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“The Terrible Massacre” - George Washington Beidelman and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff


Cannonading on the Potomac by Alfred Thompson (White House Historical Asso.)


To move forward would require a desperate assault on an enemy who held the high ground. Moving around to the flanks was not an option either. The men of the 71st Pennsylvania were nearly encircled by Confederate forces. Their only way of escape was back across the cold Potomac River. But the boats that had brought them across the river were nowhere to be found. What were they to do?


Dropping their accoutrements and heavy wool uniforms, some chose to brave the heavy enemy fire and plunge into the Potomac River. More than 500 men of the engaged Union brigade preferred to throw down their rifles and be taken prisoner.[1] Nearly three months to the day after the humiliating “great skedaddle” from Manassas, Union troops at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff would be humiliated because they could not retreat. What had started as a “slight demonstration” on October 21, 1861 had devolved into a small, pitched battle and a retreat that more resembled a massacre. [2]

Robert Knox Sneden’s Map of the battle of Ball’s Bluff (Library of Congress).


Caught in the middle of the maelstrom was the 1st California, a regiment that was later renamed the 71st Pennsylvania after the battle. Private George Washington Beidelman predicted that rechristening, calling it a decision that would “be a great benefit to us” because a significant portion of the regiment, Beidelman included, were not from California at all. The initial impetus to form the regiment came from 200 California men who, with Senator Edward Baker, of Oregon, wanted to demonstrate the West Coast’s commitment to the Union cause. Baker’s initial authorization was to raise a regiment of men from the west, but most of the men who joined, Beidelman included, called Philadelphia home at the start of the war.[3] Though fighting as the 1st California at Ball’s Bluff, this post refers to the unit as the 71st PA because most of its men were from Pennsylvania and a majority of its service would be under the Pennsylvania designation.


Beidelman’s first months in the army made it clear that the war no stage show. His time as a soldier began casually enough, as the 25-year-old Pennsylvanian spent relaxing time with his unit in Philadelphia before a brief stint at Fortress Monroe in Virginia.[4] The unit’s first real assignment was to Fort Baker, outside of Washington, D.C. Beidelman described the “very dangerous and troublesome duty” of picket duty “owing to the murderous and unprecedented practice of the rebels in firing upon Union pickets; and numerous are the instances in which some one or other of out brave lads has sacrificed his life or been wounded.”[5]


As Beidelman’s Company C was on picket duty, Capt. James W. Linkenfelter of Company B was shot dead on September 21, 1861.[6] Beidelman reflected that “He was a good officer, and his loss is much regretted.”[7] Beidelman was disappointed to not see the skirmish on account of “slight disorder of the stomach.” However, this proximity seemed to prove “that we have not only been playing soldier, but have been doing something and.” Early tests led him to believe “we are made of pretty good stuff.”[8] The “good stuff” of the 71st PA would soon be tested in the Ball’s Bluff excursion.


Ball’s Bluff was an avoidable disaster. Brigadier General Charles Stone had been ordered by George McClellan to use his division to survey the Virginia side of the Potomac River in search of intelligence about Confederate movements around Leesburg. An escaped camp slave revealed that Colonel Shank Evans, who commanded the Confederate forces at Leesburg, would likely retreat if attacked. McClellan felt that “a slight demonstration” on Stone’s part would move Evans away from Leesburg. Stone put his division into movement on October 20th and was ready to attack Confederate forces on Ball’s Bluff the next morning.


As Union forces deployed on the morning of the 21st, the 71st PA was split into groups of two companies and deployed in a wide line as their Colonel, Edwin Baker, attempted to feel out the opposing Confederate forces. Baker was eager for battle and fatefully told the Colonel of the 20th Massachusetts :“I congratulate you upon the prospect of a battle.”[9] The excitement was not mutual, as one Massachusetts officer would record that after the opening shots :“we knew we were in for it then.[emphasis in document].[10] The Massachusetts men realized what Baker had not, that the difficulties crossing to the Potomac River into Virginia and poor deployment of men across unfavorable terrain would spell disaster. [11]


It was not long before Union forces were nearly encircled. The only way of retreat was back across the Potomac River, but a lack of boats made retreat difficult. As the battle raged, Baker exposed himself to rally the men and was hit by as many as 8 rounds, including one to the head that covered a Massachusetts officer in Baker’s brain.[12] Not long after Baker’s death, Union forces made a break for the banks of the river, with many attempting to swim for their lives under Confederate fire. Beidelman described the battle the next day “The rebels were strongly entrenched, and came upon our men in overwhelming numbers, surrounding them and leaving no way of retreat.”[13] A member of the 1st Minnesota who survived the battle wrote home that “altogether it was a very bad affair….The terrible sacrifice of our brave men was little less than butchery.”[14] Baker’s exuberance for battle blinded him to the unsavory conditions and left 1,000 of the 1,700 Union troops either killed, wounded, or captured.[15]

The Death of Col. Baker as depicted in Harper’s Weekly (Wikimedia Commons)


George Washington Beidelman was one of the lucky men of the 71st Pennsylvania that remained with the unit after Ball’s Bluff. But Beidelman’s good fortune was on account of his poor health. In a letter to his father on October 22, he explained: “I have been in hospital quarters for two weeks now…I have been getting better rapidly, with a good appetite, and expected to resume my place in the ranks in a day or two; but yesterday I had strong symptoms of chills and fever.”[16]


Beidelman’s illness was a common problem in 1861 as armies deposited massive amounts of men and material in rural environments where access to proper sanitation and sewage was limited.[17] Beidelman wrote in haste to detail to his family that he was not among the casualty reports soon to hit Northern newspapers: “Our battalion suffered terribly. Out of over 600, only about a hundred are left-- the others being killed, wounded, drowned in the river, and taken prisoners.”[18]

George Washington Beidelman’s letter to his father on October 22 1861.

(Special Collections, Musselman Library at Gettysburg College)


Beidelman also mourned Colonel Baker “We all, and doubtless the whole country, are mourning the loss of our brave and noble general.” But he retained his religious faith, concluding the letter: “Dear father, thus you will see that through the goodness and mercy of our kind Heavenly Father, my sickness was made a blessing to me, and most probably saved my life.”[19]


Beidelman was wracked with worry that this letter would not reach his family. Two days later, he wrote again about “the terrible massacre.” Providing updated casualty numbers Beidelman reported: “at least three-fourths of our whole battallion [sic], is killed, drowned, wounded, and prisoners. We know as yet of but 3 killed in our company. About 20 have returned, which will probably be the average in all the Cos.”


The information Beidelman gathered from comrades made it clear the 71st believed they had little chance: “The rebels were about 6 to our 1, and on the hill in the woods, where they could not be seen easily.” Though the men “fought like tigers” there was “no way of retreat except into the river.” Beidelman repeated his belief that Providence had spared him “you will see that through the goodness and mercy of our dear Heavenly Father, He ordered that my sickness should prove a blessing to me, as it no doubt did, in saving my life: for I cannot swim, even if I had escaped the bullets. To Him be praise for ever and ever Amen.”[20]


Of the 1,700 men of Stone’s division at Ball’s Bluff, 1,000 were casualties. Confederate forces spent days after the battle looting the massive amounts of equipment left behind by soldiers who dumped their accoutrements before plunging into the cold Potomac in desperate attempts for survival. The weeks after the battle also led to remains of the Union dead washing up on the shore of the Potomac, some with gunshot wounds and some without.[21]


For Beidelman, he would have his day in battle soon enough, fighting with the 71st PA for more than a year and a half until receiving a wound in the right leg during the regiment’s heroic fighting in the repulsion of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Recovering from the wound with light duty in the Quartermaster Department, Beidelman contracted typhoid pneumonia and died on March 14, 1864. Providence had spared him from Ball’s Bluff, but it would not spare him from the ravages of disease.

Cameron Sauers is a member of the Gettysburg College class of 2021 where he is a History major with minors in Public History and Civil War Era Studies. Cameron is a Fellow at the Civil War Institute and regularly writes for their blog, the Gettysburg Compiler. Cameron has also written for various digital history projects and the blog of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Cameron is currently co-Editor in chief of The Gettysburg College Journal of the Civil War Era, the nation’s only undergraduate Civil War journal. Cameron can be found on twitter @Cam_Sauers.

[1] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/balls-bluff [2] Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War : A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry.( Lebanon, NH : University Press of New England, 2005), 55. [3] George Washington Beidelman to his father, 24 October 1861. Accessed via Gettysburg College Special Collections and College Archives Digital Collections (hereafter cited as Gett Digital) [4] Kevin Luy “MS:043, George Washington Beidelman Collection” Gettysburg College Special Collections and College Archives Finding Aids [5] George Washington Biedelman to his father, 26 September 1861.) [6] Beidelman spells the officer’s name wrong. Captain James Lingenfelter was the officer killed. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/29757427/james-w_-lingenfelter [7] George Washington Biedelman to his father, 26 September 1861. Gett Digital. [8] George Washington Biedelman to his father, 26 September 1861. Gett Digital [9] Miller, Harvard’s Civil War, 65. [10] Miller, Harvard’s Civil War, 63. [11] Bradley Gottfried, Maps of First Bull Run: An Atlas of The First Bull Run (Manassas) Campaign, including the battle of Ball’s Bluff, June – October 1861. (New York: Savas Beattie, 2009), 96-102. [12] Miller, Harvard’s Civil War, 67. [13] George Washington Beidelman to his father, 22 October 1861, GettDigital [14] Phillip Hamlin to family, October 29 1861. Accessed via Hamlin Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society [15] Gotfried, 104. [16]George Washington Beidelman to his father, October 22 1861, GettDigital [17] Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, An Environmental History of the Civil War. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2020), 5. [18] George Washington Beidelman to his father, October 22 1861, GettDigital [19] George Washington Beidelman to his father, October 22 1861, GettDigital [20] George Washington Beidelman to his father, October 24 1861, Gett Digital [21] Miller, Harvard’s Civil War, 77.

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