As a lover of history, I’m blessed to make my home in the northwestern corner of Virginia anywhere from a few miles to a few hours drive from many of our nation’s richest historical treasures. Places like Jamestown, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Antietam, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Harper’s Ferry, Fort McHenry and of course, our nation’s capital, just to name a few.
Nestled behind a residential neighborhood in Leesburg, Virginia, the small town where I grew up, is the site where one of the first major debacles of the Civil War took place–the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Compared to places like Gettysburg, Franklin and Antietam, Ball’s Bluff is merely a skirmish in the opening days of our nation’s Civil War. Like most civil war battlefields, quiet cannons inform visitors that this hidden spot at the end of a gravel road once roared with the sound of artillery shells, the whistle of minie balls and most likely the deafening sound of the rebel yell.
Today, you can hike down the footpath past a national cemetery and eventually come to a precipice about 120 feet above the Potomac River. A ridge that proved quite deadly for Union forces on October 21, 1861.
The Potomac was not only a vital waterway for the transportation of troops and supplies but it held significant symbolism as the boundary between northern and southern states. “As soon as secession happened, the Potomac became the most important river in the Civil War,” said Jonathan Earle, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. “The Potomac was a psychological border as well as a physical one.”
In the fall of 1861, with Confederate troops camped in Manassas, Virginia, only 25 miles from the U.S. capital, control of the river was imperative for Federal troops. General McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, didn’t want to cede control of the upper Potomac and lose access to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Point of Rocks, Maryland and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Learning that Rebels were positioned at the bluff in Leesburg, McClellan wired General Charles P. Stone, stationed in Poolesville, Maryland, across the Potomac from Leesburg, suggesting that “perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”
General Stone sent three regiments across the river, one at Ball’s Bluff and two at Edwards Ferry a few miles downriver. There wasn’t a bridge anywhere along that stretch of the river, and it was too deep to ford, so they had to rely on boats. Only three were available at Harrison’s Island, a two-mile strip of land occupying a bend in the Potomac facing Ball’s Bluff. Stone informed McClellan, “We are a little short of boats.”
They were also short on military strategy. The man who quickly took command of the operation was the U.S. Senator from Oregon, Colonel Edward Baker. Baker was an advocate of “bold and determined” action and a close friend of President Lincoln’s. Although gifted in oratory, the colonel was deficient in military strategy allowing Union forces to be cornered against a bluff overlooking the river, with only a few skiffs available if retreat became necessary.
It was the perfect recipe for a military tragedy: sketchy information, a river too deep to ford, not enough boats and soldiers who couldn’t swim.
Unbeknownst to Baker, the Confederate commander, General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, had sent his men from Edwards Ferry to Ball’s Bluff. The rebels had superior position in the woods, picking off Baker’s men as they struggled to ascend the ridge. Baker himself began working artillery pieces. The rebels charged, whooping, and the fighting turned hand to hand.
The New York World reported what happened next: “One huge red-haired ruffian drew a revolver, came close to Baker, and fired four balls at the general’s head, every one of which took effect, and a glorious soul fled through their ghastly openings.” The Battle of Ball’s Bluff still remains the only military engagement where a sitting U.S. senator was killed in action.
Hundreds of Union soldiers scrambled and stumbled down the steep bluff. So many boarded a flatboat that it foundered. Soon all three skiffs had sunk. Rebels stood atop the bluff and fired at the men below. It was, the rebels would say later, like a “turkey shoot.” Whom the bullets didn’t kill, the water did. Dozens of men drowned burdened by wool uniforms, boots and heavy weapons.
No one could claim the Federals lacked courage however a case could be made for incompetent leadership. Ball’s Bluff inspired Congress to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It’s first victim was Gen. Charles P. Stone, accused unjustly and irrationally of treason and thrown without formal charges into a prison cell in New York harbor. Stone was eventually released and returned to the Union cause, but his reputation never fully recovered from the Ball’s Bluff calamity.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff taught the Union an important lesson about the importance of military principles, of logistics, of avenues of retreat. Coming after the Union defeat in Manassas, Ball’s Bluff foreshadowed what history has taught us–the suppression of the Confederacy would be a long and bloody endeavor. Anyone in Washington who remained unclear about the challenge facing the Union needed merely to visit the banks of the Potomac where the bodies of Union soldiers were washing up as far down river as Mount Vernon.
This modern image of the Potomac River below Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery is serene now compared to the day she swallowed so many Union soldiers in 1861.
I’m curious how many readers have heard of this tragic encounter at Ball’s Bluff before reading today’s post.