Saturday, October 20, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Monday, Oct. 21, 1861

Two battles occur today: one in the East, the other in the West. One turns into a humiliation for the Union, but is of no strategic significance; the other is a Union success that has at least some significance. The humiliation will be remembered a century and a half later; the success will be almost totally forgotten.

Col. Edward D. Baker, a politician and friend of Lincoln’s, had been ordered to make “a slight demonstration” near Leesburg, Virginia. Brave but inept, Baker stumbles into a Confederate ambush at Ball's Bluff and, although the opposing forces are approximately equal in size (about 1,700 men each), the Union force is nearly wiped out. Federal losses are 921 killed, wounded, or captured, including Baker, who is killed. The Confederates lose only 149. While Lincoln grieves for his friend and Northerners squirm in frustration over yet another loss, Southerners exult—and yet the battle has no strategic significance.

Far to the West, in southeast Missouri, a larger engagement takes place at almost exactly the same time. Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had ordered Col. J. B. Plummer to take a force from Cape Girardeau and cut off forces of the pestiferous M. Jeff. Thompson in the area of Fredericktown. Meanwhile, a second column of Federals, under Col. William P. Carlin, heads for Fredericktown under orders from Department of Missouri headquarters at St. Louis.

With two columns of Federals converging on him, Thompson takes his supply train to safety about 12 miles south of Fredericktown, then wheels about and heads back to take on the Union forces. He has between 2,000 and 3,000 men, while the two Federal forces total 4,500. Colonel Plummer assumes overall command of Union forces and launches a pursuit of Thompson who, in fact, is headed his way. Plummer and Thompson collide a mile or two south of Fredericktown and in fighting that proceeds by fits and starts, Thompson is pushed southward until finally he mounts a retreat.

As usual, both sides make claims of casualties inflicted that are hard to verify, but this much is clear: Thompson has been forced to retreat, strengthening Union control of southeast Missouri.

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