Very little had happened since the humiliation at Manasas Junction in July. “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” declared the war correspondents. But that silence was shattered on October 21, 1861.
General George B. McClellan was now in charge of Union forces. While he spent the last several months organizing and drilling his newly christened Army of the Potomac, the president reminded his new general that the country was growing impatient. When would he advance against the enemy? When would he do something magnificent to tip the scales in the Union’s favor and end this rebellion? “Don’t let them hurry me,” McClellan calmly replied.
As war correspondent Charles Carlton Coffin mingled with encamped Union soldiers near Alexandria, rumors began circulating that something was happening upriver, near Edwards’ Ferry.
In search of the story, the reporter descended on McClellan’s headquarters. While waiting to meet with the general, the president entered. He shook hands with the reporter and commented on the beauty of the afternoon. As the president spoke, the reporter took note of the deep lines carved in the president’s cheeks, obvious examples of the stress and anxiety he had been under.
A lieutenant entered and led the president into the next room. The reporter overheard muffled voices, but everything suddenly went silent. The “click, click, click” of the telegraph increased its pace. The machine brought the first details of events upriver.
Five minutes passed.
Unannounced and alone, the president emerged. His head was bowed and his face was suddenly pale. Tears poured from his eyes. He passed by the reporter before stumbling onto the street. A guard saluted him, but he did not respond. The president’s hands were on his heart, while tears continued down his sunken cheeks.
The reporter’s attention left the president only when McClellan stepped into the room. The silence after Manasas was over, but it was still too early for specifics.
“I have not much new to give you,” McClellan said, “There has been a movement of troops across the Potomac at Edwards’ Ferry, under General Stone, and Colonel Baker is reported killed. That is about all I can give you.”
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was over and the Union suffered another terrible defeat. The repercussions would play out over the next several weeks.