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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Ball's Bluff

An accidental engagement. Inexperienced Union leadership. A battle that changed the way war politics were conducted in the United States. All of these things can describe the events that took place at Ball's Bluff, October 21, 1861. While this battle was relatively minor, it had major ramifications in the US political realm and strengthened the Confederate army's morale in the early stages of the Civil War.

Union Artillery Line

On the evening of October 20, 1861, General George B. McClellan issued a scouting party to patrol the banks of the Potomac River near Leesburg, VA, and identify the position of Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Evan's troops. Captain Chase Philbrick led the Union party under the cover of darkness, and mistakenly took a grove of trees as Confederate tents. Philbrick relayed this faulty information back to command the following morning to Brig. Gen. Charles Stone. Stone then ordered Colonel Charles Devens to deploy troops across the river and attack the "camp." The Union troops soon saw that the camp was nonexistent, but not before engaging with Mississippi infantrymen under Evan's command. Around 3400 troops engaged in this skirmish, nearly even on both sides. However, the Confederates held the high ground, while the Union used four small boats to transport troops across the river. The slow amphibious assault allowed Confederate troops to organize and ambush the Union troops as they landed. The Union troops who managed to land were soon bottle-necked and trapped up on the bluff. The Confederate offensive made one last push and drove Union troops over the edge into the river. Many drowned if not shot. In the end, there were one thousand Union casualties (220 killed and 780 wounded, missing, or captured) and only 150 Confederate ones (36 killed, 119 wounded or missing).

One of the Union dead was Colonel Edward Baker, who led the 1st California Infantry. He was also the only sitting U.S. Senator ever to be killed in battle. His death, coupled with the embarrassing defeat at Ball's Bluff, had major ramifications back in the capitol and prompted the assembly of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. This Committee's purpose was to investigate Union defeats, which created an atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust among the Union leadership. The Committee found General Stone at fault for the defeat, though more for political reasons than anything else. He was imprisoned for six months and later released with his military career essentially ruined.

Another notable casualty on the Union side was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Holmes was part of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, also known as the "Harvard Regiment." At around 4:30 in the afternoon, Holmes was struck in the chest and nearly died of the wound. He later recovered, and fought in even bloodier battles, such as Antietam and Chancellorsville.

The Battle of Ball's Bluff

That's the overview of the major events of the battle. A good portion of the battlefield is still preserved today, located amidst a major subdivision outside of Leesburg. Driving to the site was rather wouldn't think that there would be a Civil War battle site there! This makes me want to briefly mention the importance of historical preservation. Urbanization and development are intruding on our nation's hallowed ground (if you see Ball's Bluff Battlefield, you'll understand where I'm coming from). It is very important that we try to preserve these sites so that they can be properly appreciated and remembered, rather than be enveloped and forgotten.

Anyway, I digress. Pulling into the parking lot, you can clearly see a 10-acre field among the trees. This was where most of the intense fighting took place. I walked along the Interpretive Trail (white hash mark), which loops around this clearing and details portions of the battle and the men who fought them.

For such a small battlefield, there certainly is a lot of history to be learned! The Interpretive Trail is lined with markers. The first marker is of the 17th Mississippi regiment. This unit was commanded by Colonel Winfield Scott Featherston, a former US Representative. The 17th Miss. was one of the Confederate regiments that drove the Union army into the Potomac at the end of the battle. Further down the path--across the footbridge--was the position held by the 18th Mississippi. The 18th engaged in close-quarters combat with members of the 42nd NY "Tammany" Infantry Regiment.

How the Battlefield Looks Today

Continuing along the path to the edge of the bluff is a marker for the 1st California Regiment. As stated before, this regiment was under the command of Oregon Senator Edward Baker. Despite being named 'California,' most of the troops were from Pennsylvania and mustered-in June 1861 in Philadelphia. From this sign, I took a right and followed a green-hash trail down to the flood plain of the Potomac River. This trail travels along the banks of the river where the Union troops landed coming from Harrison Island. It also offered a compelling view of the bluffs, and it's easy to understand why the Union army faltered so when trying to engage the enemy.

Looping back around, I walked to the Ball's Bluff Overlook. While the view was partly obstructed by brush when I visited, I could still envision the vantage point of this position 155 years ago. Adjacent to the overlook is the Union artillery line, where two 12-pound "mountain howitzers" were placed.

Next to the artillery line is the Ball's Bluff National Cemetery. Completed on December 18, 1865, it is the third-smallest national cemetery in existence. The remains of 54 recovered Union soldiers are buried here in twenty five graves. All but one, that of Private James Allen of the 15th Mass., are unknown. Outside the gates of the cemetery stands a marker for Senator Baker, siting the spot where he fell. Not foo far away from this spot is where Oliver Wendell Holmes was shot. Another marker further inland is of Sargent Clinton Hatcher, the regimental color-bearer for the 8th Virginia, a local unit from Loudoun County.

The National Cemetery

Back on the Interpretive Trail, I arrived at the 15th Massachusetts plaque. Colonel Charles Devens commanded this unit. He was the only senior officer to make it back across the Potomac following the battle, and he would go on to become US Attorney General under President Rutherford B. Hayes. The men of the 15th Mass. were very active in reunions after the war, and visited Ball's Bluff in 1886 (a copy of the photo can be seen at the battlefield). They also rebuilt the cemetery walls and transported remains of their fallen comrades back to their families.

Ball's Bluff may be a small site, but it's incredibly significant. While there may not be much to see, there is definitely a lot to learn. Free tours are offered on weekends at 11 am and 1 pm, and there are the occasional reenactments. Additionally, there are plenty of trails to walk along. The battlefield is a very nice location and shouldn't take you more than an hour or two to visit. Thanks for reading!


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