American Civil War: Battle of Ball's Bluff

Fighting at Ball's Bluff
Death of Colonel Edward Baker at the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Ball's Bluff - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Ball's Bluff was fought October 21, 1861, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

  • Brigadier General Charles P. Stone
  • Colonel Edward D. Baker
  • 1,720 men

Confederate

  • Colonel Nathan G. Evans
  • 1700 men

Battle of Ball's Bluff - Background:

In October 1861, Union commander Major General George B. McClellan ordered Union troops to move northeast from Langley, VA to scout the area around Leesburg.

This movement was the result of reports that Confederate Colonel Nathan G. Evans had moved his command out of the town. Complying with McClellan's orders Brigadier General George A. McCall marched his division northwest to Dranesville. Unknown to McCall, the Union intelligence was correct as Evans had moved southeast to a new position along Goose Creek. Made aware of this movement, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered Evans to return to the town.

On October 19, Evans complied and re-occupied his former position. That same evening, McClellan directed McCall to return to Langley. Prior to McClellan's departure, McCall requested and received permission to remain in the area an additional day to complete mapping the local roads. While McCall's men were working on October 20, McClellan ordered Brigadier General Charles P. Stone's command in Maryland to make a demonstration against Ball's Bluff and Leesburg.

Probing the western bank of the Potomac that day, Stone's troops failed to elicit a response from Evans.

Battle of Ball's Bluff - An Intelligence Error:

To ascertain the effectiveness of the demonstration, Stone ordered Colonel Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry to send a patrol across the river that evening.

This group was led by Captain Chase Philbrick. Moving across the Potomac, Philbrick's patrol marched inland seeking the enemy. An inexperienced officer, Philbrick mistook a row of trees to be Confederate camp. Without confirming this, he promptly returned to Devens and reported that an unguarded enemy camp was across the river. Assessing this information, Stone elected to mount a raid on the camp the next day.

While a small diversionary force was to cross downstream at Edward's Ferry, Devens was to move across the river to Harrison's Island and then on to the west bank around dawn with approximately 300 men. Once the raid was complete, Devens was to return to Maryland. The attack was to be supported by 100 men from the 20th Massachusetts who were to cross and deploy atop Ball's Bluff to cover Devens' withdrawal. Crossing in the morning, Devens and his men soon found there was nothing to raid. Reporting this to Stone, he requested additional instructions.

Battle of Ball's Bluff - Confusion on the Bluff:

Learning of Devens' situation, Stone elected to turn the raid into a reconnaissance in force. Ordering the remainder of the 15th Massachusetts across, Devens was directed to advance on Leesburg to gauge enemy strength.

As these discussions were occurring, pickets from the 17th Mississippi Infantry encountered the men from the 20th Massachusetts and a brief firefight ensued. Devens' men soon joined the fight and after short skirmish both sides withdrew. Alerted to the Union troops, Evans began moving reinforcements to the area. As the morning passed, the remainder of Devens' regiment arrived.

As the situation was developing, Colonel Edward Baker arrived at Stone's headquarters. A sitting US Senator from Oregon, Stone was close friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Though his troops were not involved at Ball's Bluff, Baker was ordered to the area to take command and determine whether Union forces should retreat or be reinforced. Learning of the new fighting at Ball's Bluff en route, Baker began pushing men across the river and searching for additional boats.

In the process, he failed to issue orders for those troops on the Virginia side or appoint someone on site to command.

Battle of Ball's Bluff - Fighting in Earnest:

Additional skirmishes occurred around 11:30 AM and 1:00 PM as both sides increased in strength. Finally crossing, Baker met with Devens around 2:15 and found that the 15th Massachusetts had fallen back to join the other Union troops at the bluff. Here they formed an "L"-shaped line with the 20th Massachusetts facing west with their backs to the bluff and the 15th Massachusetts extending inland facing south. Together they covered a clearing through which any attacker would have to pass. Around 3:00, elements of the arriving 1st California Infantry clashed with companies from the 8th Virginia.

As the fighting began in earnest, the 18th Mississippi took heavy losses when it attempted to cross the clearing. With the fighting developing, the Confederates formed a position that pinned the Union troops against the river. Confusion abounded on both sides as units became intermixed. On the Union side this was further complicated by the arrival of the 42nd New York Infantry. As the fighting continued, the Union troops turned back several Confederate attacks. Between 4:30 and 5:00, Baker was killed during and attack on the Union left.

Command devolved to Colonel Milton Cogswell of the 42nd New York who attempted an assault on the Confederate right. This failed and the Union troops went back to the defensive. Around dusk, the fresh troops of the 17th Mississippi launched an attack which drew in other Confederate units. Hitting the tired Union soldiers, it shattered the Federal lines. Though Cogswell attempted to conduct an orderly retreat, his men began fleeing into the river and attempting to swim across to Harrison's Island. Other Union troops found shelter at the base of the bluff and were forced to surrender.

Battle of Ball's Bluff - Aftermath:

The numbers for Union losses at Ball's Bluff vary depending on the source and were approximately 49 killed, 158-198 wounded, and 529-714 missing/captured.

In the days following the fight, bodies washed ashore along the length of the Potomac. In the fighting, Baker became the only sitting senator to be killed combat. Confederate losses in the battle totaled 36 killed and 117 wounded. A relatively minor affair relative to the battles to come, Ball's Bluff had long-lasting political consequences. Though fault for the defeat largely belonged to Baker, Stone was made the scapegoat as members of Congress did not wish to smear a fallen peer. As a result of the defeat, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was formed which would cause problems for Union commanders for the remainder of the conflict.

Selected Sources