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field at Balls battlefield  

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was a small one by Civil War standards, but a consequential one. It occurred early in the War on October 21,1861, by accident, just a couple of months after Bull Run (or First Manassas). The battlefield is on U.S. 15 in Leesburg, Virginia, just before the highway crosses into Maryland on to the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields. We’ve passed it many times and recently had the time to visit. It turned out to be a well worth the stop; it is a small battlefield, but an interesting one that abuts the Potomac River. The 300-foot bluff is surprising, while being so close to the ocean, it contains 100-foot cliffs, is covered with outcroppings, and only a single steep trail led up to the top. Union troops had to cross the Potomac River twice to reach the battlefield, as Harrison Island stood in the middle of the river. Union pickets protected the island during the crossing, taking cover behind entrenchments for protection from hostile Confederate fire.   

photo of soldiers charging
Desperate effort by the 15th Massachusetts to clear the woods with a bayonet charge.
The title photograph shows this same battlefield today.   Credit: Library of Congress

The battlefield is in a regional park which contains seven hiking trails, ranging from just over two miles to a half mile in length. The Civil War history is mainly on the Battlefield Interpretative Loop, covering 0.8 miles on a fairly level dirt path through forest and open fields. Interpretative signs highlight and explain significant areas. The main battlefield is near a small national cemetery and the park has been designed to recreate the look of the 1861 battlefield. Still, of course, the battlefield looked much different in 1861; the battle was important enough to generate artwork that gives an idea of how it actually looked.  

Trails at Balls Bluff Battlefield
Well-maintained trails lead to the battlefield and allow for other hiking, like to the edge of the Potomac River.
Painting of Cannonading on the Potomac
Cannonading on the Potomac by Alfred W. Thompson, c1869, gives an idea of what the
battlefield was like in 1861. Credit: The White House Historical Association.

Following the Battle of Bull Run, the Union and Confederate armies occupied opposite sides of eh Potomac River, with the river serving as a relatively stationary front for the War. On the Union side of the river was the Corps of Observation, commanded by Brig. General Charles P. Stone, with a primary mission to keep an eye on Confederate movements. On the Confederate side of the river rebel troops commanded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans. At the time of battle, each side would have a strength of about 1,700 soldiers.

On October 20, the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, located on Harrison Island and facing Ball’s Bluff, was ordered to cross the river to reconnoiter enemy positions. Observing in the dark, inexperienced troops identified a group of tents about a mile inland from the bluff. This was the accidental nature of the battle, as the Confederate camp turned out to be a row of trees. General Stone decided to take advantage of the information and sent a raiding party to attack the camp. When the mistake was discovered, General Stone decided to reinforce the raiding party and have them do a reconnaissance of the area to determine Confederate strength near Leesburg. Small skirmishes occurred and both Confederate and Union troops were reinforced. Union reinforcements were limited by inadequate boats for a river crossing. At about 3:00 p.m. on October 21 the actual battle began and lasted until after dark.  

cannons at battlefield
 Many cannons are on the battlefield.

As it turned dark, the 17th Mississippi regiment arrived, allowing for a culminating assault which resulted in a Union retreat. The Federal troops were forced down the steep bluff against and into the river. Boats attempting to reach Harrison Island were capsized and many Federal troops were drowned.  

crossing at Balls Bluff battlefield
Union troops crossing the Potomac River to Ball’s Bluff. Credit: Library of Congress

There is still a trail down to the river and it is steep. You can look across to Harrison Island and think about swimming across as some of the Union troops tried. It looks like a daunting swim. Besides the many who drowned, hundreds of Union soldiers were forced to surrender on the riverbank. At the bottom of the bluff Union troops were subject to small arms fire by Confederates from above, causing panic. Many swimmers died from Confederate fire and others could not beat the swift current.  Bodies of Union soldiers could be found in the river for weeks; many bodies were even recovered from the river near Washington, D.C., not making for a good political climate. While this was a small battle, it had major consequences that impacted the Union army for the entire war. 

River at Balls bluff Battlefield
The Potomac River today from the bottom of the bluff, with high water flooding.
picture of federal troops retreating
Federal troops were forced to retreat down the bluff while taking Confederate fire. Credit Library of Congress

At the edge of the battlefield is America’s third smallest national cemetery. There are 25 graves that contain partial remains from 54 Union soldiers killed in the battle (Federal killed were 223; Confederate killed were less than 150). All but one are unidentified. Most Confederate dead were removed to Leesburg. Some of the dead from both sides were shipped home for burial.

Cemetary at Balls Bluff Battlefield

The battlefield has the third smallest national cemetery.

graves at cemetary
There are 25 graves inside the cemetery.

One consequence of the battle was the only death in battle of a sitting U.S. Senator. Colonel Edward D. Blake, a U.S. Senator,  was in charge at the beginning of the battle and was killed in action. He was a good friend of the President and his death did not go over well in Washington, along with the dead bodies floating down the river. Another consequence was dissatisfaction by Congress of the early conduct of the War, resulting in the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The committee was dominated by “Radical Republicans” and General Stone was unfairly blamed for the Union defeat. Politics was involved and General Stone ended up in prison with a ruined military career. This episode may be a reason that other Union generals were very cautious as to not suffer the same fate.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff even shows up in American literature. Herman Melville’s poem “Ball’s Bluff: A Reverie” was published in 1866. Emily Dickinson also wrote Ball’s Bluff poems. It was a small battle with a distortional impact on American history and literature. It is a roadside historical attraction well worth a stop.

Author/Photographer. Tom Straka is an emeritus professor of forestry at Clemson University. He has an interest in history, forestry and natural resources, natural history, and the American West. Pat Straka is a consulting forester and the photographer on most of their travel articles. They reside in South Carolina, but have also lived in Mississippi and Virginia. 

They try to write their articles on lessor known spots or angles on better known spots, like the trail leading to a battlefield, rather than the battlefield itself. Given where they live, they have good access to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, and this is a favorite topic.

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The FTC has a law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are  "sponsored" or compensated. We also are to let readers know if any of our links are ads. Most are not. They are just a way to direct you  to more information about the article where the link is placed. We have several ads on our pages.  They are clearly marked as ads. I think readers are smart enough to know an ad when they see one but to obey the letter of the law, I am putting this statement here to make sure everyone understands. American Roads and Global Highways may contain affiliate links or ads. Further, as their bios show, most of the feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.    

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