The Massachusetts Historical Society is currently featuring an excellent exhibit that pertains to the aftermath of the Battle of Ball's Bluff and the death of Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker. In the exhibit entitled "Ball's Bluff--The Civil War Comes Home to Massachusetts", the October 22, 1861 letter to home written by Captain Caspar Crowninshield of Company D, of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry reveals the horrors of that engagement, from the viewpoint of a young officer who was standing less than six feet away from Colonel Baker, close enough to be splattered with Baker's blood at the moment of his death.

We are grateful to the Massachusetts Historical Society for granting us permission to reproduce a portion of these letters, which are part of the Charles Pickering Putnam Papers. Captain Crowninshield was the scion of a wealthy family and a graduate of the institution of higher education from whence his regiment received the nickname "the Harvard Brigade."

The 20th Infantry along with the 15th were almost completely destroyed in the battle, and sustained more than 500 casualties, including 84 killed or dying, others taken prisoners of war, like Paul Revere's two grandsons, and seriously wounded soldiers like the future United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The letter from Caspar to his mother, Harriet Sears Crowninshield, was posted on the day after the fateful battle of Ball's Bluff:

"Camp Benton, October 22d 1861

My dear Mother:

I sit down in haste to give you an account of the battle which we have just fought and lost.
I had been stationed near the river to support a battery (Ricketts) for about a week. On Sunday at 3 P.M. received orders to march with Capt Bartlett's Company up the canal about 3 miles from Edward's Ferry, and await orders. When we arrived there we met Col Lee and Major Revere who told us that we were to cross the river with 300 men of the 15th Mass regt. and surprise a rebel camp which was near the town of Leesburg. So at about 11 o'clock, we crossed the river to an island some five miles long: there we waited until 3 o'clk in the morning, and then crossed the river into Virginia. As we had only 3 boats to cross in, it took us a long time. One boat would hold about 16 men, another 8, and a third only 4.

The width of the river here is about 1/4 of a mile or perhaps not so much. The banks on the other side are very precipitous and rocky; however we managed to get up on to high land by marching in single file and picking our way very carefully. It was bright moonlight...when we reached the top of the hill, we found ourselves on a broad field of 10 or 12 acres. Here Capt. Bartlett's and my Company under Command of the Col. (the Adjutant was also with us) remained as a reerve, and to cover the 15th in case they should have to retreat..."

(the 15th advances and met with the rebels on Ball's Bluff. Skirmishing takes place) - my notes

"Soon we heard rapid firing in the direction of the 15th. Soon after 2 men came out of the woods bearing a wounded man in their arms, and told us that the 15th had been attacked by infantry and cavalry, and that they had driven them off, but with the loss of many men, and were retreating to the woods near us. Our Col now sent a note to Genl Stone in which he said "if you wish to make a general advance into Virginia, send over a great many more men, if not, we ought to retreat at once." We had before this had orders "not to retreat until orders from Genl. Stone". The whole force we had on the Virginia side at this time was 300 of the 15th and 100 of the 20th. A short time after the Col. sent this message we heard the 15th firing and more wounded men were brought down the road. In about a quarter of an hour the 15th Came up to where we were. The enemy did not follow if they had, we should have been cut off to a man.

Now some reinforcements Came over, but very slowly, as there were only the 3 boats I spoke about, and a flat scow which had been found. At 1 o'clk the fight Commenced on our right flank, and in a short time the rebels were driven back. Then Came a breathing space of 10 minutes. Then they attacked on our left flank. Where I was they made a dreadful noise and fired heavily and rapidly . They drove my pickets in and killed at the 1st fire 2 or 3 men. My men stood firm and fought bravely. I was obliged to bring up my reserve and we drove the rebels back. An interval of quiet, and they advanced cheering, & attacking our whole line. We met them with a severe fire and they fell back, but they Continued to fire very rapidly, and killed many of our men. They cheered furiously, as their reinforcements came up, and their fire became firecer and fiercer. Our gunners were almost all shot, and those who remained could not fire very often.

My men fell back, and commenced to run. I believe our centre was broken at the same time. I did all I could to stop them, and succeeded in stopping about 20 men, with whom I again advanced, and checked the rebels. As they were advancing in great numbers, we could not stop them long however. Here was a poor fellow in my Company fell shot through the body. He was standing close to me, and, as he fell he said. "My God. I am shot through". We had to fall back rapidly now, as our Centre was broken, and had fallen back to the woods on the bank of the river. I was within 6 feet of Col Baker when he fell. He got up once, and then fell again, and 2 men Carried him off. He had 3 or 4 bullets in him they say. He behaved with the utmost Courage and coolness all through the fight. Our guns had now ceased to fire, and 2 of them had, I think been taken and I had been brought back to the edge of the woods. All was now confusion, and the horses, attached to the caisson of the gun, ran , and one was shot just as it was going into the woods, so that the other 3 could not draw the Caisson. This made a breastwork for a time behind which I stood. The fire of the rebels was at this time something terrible. The hill was Swept with bullets and the men were in the woods scattered in all directions..."

(Here Crowninshield describes the uneven retreat)

"...The ravine and the banks of the river were now crowded with men. Somewere sitting down behind trees and stones. Some were carrying the wounded, and some were throw--ing away their guns and trying to swim across...the river was now full of men who were drowning and shouting for help; but there was no help to give them except from God. I never saw such a sight and God grantI may never see such another. I was all covered with blood from some one, I suppose who had been shot near me. I felt very faint, and the men seeing the blood supposed that I was wounded, and those who managed to get across the river to the island, which we held, reported me as killed or taken prisoner. It was now about 6 o'clock. I wandered around trying to find my men and went back to the brow of the hill, but there were none of them there. The rebels were advancing and firing down the ravine. The men were calling out that they would surrender; and the rebels were shooting at the men who were swimming over...

(Here Crowninshield describes his passage across the river and onto Harrison Island)

...I slept under a haystack, & in the morning went across the river and got to the camp. We had only 418 of our Regt. in the fight. We took out 22 officers and only 9 have returned unharmed..."

He signs the letter:

"Goodbye. Give my love to all & believe that I did my duty.

your affectionate son

Caspar"


Captain Crowninshield would survive the war to again become 'a man of leisure." . A month after the Battle of Ball's Bluff, he became captain of the 1st Regiment of the Massachusetts Cavalry , and he was promoted to major of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry in January 1863. He became lieutenant colonel on March 18, 1864. Crowninshield commanded the Reserve Brigade of Division 1 of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Shenandoah for the five months starting from October 1864, and then was promoted to Brigadier General in December 1865.