The Battle of Ball’s Bluff
Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park is along the Potomac River. The battle was fought on October 21, 1861. It was one of the first battles of the American Civil War. The Confederates won the battle and routed the Union Army. The principal commanders included Nathan G. Evans (CSA) and Charles P. Stone (USA).
Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Orientation
Only three months after the Confederate victory at the Battle of First Manassas, the two sides clashed again outside of the U.S. Capitol. The night before the battle, a Union scouting and patrolling party crossed the Potomac River. They thought they observed a Confederate camp and reported that it was unguarded. However, what they believed to be a camp was nothing more than a line of trees. The faulty intelligence led to a decision to attack the next morning.
When the Federal troops crossed the Potomac River on the morning of October 21, 1861, they quickly realized that the camp was non-existent. However, a force of Mississippi infantry collided with the 15th Massachusetts Regiment under Col. Devens. Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans was the overall commanding officer of the Confederates. He sent more reinforcements from Leesburg.
Union troops from Massachusetts and California were beat back toward the bluff. They fought with their backs to a high and steep bluff known as Ball’s Bluff, which drops down over 100 feet into the Potomac River. Reinforcements crossed the river from the Maryland side under Col. Baker. However, they were too slow to gain the upper hand. The Confederates from Mississippi and Virginia surrounded them on all sides.
The fighting became a desperate battle for survival. At one point, Federals attempted a breakout towards Edwards Ferry. However, this effort failed. Around 4-5 p.m., one of the most prominent Union officers, Col. Edward Baker, who was a U.S. Senator from Oregon, was killed. After Col. Baker’s death, chaos ensued among the Federal troops. The battle turned into a rout with Union soldiers fleeing down the bluff and attempting to re-cross the river. Many of them drowned to death. Finally, the last remaining Union soldiers surrendered and the battle ended shortly after nightfall.
Lessons Learned: Tactics and Strategy
This battle contains many important lessons for military professionals. The first lesson is the importance of accurate intelligence. A commander makes decisions based on whatever intelligence is available to him. If the intelligence is wrong, then it can be a recipe for total disaster. Ball’s Bluff is a powerful example of the need for good intelligence.
Another lesson is the necessity of logistics in battle. In this case, the lack of transportation boats (only four) to get soldiers back and forth across the Potomac River proved to be a devastating failure. It allowed the Confederates time to maneuver into position and gain the upper hand.
A third lesson is leadership in battle. After the Union lost one of their commanders, Col. Baker, the Confederates took advantage of the lack of command and control. The rebel forces from Mississippi and Virginia pushed the Federal troops to the river and soundly defeated them.
Finally, one of the most significant strategic developments was that the United States established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. This committee was designed to investigate the causes of the failure at Ball’s Bluff. It was used by Republican politicians to check the power of the President and make sure that generals were being held accountable for any more failures. The Joint Committee targeted General Stone for the failure at Ball’s Bluff. Stone was imprisoned and then later served in the western theater of the war before resigning in September 1864. In 1883, Stone became chief engineer on the Statue of Liberty project.
Another fun fact about the battle is that future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. also fought at Ball’s Bluff.
About the Battlefield
If you are in the D.C. area, then this is one to add to the list. It is a great chance to get out of the urban setting and check out a scenic park along the Potomac River. I traveled there on a Sunday afternoon in the fall. The leaves were changing and the sun was shining. It was an awesome spot to walk around. It is extremely accessible from the road and not too far from major highways.
There are great walking trails. Along the interpretative trail, there are markers that explain the events of the battle and the men who fought in it. Furthermore, there is a national cemetery near the edge of the bluff. The cemetery is well maintained and there is information on the history of national cemeteries.
There is no visitor center and only a few porta-johns, which needed cleaning. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority maintains the battlefield. On their website, they advertise guided tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday in April through November.
Bites and Brews
Leesburg, Virginia is a historic city, which is located only two miles from the battlefield regional park. As a result, there are a lot of great local spots to get some bites and brews. Two of the most popular spots include the Tuscarora Mill Restaurant (aka “Tuskies”) and Lightfoot Restaurant. Also, there are several breweries including Dynasty West-Leesburg and Black Hoof Brewing Company. Finally, if you are in the mood for a barbeque lunch, check out Schmidt’s BBQ.
On the Sunday afternoon that I toured the battlefield, my wife and I tried Tuscarora Mill. As the name suggests, it is an old gristmill. They have a full bar to include an impressive selection of whiskey. On the Sunday afternoon, they also had NFL games playing, so I went for beer and wings! The food was good and the beer was cold. People were friendly. Between the battlefield and the old mill turned restaurant, it was a fun afternoon and worth the drive from D.C.
Driving and Directions
Leesburg is about 45 minutes to an hour west of Washington D.C. With traffic it could take longer and it will depend on which day of the week you go. It is best to plan for an hour fifteen minutes of driving. When you get to Leesburg, you will finally be getting to the edge of the northern Virginia urban metropolis. Western Loudon county has nice countryside with farms and vineyards. The parks along the Potomac River are also incredibly scenic. This battlefield is on the edge of the suburbs, but you can continue traveling further west to get into the rolling hills and eventually the mountains.
This is not a large battlefield. It is walkable in an hour to two hours. Unlike other Civil War battlefields, this does not have a driving component. While it was a significant battle during the Civil War, it was not one of the biggest ones in terms of overall troop strength.
I recommend taking a day trip out to Leesburg and incorporating Ball’s Bluff into the itinerary. Furthermore, Ball’s Bluff battlefield can be integrated into a much larger trip of northern Virginia battlefields to include Manassas and Centreville. You can also drive to Middleburg, Virginia and see a few stops that were part of the Gettysburg Campaign. The Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville took place along what is now John S Mosby Highway (Route 50). Finally, you can drive from Ball’s Bluff to Harper’s Ferry, Antietam National Battlefield, and then Gettysburg. There is a lot of awesome Civil War history within an hour of Ball’s Bluff battlefield regional park.
Before you go, read up on the battle! Check out the book: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff: All the Drowned Soldiers