Note: Part One of "We Shall Meet, But We Shall Miss Him" was posted on April 30, 2008
A River Flows; It Flows To The Sea....
When 2nd Lieutenant John William Grout of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry was shot while in the middle of the Potomac River on October 21, 1861, trying to cross back over toward Ball’s Bluff to further assist his men in Company H, he sank beneath the water and disappeared from view.
His body was probably submerged for two to three days when the buildup of gases in decaying tissue would have made it rise to the surface. His back would have initially been the only part of the body visible to an observer’s eye, his head, arms, and legs still submerged. The Potomac would have caught Grout’s body in the grasp of its swift current and floated it along on a 12-day, thirty-five mile journey toward Washington.
The body would have been swept through Great Falls, where the river has carved multiple channels through barriers of solid rock, and thunders through a series of incremental twenty-foot drops, creating the greatest natural lowering of a river in the eastern part of the country. It’s an area wildly dangerous, claiming an average of seven drowning victims each year, an area that can’t be navigated by boats, and where George Washington supervised construction of a canal as a bypass.
Beyond Great Falls the river would have carried Grout along, past Georgetown and the Key Bridge,
past what is now Roosevelt Island,
past the great yellow mansion on a hill that is Arlington House,
under the Memorial Bridge, which leads to Arlington National Cemetery, had the bridge been standing at the time,
past the obelisk, which honors the Father of our country, and which was still under construction in 1861,
until it was washed against the shore near where the Long Bridge was to be constructed in 1865. That bridge is more familiar to us today as the 14th Street Bridge, a structure that carries traffic between the District and Virginia, and is most familiar as the place where an Air Florida jetliner crashed through the ice in January, 1982 shortly after takeoff, killing all but 5 of its 79 passengers.
Grout’s bloated remains were recovered along with those of five others on November 5th, close to two weeks after the fiasco at Ball’s Bluff. That he performed the simple task of his ensuring his name was inscribed on an article of clothing allowed for identification and return to his family at Worcester, Mass.
We shall meet, but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our evening prayer.
The Battle of Balls’s Bluff
Excerpted from the History of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Infantry
...Colonel [Charles P.] Devens was ordered by General [Charles P.] Stone to cross with a portion of his regiment “to the Virginia shore, march silently under cover of the night to the position of the [Confederate] camp…to attack and destroy it at daybreak, pursue the enemy lodged there as far as would be prudent with his small force, and return rapidly to the island, his return being covered by [two companies] of the Massachusetts Twentieth, which were directed to be posted on the bluff directly over the landing place.” The capture of the little supposed encampment was the chief object of this expedition, a more complete reconnaissance a secondary one.
Company C…had passed over to Harrison’s Island Sunday afternoon…About midnight, they, with Company H…began crossing from the island to the Virginia bank, under the lead of Colonel Devens. So poor were the means of transportation that it was four o’clock before the last company had crossed over. The passage, though hurried, took six times as long as General Stone had estimated. There were in all three boats, which conveyed about thirty men…Colonel [William R.] Lee of the Twentieth [Massachusetts]…was ordered to cross to Harrison’s Island with five companies of his regiment…
Colonel Devens with his five companies of the Fifteenth passed down the river about sixty rods by a path discovered by the scouts…and then up the bluff known as Ball’s Bluff. The length of the incline has been estimated at from one hundred and fifty yards to four hundred; its perpendicular height, from fifty feet to one hundred and fifty…At the top of the bluff the men, after passing through a scrubby growth, came upon an open field surrounded by woods. This field contained about eight acres. It was oblong and somewhat irregular in shape. The path from the river continued along the southern side of this field and led…through the woods to another open field…The hundred and two men of the Twentieth, under Colonel Lee, who were to protect the return of the companies of the Fifteenth had taken their position at the edge of the field near the bluff…
The total number of the Fifteenth which had crossed the river at eleven o’clock was six hundred and twenty-five men and twenty-eight officers. Soon after this time began the transportation from the island of five more companies of the Twentieth.
Colonel Devens threw out Company C to the right, Company A to the left and Company B to the front. This front line of skirmishers was beyond the further side of the second field before mentioned. Major Kimball, who had been out to this advance skirmish line…hurried back to Colonel Devens and reported to him that a movement was being made by the rebel cavalry towards the open field, which was designed to take this advance skirmish line in the rear. Colonel Devens gathered his men who were not in the advance line, behind a fence in the rear of the open space where the cavalry was expected. At about thirty minutes after twelve the rebels made the advance with the cavalry moving on the skirmish line in front and the infantry coming upon the left of the main body The enemy were repulsed, but the advance line suffered considerably. The rebels had four companies of infantry and three of cavalry under Colonel Jennifer, and later the Eighth Virginia joined them…
The troops were arranged on the northern and eastern edges of the first open field, near the bluff. The Fifteenth Regiment was at the extreme right, protected in part by the woods, in the form of a right angle with its long side containing six companies about perpendicular to the river. In this angle, a little to the front, was posted…the First United States Artillery with two mountain howitzers. A field piece of the Third Rhode Island Battery…was farther to the left. A considerable portion of the Fifteenth Regiment was protected by the edge of the woods, the guns were in the open. Next came the Twentieth Massachusetts with three hundred and eighteen men. The right of the Twentieth was on the left of Company D of the Fifteenth. Colonel Cogswell of the Forty-second New York, the Tammany Regiment, took his position next to the left of the Twentieth Massachusetts…At the extreme left were eight companies of the First California Regiment with five hundred and twenty men…The object of this line was to protect the rear of the Fifteenth. The skirmishing was severe, but the line was held against the infantry and cavalry companies which had been under Colonel Jennifer since morning…There were less than fifteen hundred Union men on the field at any one time; for those from the Fifteenth, wounded in the skirmishes, had retired to the island with their attendants before the main battle began, and before the last troops had arrived from the Tammany Regiment, many of the wounded and those who cared for them had left the bluff.
It was about three o’clock when the Eighth Virginia…made an attack from a commanding position in the woods on the left and center. The fire of this regiment was very destructive, especially to those who supported the field piece and the howitzers. Under these circumstances the artillery was of little use, and was abandoned after eight rounds had been fired. The Eighteenth and Seventeenth Mississippi, and a company of the Thirteenth Mississippi joined the Eighth Virginia. There was continuous firing from three until after five o’clock.
…At about five o’clock or a little before, Colonel [Edward] Baker, who had exposed himself during the engagement with the most unstinted courage fell…After the death of Colonel Baker, Colonel Lee of the Twentieth assumed command. He was inclined to retreat to the river as he considered the battle lost. But it was soon found that Colonel Cogswell of the Forty-second New York was entitled to command…He had the reputation of being an able officer, but he knew little of the battle up to the point where he assumed command. His plan was to cut his way to the Union troops at Edward’s ferry by or through the main body of the enemy which lay to the left…
…Colonel Cogswells says that he commanded all the troops to advance to the left in a solid body on the enemy’s line, that he advanced with two Tammany companies and a portion of the California Regiment, but that the Fifteenth and Twentieth did not follow…The rebels drove back the Tammany companies, which retreated in such a way as to produce confusion. Parke Godwin said of the next few minutes: “The fifteen Massachusetts, penned in between a crib of fire…The rebels, not believing that fresh volunteer troops could stand the fire so well, yelled out, as they poured in volley after volley, “Give it to them damned regulars!” but could not break the line.”
At last Colonel Cogswell gave the order to retreat to the river bank. Colonel Devens said to him, “Sir, I do not wish to retreat. Do you issue it as an order?” “Yes, sir,” Cogswell replied…”I order you to retreat.”
William J. Coulter [15th Massachusetts] writes: “When we reached the river a boat came over from the island with reinforcements…and as they left the boat, the wounded who were near by, who were able commenced to get into it, as also did those who were anxious to save their lives. The boat was overloaded, and it went down with nearly a hundred souls on board, about thirty of whom were drowned…
Lieutenant Charles H. Eager of Company B thus describes his experience and the rescue of Colonel Devens: “After the order had been given to retreat, we rallied in a kind of bridle-path under the bluff, and near the river, when Colonel Devins ordered us to throw our arms into river and take care of ourselves as best we could. There were a good many of the company who said they could not swim, or did not care to undertake it. I told them I could not swim, but we could keep together as much as possible, make our way up the river, and perhaps find a boat in which we could cross. George L. Boss, upon hearing me say I could not swim, said two or three of them could take me across...Upon going to the river edge, we found a limb some six inches through at the butt and perhaps ten feet long, and in pulling that out, pulled up a common floor joist about the same length…Just as we were about to embark, Colonel Devens came to the water’s edge stripped of his equipments and clothing. When [Walter A.] Eames asked him if he could swim, he replied that he could not. Eames said to him, “Hop on to our craft and we will take you across, too.” After satisfying himself that they were all swimmers, but me, he waded in.”
…Many of those who remained on the bank and dared not trust themselves to the stream since they were unable to swim, just as the darkness was closing in, sent one of their number with a flag of truce to the enemy. The rebels agreed to stop firing if the Union troops would lay down their arms and surrender. As there was no alternative, our men were obliged to accept these conditions. Colonel Cogswell and Colonel Lee were among the prisoners….
Of the conduct of the men of the [Fifteenth] regiment during the battle, Colonel Devens said: “They behaved most nobly during the entire day; every man did his duty; there was no flinching, no disobedience, no cowardice, and they fought to the very last with great cheerfulness.” General McClellan reported: “Nothing has occurred in the war yet equal to the heroic conduct of the Fifteenth Massachusetts.” To the commander he said: “Colonel Devens, in my next battle I want you to be with me.”