Book Chat
A Little Short of Boats
The Fights at Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry
James A. Morgan III

This chat took place in the Civil War Home Chatroom on 4/9/06 and covered Chapters 4 & 5.  The end of the chat contains the author's comments provided the next day.

4/9/2006 8:07 pm (et) Basecat: Welcome to the Sunday Night Book Chat. Tonight we will be discussing Chapters 4 and 5 of Jim Morgan's book on Ball's Bluff. Lets get started with notes, comments and or questions from Chapter 4 None Too Good to Die In

4/9/2006 8:10 pm (et) Basecat: You can tell from reading this book thus far, that the soldiers of that time really had no clue as to how bad a battle would be. One could say that they were still in the adventure mode, and I don't think they expected it to be as horrible as it would become.

4/9/2006 8:10 pm (et) Basecat: Only those who had seen action at First Bull Run had a taste of it. IIRC, most of the troops, especially on the Union side were "Green" troops.

4/9/2006 8:12 pm (et) Babs: Seems like at the beginning of every war soldiers are like that. When will they ever learn?

4/9/2006 8:13 pm (et) mobile_96: Seems things bogged down after finding the 'tree camp', no one knows what they should do.

4/9/2006 8:13 pm (et) Babs: What are the "overalls" they talk about?

4/9/2006 8:14 pm (et) mobile_96: They only learn thru experience, and each war has mostly green troops at the start.

4/9/2006 8:14 pm (et) Basecat: Mobile...thought the same thing as well, and shows that they must have had bad communication problems from the start. Probably what made this skirmish turn into the debacle it became.

4/9/2006 8:15 pm (et) mobile_96: Both sides even.

4/9/2006 8:17 pm (et) Babs: That seemed to be the focus of this reading. No one knew where the enemy or the reinforcements were.

4/9/2006 8:17 pm (et) Basecat: I must have missed the overalls. Trying to look thru the book here to find where they are mentioned.

4/9/2006 8:18 pm (et) mobile_96: Gray overalls, supposed to be 'work' overalls when doing horse care duties.

4/9/2006 8:20 pm (et) Babs: Why did they put them on for combat?

4/9/2006 8:20 pm (et) mobile_96: pg 56

4/9/2006 8:20 pm (et) Basecat: Babs. As Jim described last week, there really was only one clearing on the ground where the fight took place. Have walked the trail down there, and it is a heavily wooded area, and know I would have been confused wandering around there back then. Kinda spooky place as well, and when you finally get a look at the height of the bluff...makes me wonder why anyone would plan a recon.

4/9/2006 8:20 pm (et) Basecat: Thanks Mobile.

4/9/2006 8:22 pm (et) mobile_96: Wonder why there was no balloon recon in that area.

4/9/2006 8:22 pm (et) Vickie: Is it a bluff with a sheer rock face?

4/9/2006 8:22 pm (et) Basecat: Babs. Baker made some cryptic remark that they should wear everything, as they are none too good to die in. Hence the title of the chapter. Think he realized that they were in a bad spot before anyone else did.

4/9/2006 8:23 pm (et) Basecat: Vickie...In certain places it is like a cliff...Other places it is a very steep hill to the Potomac.

4/9/2006 8:23 pm (et) mobile_96: Didn't Jim note that the underbrush was higher today than back then?

4/9/2006 8:23 pm (et) Babs: Moble, I wondered that too. Maybe the wind blew the wrong way

4/9/2006 8:23 pm (et) Basecat: A lot flatter on the Maryland side.

4/9/2006 8:24 pm (et) Vickie: Ok thanks base, I keep picturing it like the sheer rock face bluff on the property where I grew up.

4/9/2006 8:24 pm (et) Basecat: Mobile...Reminds me of the ground in the Wilderness in certain places, as there is a very thick underbrush along the park trail.

4/9/2006 8:25 pm (et) mobile_96: is that bluff area common to that side of the river, or just in that particular area?

4/9/2006 8:26 pm (et) Babs: Are there still things to see in spite of the subdivisions?

4/9/2006 8:27 pm (et) Basecat: Sorry was called away for a few seconds. As for the bluffs in that area...for the most part they are high along that part of the river.

4/9/2006 8:28 pm (et) Basecat: Babs...They have a fine walking trail thru out the battlefield, and many waysides along the trail that tells you what took place there. Took me about 90 minutes to walk the ground. Lots of hills on that trail as well.

4/9/2006 8:29 pm (et) Basecat: Will add, that you really don't see the subdivisions of homes while walking around back there. Very odd to describe, as drive to the entrance is like driving thru any type of suburb. If you did not know it was there, you would not really know it...if that makes sense.

4/9/2006 8:30 pm (et) Babs: Is there a visitors center or just markers?

4/9/2006 8:30 pm (et) Basecat: Also, IIRC, the Island in the middle of the Potomac is about the same size as it was back then. Been awhile since I visited down there, and know they have made improvements to the park since I visited.

4/9/2006 8:31 pm (et) Basecat: No visitor center Babs. Just a huge wayside at the entrance, and then smaller signs littered thru out the battlefield trail.

4/9/2006 8:33 pm (et) Babs: I will be visiting Harpers Ferry and wonder if it is worth swinging down there.

4/9/2006 8:33 pm (et) Basecat: The National Cemetery located there is also the smallest one in the Country, IIRC.

4/9/2006 8:33 pm (et) Basecat: It is worth the stop, and if you get a hold of Jim beforehand, am sure he would give you a guided tour. Plan on going there myself during Muster week.

4/9/2006 8:35 pm (et) Babs: I would be there the week following muster.

4/9/2006 8:35 pm (et) Basecat: BTW...The Bluffs on that part of the Potomac are about half the size of those you see at Harper's Ferry.

4/9/2006 8:36 pm (et) Basecat: Babs.. If you wish, I can send you his e-mail addy.

4/9/2006 8:37 pm (et) Basecat: Anything else on Chapter 4?

4/9/2006 8:37 pm (et) Vickie: the bluffs at Harpers Ferry are similar to the ones along the Mississippi in south west WI.

4/9/2006 8:37 pm (et) Babs: Base, Please do. He posted it last week but I neglected to copy it.

4/9/2006 8:38 pm (et) Babs: Vickie: Really? I wouldn't have expected them to be so high.

4/9/2006 8:39 pm (et) Basecat: Will do Babs.

4/9/2006 8:42 pm (et) Vickie: Yes, very high bluffs in that area of WI, ours being one of the highest (my folks have since sold the property).

4/9/2006 8:43 pm (et) Vickie: Very much like the bluffs/cliffs along the canal at Harpers Ferry

4/9/2006 8:44 pm (et) mobile_96: On Chapter 5, anyone find any reason for Baker staying on the island so long, and not advancing to take charge like he was supposed to?

4/9/2006 8:45 pm (et) Basecat: Mobile, I tend to think that he did not want to be the one to take charge, and was under the assumption that Stone would be coming up to do so.

4/9/2006 8:46 pm (et) Basecat: This again deals with the bad communication on the Union side. I don''t think any of those officers had any idea what to do.

4/9/2006 8:46 pm (et) Vickie: I wondered if it was a communication problem.

4/9/2006 8:47 pm (et) Vickie: Just seemed confused as to who should be in charge.

4/9/2006 8:47 pm (et) Vickie: Or maybe I'm just confused as to who was in charge:-)

4/9/2006 8:47 pm (et) Babs: Baker kept asking everyone's opinion but still didn't do much even when they all agreed.

4/9/2006 8:48 pm (et) Basecat: Vickie, Add the fact that the higher ups were way too far from where the action was taking place. Always has been a problem I have with Little Mac...and while it is great to delegate, he delegated to relaxingly if that is a word..;)

4/9/2006 8:48 pm (et) mobile_96: Had to be, some because of distance, some because there was confusion as to what to do in the 1st place, and a couple messengers seem to have disappeared for periods of time.

4/9/2006 8:49 pm (et) Basecat: Plus they did not use the cavalry all that much. Started to bring this up with Jim last week, and am sure he can better answer why they were not than me.

4/9/2006 8:49 pm (et) Babs: Speaking of McClellan... Wasn't he the one that mixed up the town names?

4/9/2006 8:50 pm (et) Basecat: Babs. Yep...Shows that they really did not have a clear view as to towns or terrain in that area. Bad place to have a recon, when you have no clue what could be in store for you.

4/9/2006 8:52 pm (et) Babs: Interesting description of getting the cannon up the hill- bluff- whatever.

4/9/2006 8:53 pm (et) Basecat: Also tend to believe that this battle is what decided for Little Mac anyway, that his army was no way ready to be in combat at this time. He decided that he would not take his army into battle until he thought they were ready. Problem is, he IMHO, never really thought they were ready when the Peninsula Campaign was started. Notice also that Abe had to issue orders to the effect that he had to matter what.

4/9/2006 8:54 pm (et) Basecat: Babs...Reminded me of Hazlett's battery on LRT at Gettysburg, and how they struggled to get the cannon up that hill as well.

4/9/2006 8:55 pm (et) Babs: Interest theory. Makes sense.

4/9/2006 8:56 pm (et) Basecat: Some folks feel I am way too hard on Little Mac, but he drives me crazy...Obnoxious to the utmost.

4/9/2006 8:57 pm (et) Babs: Hey... He's your governor, not mine :^).

4/9/2006 8:57 pm (et) mobile_96: Drives a lot of people crazy

4/9/2006 8:58 pm (et) Basecat: LOL...Funny you mention that...New article in one of the magazines on his tenure as Governor of NJ. No...Have not read it ...yet. :)

4/9/2006 9:00 pm (et) Basecat: I know next week is Easter Sunday. Do folks wish to have the chat as scheduled...or postpone it for a week?

4/9/2006 9:01 pm (et) mobile_96: I can skip, thinking of going to daughters house for that wkend

4/9/2006 9:01 pm (et) mobile_96: But can also attend from there.

4/9/2006 9:01 pm (et) Babs: Doesn't matter to me.

4/9/2006 9:02 pm (et) Basecat: How about this...Just move it to next Monday Night at * PM...That way we won't have to skip a week.

4/9/2006 9:02 pm (et) Basecat: 8 PM that is.

4/9/2006 9:02 pm (et) mobile_96: Good idea.

4/9/2006 9:02 pm (et) Babs: That works for me.

4/9/2006 9:03 pm (et) Basecat: Come up with one every now and then...mostly then..;)

4/9/2006 9:04 pm (et) Basecat: OK...Chapters 6 & 7 for next Monday night at 8 PM EDT.

4/9/2006 9:04 pm (et) Vickie: I might not be here next Sunday, will be at Tim's Uncles and not sure what time we will be home.

4/9/2006 9:04 pm (et) mobile_96: Long chapters again, IIRC

4/9/2006 9:04 pm (et) Vickie: Monday works for me

4/9/2006 9:05 pm (et) Babs: Stay 'til Monday if you like :^)

4/9/2006 9:05 pm (et) Basecat: 59 pages...Not too bad...and book moves along here rather quickly.

4/9/2006 9:05 pm (et) mobile_96: Send James a notice so maybe he can attend again

4/9/2006 9:06 pm (et) Babs: I panicked at the length of tonight's homework, but it wasn't bad.

4/9/2006 9:08 pm (et) Basecat: Thanks all for the chat tonight. We will be off on Next Sunday, and resume on Monday the 17th...Tax Day at 8 PMEDT. :).

Unfortunately, Jim Morgan, the author of the book being discussed ("A Little Short of Boats'), could not join in this chat.  However, he did stop by the following day and left these comments:

4/10/2006 9:14 am (et) jim morgan: Greetings all. First, my apologies for not participating in the chat last night.

4/10/2006 9:16 am (et) jim morgan: I've read the log, so let me address a few comments/ questions that came up last night. Babs asked about the overalls and why the 1st Cal wore them. Steve suggested that Baker might have known they'd be in a tight spot before anyone else. I think it was an off-handed remark by Baker. They'd just gotten an issue of overalls and one soldier asked if they should wear them. Baker said yes, but probably wouldn't have thought about it otherwise. As to his knowing they were in a tight spot, that couldn't be because this happened very early on the morning of Oct 21 before they'd even gotten to the river, much less crossed it. Baker is said, however, to have had some kind of premonition of his own death. Maybe he was thinking of that.

4/10/2006 9:18 am (et) jim morgan: Vickie asked if the bluff is sheer? Ball's Bluff can be thought of as a kind of shallow bell curve. It rises from two ravines about 600 yards apart to a height of some 110 feet above the river roughly halfway between the ravines. Toward the middle it is sheer, but nearer to both ravines, it begins to slope. Still steep, but not sheer and, of course, not so high. Where the rout took place late in the day it was not sheer (though very steep) and was perhaps 30-50 feet high.

4/10/2006 9:19 am (et) jim morgan: Steve said that the BB cemetery is the smallest national cemetery but that's not so. It is the third smallest. Smallest is in Hampton on the grounds of the V.A. medical center; 22 interred. Battleground National Cemetery  in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC, has 41 interred. Ball's Bluff has 54, though 53 of those are just partial remains. Only one soldier is buried there "whole."

4/10/2006 9:21 am (et) jim morgan: Steve said that he thought BB might have made McClellan realize his army wasn't ready. I think there's something to that. If ... note I say "IF" ... there was a fall offensive planned for late 1861, I'm pretty sure that the results of Ball's Bluff made Mac think even longer and harder about doing that. He didn't even want to go six months later, after all.

4/10/2006 9:30 am (et) jim morgan: Babs asked about a visitor's center and markers. No VC but there are 16 historical markers along the trails. Unfortunately, 9 of them contain errors (5 of which are serious) so an uninformed visitor who depends on the signs is going to gets lots of incorrect information. We're working on getting corrected signs but its expensive and the NVRPA is a low-budget operation. They know about the errors and will change them as they can though in the meantime people are still getting bad history.

4/10/2006 10:15 am (et) jim morgan: I found the overalls comment puzzling when I first read it. Artillery and cavalry got issued overalls for working around the stables. They were made of canvas and not unlike what we think of today as overalls. I'd never before heard of them being issued to infantry though and am not sure why the 1st Cal would have gotten them.

4/10/2006 10:17 am (et) jim morgan: The only ref I've ever seen to the 1st Cal wearing them is from that guy who asked Baker if they should. Interestingly, none of the Confederate writings on the battle mention a bunch of overall-clad Union soldiers which, I'd think, they would have. Maybe only that one guy or a handful of guys actually wore them. Or maybe they all took them off before crossing the island. The day did get warm later on.