Soldier's marker without memory

A Civil War mystery shrouds memorial in Virginia in wake of Union defeat

May 29, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

LEESBURG, Va. -- If anyone mourned the Civil War battlefield death of Pvt. James Allen on Oct. 21, 1861, near the Potomac River at Ball's Bluff, there are few clues. No mark was left in public records and no claims made on a military pension.

His passing is noted nonetheless, as quirks of chance make him the only one of 54 Union soldiers buried at Ball's Bluff, a small national cemetery, whose name is cut in stone.

Along with the usual weekend dates, the Ball's Bluff Regional Park tour schedule this year for the first time includes Memorial Day, an occasion set aside for facing what remains of war dead - in stone, photographs, letters, tape recordings, dog tags, memory. Visitors stepping through the iron gate may notice Allen's name facing them in white marble from across this little patch of turf, on the other side of the flag pole, flanked on each side by stones arranged in a horseshoe, 23 marked "Unknown," one marked "Unknown Soldier."

The iron gate fits into a red stone wall enclosing a square just shy of 50 feet by 50 feet holding the remains of some of the Union soldiers who died that day. According to detailed accounts published by James A. Morgan III, who will be conducting the two tours today, the Union probably lost nearly 250 men at Ball's Bluff, the Confederates fewer than 40.

The toll was small compared with the horrors to come at Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg and elsewhere, but this was only six months into the war.

Ball's Bluff was the third in a string of early Union defeats, and it shook the North. The fighting cost the life of Capt. Edward Dickinson Baker, a U.S. senator from Oregon and one of President Abraham Lincoln's closest friends, and prompted a congressional inquiry that destroyed the career of Brig. Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone, the Union commander at Ball's Bluff.

Morgan, who published A Little Short of Boats: The Fights at Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry in 2004, argues that Ball's Bluff was the result of mistakes and miscommunications, a series of skirmishes rather than one big battle, and a confrontation that probably should not have happened. The blame rests more heavily on Baker, Morgan insists, but Stone took the fall, a victim of "politics and personal grudges."

Allen's role is harder to know. If he wrote letters about his brief time with the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, none has been found. Evidence of surviving family or other details that might help fill out the picture has not turned up, but not for lack of effort.

Susan L. Harnwell has been researching the subject since the late 1990s, soon after she learned that her ex-husband's ancestor was Charles Henry Watson, captain of Company E, 15th Massachusetts, who survived Ball's Bluff. She has been working as Webmaster for a group soliciting material from descendants and others and compiling a Web site on members of the unit.

"Part of my goal is to make them human rather than just a name on a stone," Harnwell says in an interview from her home in southern Germany.

In Allen's case, there seems to be little more than that.

The white marble stone stands about 20 inches high, a bit taller than all but two of the others. A simple shield design is carved around the four-line inscription: James Allen Co H 15 Regt Mass Inf October 21, 1861

From military and census records, a history of the 15th Massachusetts written in the 1890s, and a roster of Massachusetts Civil War soldiers published in the 1930s, Harnwell scraped together the barest sketch of James D. Allen.

Evidently born in Canton, south of Boston, between 1838 and 1839, Allen turns up in the 1860 census as a "bootmaker" living in the home of another bootmaker, "L.F. Joice," in Worcester County, Mass., an area west of Boston where there were a number of shoe factories.

"I'm 99 percent sure he's a single young man," says Harnwell. "In this case, there's no pension, no wife's name, nothing."

That he was living with a shoemaker suggests that he was one among many young men who went to that area to find work, which she says "tells me he came from little or no means. He was not a rich boy."

Three months after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Allen was mustered with the 15th Massachusetts on July 12, 1861, recorded as coming from Northbridge, in Worcester County.

Members of his unit played a key role in the Ball's Bluff fiasco, as they made up the scouting party that crossed from Maryland into Virginia on the evening of Oct. 20 and returned with erroneous reports of an unguarded Confederate camp near the bluff.

Early the next morning, a raiding party found that the "camp" was actually a cluster of fruit trees, but by then 300 members of the 15th Massachusetts were on the bluff.

While the Union troops awaited further orders, Confederates spotted them. Shots were fired, and the fighting escalated, eventually involving about 3,500 men from 10 states.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.