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Battle of Ball's Bluff
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Battle of Ball's Bluff
Other names: Battle of Leesburg
Because of its underlying themes of powerful people and political intrigue, the relatively small battle of Ball's Bluff has received a good deal of press, even into modern day. It spelled the end to the military career of Winfield Scott, it ended the political career of Edward Baker and it gave the Confederate Army of the Potomac unchallenged control of the Upper Potomac.
After First Bull Run the Confederates controlled most of northeast Virginia. In October, 1861, Joseph E. Johnston had withdrawn most of his troops to Centerville, except those in the vicinity of Leesburg. George McClellan wondered why he had not pulled back these men with the rest of his troops. McClellan decided to test Johnston's resolve to keep troops in Leesburg. He would do this with George McCall's 13,000 man Pennsylvania Reserves division. From their camp at Langley, McCall advanced to Dranesville on October 19.
Accompanying Brigadier General McCall's division, McClellan rode to Dranesville, a city about halfway between Leesburg and Washington, D. C. Little Mac felt that this advance might concern Johnston enough to withdraw his forces from Leesburg. Rather than withdraw, once aggressive Confederate commander Nathan "Shanks" Evans found out about McClellan's advance he took a defensive position west of McCall in Dranesville.
Before noon on October 20, McClellan received an erroneous report that the Confederate forces had withdrawn because of Evans defensive movement. To test the report General McClellan issued an order to Brigadier General Charles Stone saying in part
...keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away. Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.
"Shanks" Evans was well known to most of the Union Army as a hard fighting and harder drinking Confederate hero. At the Battle of Manassas , it was Evans who slowed the Union's 20,000 man advance from Sudley Springs with less than 1,000 men. However, neither Evans nor Stone were present during the fighting at Ball's Bluff (Stone was on the Maryland side of the Potomac on a hill near Edwards Ferry and Evans was at Fort Evans, on the road from Leesburg to Edwards Ferry).
Since McClellan had been a Major General of the Ohio Militia, maintaining control of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had been a goal of the Lincoln Administration. It was a goal the Union Army wasn't particularly successful at doing. One of the area commanders was Edward "Ned" Baker, perhaps a uniquely qualified "mustang general" (political appointee). Baker, born in England in 1811, migrated to the United States following the end of the War of 1812. In Philadelphia he studied law and was admitted to the bar.
In the 1850's Baker moved to the West Coast and continued his practice as a lawyer. Republicans in Oregon sent him to the Senate in 1859 (service began in 1860) for his hard work at keeping the state Republican. Lincoln requested an independent command for his friend and former law partner, reporting directly to George McClellan.
The Ball's Bluff operation began when a reconnaissance patrol stumbled on what was believed to be a Confederate encampment. Crossing the north channel of the Potomac, Colonel Charles Devens [US] and his men found Harrison Island deserted. They traversed the island to the Virginia side under the cover of darkness, then crossed the fast-flowing south channel in small boats, landing in enemy territory below Ball's Bluff.
Shortly before sunrise. Devens discovered the initial report of a Confederate camp had been wrong. Devens sent word back to General Stone of the mistake and then began to push forward for a better look. After establishing a perimeter near the road to Edward's Ferry a Confederate patrol brushed up against the Union guards. The brief engagement took place less than half-a-mile inland from Ball's Bluff. The Confederates, probably on their way to respond to the Edwards Ferry crossing, broke off the engagement.
When a second skirmish broke out half-an-hour later, Devens decided to regroup at the bluff. The skirmishing quickly ended so Devens returned to his original position. Orders came back from Stone that Devens should maintain his position at the bluff. About this time, Shanks Evans orders a regiment of cavalry to advance to the site of the skirmishing to scout the situation.
Meanwhile, at Stone's headquarters, Ned Baker arrived and Stone ordered him to Ball's Bluff, where he should evaluate the situation and decide whether to support Devens or withdraw. Stone carefully reviewed the situation with Baker, going over the area with him on a map. When Stone told him to take over command of the entire Right Wing of his division, Baker asked to get the order in writing.
While Baker advanced to Devens two planned diversionary movements occurred, a crossing at Edward's Ferry, a distraction of little more than 30 Union cavalry and soldiers, downstream from Harrison's Island, and a crossing at Conrad's Ferry, upstream from Harrison's Island of a slightly larger force.
Devens held his position throughout the morning without a problem, but Ned Baker heard of the 9:00am engagement on his way to Ball's Bluff and immediately ordered his entire force to advance. In all, more than 800 Union infantry crossed over to the Virginia side of the Potomac using an undersized fleet of impressed skiffs and a canal barge from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
About 11:30am the Confederates launched a small attack that Devens easily repulsed, then a second, slightly larger attack at 12:30pm. After supervising some of the crossing, Baker took command of the operation at 2:00pm, advancing to Colonel Devens position at 2:15. Devens admonished Baker, "We have been waiting eight and a half hours." Baker began placing his troops and ordered a line of skirmishers forward to test the strength of the enemy. It was the first indication to the veteran Union commanders that Baker had no idea what he was doing, sending skirmishers against a line he knew existed. It was a death sentence. Before Union soldiers had moved 10 feet into a forest the Confederates pounced on the line beginning a general engagement.
A second clue about Baker's inexperience came a few minutes later when Col. Milton Cogswell recommended placing the Union line along a low ridge. Baker ignored Cogswell's recommendation and let the Rebels take the high ground. As a result most of the Confederate line was firing slightly downhill into the Union positions.
Suddenly, two fresh companies of Union infantry arrived, pushing the surprised Confederates back and establishing a defensive position on a hill. Colonel Baker advanced, but was struck by a Confederate Minié-ball. He rose, trying to lead his men, but the sharpshooters had a bead on him and littered his body with bullets (this is not the only story of Baker's death, but it is certainly the one to put Baker in the most flattering light).
Colonel Raymond Lee assumed command, and was confronted with two choices: surrender his command or retreat. Lee chose the latter, ordering a small group of men to rear guard duty. About this time, however, Colonel Cogswell arrived at the conference of officers. He, in fact, was senior officer and wanted to try to break out of the Confederate encirclement towards Edwards Ferry. Organized under less than optimum conditions the break-out failed, mostly due to a lack of support. Cogswell, too, reluctantly agreed that retreat was the only option. With Lee's rear guard in place, Cogswell's men descended 80 feet to the banks of the Potomac River. Harrison Island was visible across the south channel of the Potomac.
The only large boat was prepared for the wounded and launched. Soldiers on the shore, worried about the Confederates behind them, began jumping into the Potomac. The current in the south channel overpowered many of them and in desperation they tried to make to the boat carrying the wounded. More and more men grabbed the boat, eventually sinking it to the horror of the soldiers on the shore. The orderly withdrawal had ceased; it was every man for himself.
A small group of Yankees entrenched on the northern end of the battlefield, awaiting a Rebel assault. Strong swimmers made it across the channel, but many who followed were swept away by the current if they weren't killed by Confederate bullets. One of the few remaining officers prepared to defend Harrison's Island against a Rebel invasion with little more than a regiment of men. More than 500 federals, unable to cross the channel to Harrison's Island surrendered.
The men who made it to Harrison Island stretched a rope across the north channel of the Potomac to the Maryland side, making that crossing easier. Slowly the men on Harrison Island crossed the Potomac and began to walk to Edwards Ferry on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The men who entrenched at the base of Ball's Bluff moved north to Smart's Mill, where they crossed the river in a boat 5 men at a time. They also headed south along the towpath. The bodies of the men trapped in the river floated south on the Potomac and began washing up on the banks of the river in Washington, D. C.
As a result of the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Abraham Lincoln asked General Winfield Scott to resign as General-in-Chief. Congress opened the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. General George McClellan, who knew about the attack and failed to support it (by ordering McCall to advance from Dranesville) remained unscathed. General Stone, in overall command of the battle, was arrested and detained for 6 months but never charged.
Battle of Ball's Bluff
Photographer's site with area pictures
Battle of Ball's Bluff
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Battle of Ball's Bluff was last changed on - February 2, 2008
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