In mid-October 1861, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered a Union push toward Leesburg, Va., hoping perhaps to capture the town on the far left flank of Confederate forces facing Washington. On Oct. 19, McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. McCall to move from Langley toward Leesburg, stopping at Dranesville. Colonel Nathan B. Evans, the Confederate commander at Leesburg, shifted his brigade to meet the threat.
McClellan, hoping Evans had retreated from Leesburg, sought confirmation. He ordered Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone of the Corps of Observation, posted north of McCall on the Maryland side of the river, to make a “slight demonstration” and see what was up. Stone sent men across the Potomac at Edward’s Ferry and Ball’s Bluff. The ferry recon turned up nothing, but at Ball’s Bluff, Captain Chase Philbrick of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry led a night patrol and spotted a row of enemy tents—what appeared to be an isolated Reb camp, ripe for the picking.
Philbrick reported his finding to Stone, who ordered the 15th Massachusetts back across the river early on Oct. 21 to capture the camp. Thus began a tragic comedy of errors on the Union’s part. For starters, the Rebel “camp” Philbrick had seen in the gloaming turned out to be a row of trees, not tents. After discovering their mistake, the 15th held position and engaged a Mississippi regiment of Evans’ command.
Throughout the day, Union troops crossed the river piecemeal and slogged up the steep bluff as Evans brought ever more of his Rebels to bear against the invaders. By 3 p.m. they were engaged in a full-scale fight, with Colonel Edward Baker, a recently commissioned U.S. senator from California, in command of Union forces. But after a marksman shot Baker dead, the Federal line collapsed, as troops rushed pell-mell over the bluff and back down to the riverbank. The Rebels poured fire into the masses huddled at water’s edge, at those swimming for their lives and at the few lucky enough to find boats. Numbers tell the story: 1,720 Federals fought 1,709 Confederates. The Rebels suffered 155 casualties, while roughly 1,000 Union troops were killed, wounded or captured.
■ Would you follow your Congressman to the gates of hell? Sen. Baker, playing a “colonel,” was brave but incapable of commanding troops in battle.
■ Intelligence counts. Baker failed to gather information about the Confederate forces he faced.
■ Size doesn’t matter. Though a relative hiccup of a battle, Ball’s Bluff prompted establishment of a congressional joint committee to investigate the mess. The committee then stuck around to assess overall Federal conduct of the war. Its very existence diverted some commanders’ attention from the front lines to the politics in Washington.
■ Know your logistics. “We are a little short of boats,” General Stone opined. He got that right. The Union relied on a half dozen skiffs and flatboats to ferry hundreds of troops across the river. Given adequate transport, the Feds could have attacked en masse and might have overwhelmed the Rebels.
■ Be scared of heights. The 100- foot bluff should have given any officer pause, as it hampered troop deployment and made retreat even more difficult.
■ Learn from your mistakes. Incredibly, almost a year later, on Sept. 20, 1862, troops under McClellan’s command crossed the river at Shepherdstown, W.Va., to ascend a steep bluff, until a Confederate counterattack sent them packing. Some referred to the skirmish as “another Ball’s Bluff.”
■ Heads will roll. McClellan and Stone blamed Baker for not adequately directing the fight, and they were correct. But West Pointer Stone was a Democrat in a Republican world, and the committee wasn’t about to find fault with a dead martyr who was one of their own. Instead, Stone was imprisoned for six months under no formal charges.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.