Ball's Bluff (Leesburg, Edwards' Ferry, Harrison's Island, Conrad's Ferry )

Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward Baker, USA
Colonel Nathan G. Evans, Col. Eppa Hunton, and Col. W. S. Featherston, CSA

Union troops numbered 1720, Confederate troops numbered 1709.

Casualties: Less than 160 total Confederate killed, wounded, missing; over 900 Union.

Baker was a Republican Senator from Oregon with limited military experience from the Mexican War. He commanded one of the three brigades in Stone's division and is the only sitting U.S. Senator ever to die in battle. Evans commanded the Confederate brigade at Leesburg; Hunton and Featherston served under him, commanding the 8th Virginia and 17th Mississippi respectively. Baker, Hunton, and Featherston commanded on the field as neither Stone nor Evans were present at Ball's Bluff. Stone remained at Edwards' Ferry while Evans directed his forces from Fort Evans near Leesburg.

Though the Union commanders seem to have discussed various options for forward movements across the Potomac during the weeks preceding Ball's Bluff, the battle as actually fought there was unintended and unplanned. It evolved from a small reconnaissance patrol Stone sent out to Ball's Bluff on the evening of October 20. The patrol found what it thought was an undefended Confederate camp and reported this to Stone, who then ordered a larger force to cross over and raid the camp.

Early on the morning of October 21, Col. Charles Devens and his 300-man raiding party from the 15th Massachusetts discovered that the patrol, in the dark, had mistaken a row of trees for tents. There was no Confederate camp to raid, so Devens sent word back to Stone and waited for instructions.

Stone then ordered Baker to go to Ball's Bluff, evaluate the situation, and decide whether to withdraw Devens or to cross additional troops for a larger reconnaissance. In short, the small patrol became a raiding party that then became a larger patrol.

While waiting to hear from Stone, Devens was surprised by Confederate pickets from the 17th Mississippi and engaged them in a short firefight - but neither Stone nor Baker knew until later that the Confederates were reacting.

Baker heard of the fight while on his way to Ball's Bluff. He immediately began ordering more troops over but did so without evaluating the situation or going over himself to study the ground. Finding that there were not enough boats to efficiently cross a large number of troops, he then spent considerable time personally supervising the search for more, a job he should have assigned to a staff officer. The shortage of boats became a significant problem for the Union forces as the crossing point itself became a deadly choke point.

After the initial skirmish, both sides gradually reinforced. Other skirmishes followed around 11:30 and 12:30 with lulls in between. The climactic action began around 2:30 by which time most of the troops had arrived on the field. It lasted until after dark. The Federals were positioned near the current national cemetery, many of them placed by Baker in the open facing across a large clearing with their backs to the bluff and the river. The Confederates gradually completed a horseshoe-shaped encirclement of the Union position.

Baker was killed about 4:30. Perhaps an hour later, following a failed attempt by the Union troops to break out of the encirclement, panic took hold and the Federals fled in confusion down the bluff. Many drowned or were shot attempting to swim the river. Well over 500 simply surrendered while 161 were listed as missing.

The Union burial party that went back the next day under flag of truce reported burying 47 Union dead and leaving another 20-25 who later were buried by the Confederates. Many of the missing may be assumed to have died in the river so that, while the official Union death toll was only 49, the actual count likely exceeds 200.

The battle had political ramifications in Washington and was responsible, in part, for the establishment of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War which, controlled by Radical Republicans, meddled in nearly every aspect of Lincoln's handling of the war. Stone was its first victim. Unjustly blamed for the defeat, he was arrested and imprisoned without charge for six months. Though he was finally restored to duty, his career was ruined. After the war, he served for 13 years as Chief of Staff to the Khedive of Egypt and effectively created the Egyptian army. Ultimately he returned to the United States and became chief engineer for the building of the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty now sits. Present at the 1886 dedication of the statue, he died in New York City early the following year.

Evans was promoted to Brigadier General and served through the war in different commands. He settled in Midway, Alabama, where he became a school principal and died in 1868.

Thanks to James A. Morgan, III, (scalpem@megapipe.net) a volunteer battlefield guide at Ball's Bluff for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Location: 
Loudoun County, Virginia, United States
Outcome: 
Confederate victory
Campaign: 
All Quiet Along the Potomac
Start Date: 
Monday, October 21, 1861
Start Year: 
1861
End Date: 
Monday, October 21, 1861
End Year: 
1861
Source Name: