861 and ably commanded the defenses of Washington during the opening days of the Civil War, before his career was wrecked in the aftermath of the Ball's Bluff fiasco. After the death of Colonel (Senator) Edward Baker there, Stone, Baker's superior in the chain of command, was blamed for the defeat. Ball's Bluff made Stone an authentic "man without a country"--he was held under secret arrest, but never charged or tried in a military or civilian court. After vainly struggling to regain his rank, after the Civil War, Stone left the United States and became chief of staff of the Egyptian Army. Later, in an ironic turn of events, Stone--the man who had been held a prisoner without charge by his government--returned to the United States where he supervised the erection of the Statue of Liberty.

    Looking at the Civil War: the Historical Society's Monthly Glance at the Events of 150 Years Ago

    Looking at the Civil War offers a glimpse at the events of the Civil War through the eyes of individuals from Massachusetts as they experienced the war. Each month a single document, written in that same month 150 years prior, is featured. Similar to the Object of the Month in format, Looking at the Civil War provides images of the original document, a transcription of the document, and a short contextual essay.

    "The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862": A New Exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society

    "The Purchase by Blood," an exhibition of letters, photographs, recruiting posters, broadsides, maps, and prints, highlights seven young Massachusetts officers united by bonds of kinship and friendship. The seven include William Lowell Putnam who died at Ball's Bluff and represent a network of descendants of three prominent Massachusetts families who had grown up together, attended the same schools, and, during the Civil War, served--and died--together as officers of two famous Massachusetts regiments, the 2nd and 20th Infantry. The exhibition is free and open to the public, 7 October 2011-January 2012, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.

    Sources for further reading

    Ballard, Ted. Battle of Ball's Bluff. Washington: Center of Military History, 2001. A "staff ride" guide to the battlefield.

    Baltz, John D. Hon. E. D. Baker, U. S. Senator from Oregon...Colonel E. D. Baker's Defense in the Battle of Ball's Bluff, fought October 21st, 1861, in Virginia.... Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Published for the author, Inquirer Printing Company, 1888.

    Crowninshield-Magnus papers 1834-1965. Caspar Crowninshield's Civil War correspondence and diaries form part of the Crowninshield-Magnus papers in the manuscript collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Farwell, Bryan. Ball's Bluff: A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow. McLean, Virginia: EPM Publications, 1990.

    Miller, Richard F. Harvard's Civil War: a History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005.

    United States. Congress. Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: In Three Parts. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1863. Part II of the report covers the Committee's witch-hunting investigation of Ball's Bluff, but contains much direct testimony of the participants.