The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

October 21, 1861 – Federal forces suffered another horrific defeat when they were driven off a cliff overlooking the Potomac River.

Col Edward D. Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Col Edward D. Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Brigadier General Charles P. Stone sent Federal troops across the river to conduct his planned reconnaissance in force. The initial force consisted of 300 men under Colonel Charles Devens, with orders to seize the supposedly vulnerable Confederate camps at Leesburg, about 35 miles upriver from Washington. When Devens reported seeing no Confederates in the area, Stone dispatched more troops under Colonel Edward D. Baker, a politician-turned officer with no combat experience. Stone instructed Baker to withdraw if confronted by a strong enemy force.

By that time, Devens had encountered a token Confederate force and begun skirmishing. His men took up defensive positions behind a fence. When Baker received this information, he ordered his entire brigade of 1,640 men to cross the river in support. Meanwhile, Stone’s planned diversionary force landed at Edwards’s Ferry, with Stone himself directing operations from there.

Baker sent his men up the steep bluff and, rather than bolster Devens’s defenses behind the fence, took up positions in the clearing with his back to the 80-foot cliffs and ordered Devens to form on his right. Although Baker estimated the Confederate force to be more than twice his size, he ignored Stone’s order and resolved to stand his ground. Baker remained at the front as the troops exchanged fire until around 4 p.m., when Confederates emerged from the nearby woods and shot him dead.

Baker's Death at Ball's Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Baker’s Death at Ball’s Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As the remaining Federal officers debated whether to stay or retreat, the Confederates charged, shouting, “Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!” The Federals turned and fled toward the cliffs, and mass panic ensued as many fell to their deaths. For those who managed to scale down the steep wall, several drowned when their boats were swamped. Others were killed by Confederates firing down from atop the bluff.

At Edwards’s Ferry, Stone was unaware of the disaster unfolding because Baker had not informed him of the situation before being killed. Stone decided not to send his men to help because a Confederate force blocked the road and he received a report grossly exaggerating Confederate strength. Stone asked Major General George B. McClellan to send Brigadier General George A. McCall’s men from Dranesville, but McClellan had not informed him that McCall’s force was withdrawn earlier that day.

The Federals sustained 921 casualties (49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 missing) out of 1,720. Of the missing, 529 were captured; the rest were presumed drowned. Many bodies drowned drifted downriver, with some even reaching Washington. Those captured included Major Paul J. Revere of the 20th Massachusetts, grandson of Paul Revere. Other casualties included a nephew of James Russell Lowell and Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The Confederates lost just 155 (36 killed, 117 wounded, and two captured) out of 1,709. Colonel Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, commanding the Confederate force, received a promotion to brigadier general for the skillful handling of his men.

Lincoln was at McClellan’s headquarters when the news came via telegraph that Baker, one of his closest friends, had been killed. McClellan told the grieving president, “There is many a good fellow that wears the shoulder-straps going under the sod before this thing is over. If I should get knocked on the head, Mr. President, you will put another man immediately into my shoes.” Lincoln replied, “I want you to take care of yourself.”

Baker’s death made him a martyr and masked his questionable judgment and conduct during the engagement. Northerners outraged about another military disaster ultimately shifted their blame to Stone.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 44, 48-52; CivilWarDailyGazette (September 21); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 89; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 104; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 74-75; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 129-30; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 362; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 184-86; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 80

Advertisements

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

10 thoughts on “The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

  1. […] the Army of the Potomac. Despite the slight embarrassment at Munson’s Hill and the defeat at Ball’s Bluff, McClellan still enjoyed immense popularity among northerners and his troops. This was exemplified […]

    Like

  2. […] Most northerners seemed “universally engulfed in a massive wave of chauvinistic elation” upon learning the news. Many hoped that seizing the envoys, along with capturing Port Royal, would finally shift the war’s momentum after defeats at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. […]

    Like

  3. […] held a memorial service for Edward D. Baker of Oregon, a fellow senator-turned-colonel, killed at Ball’s Bluff in October. In an unusual occurrence, President Lincoln visited the Senate chamber to attend the […]

    Like

  4. […] recent Federal disaster at Ball’s Bluff had prompted many congressmen to push for creating some kind of a committee to investigate and hold […]

    Like

  5. […] was the largest clash between the opposing armies since Ball’s Bluff in October. To Ord’s dismay, McCall took credit for this, the first significant Federal victory in northern […]

    Like

  6. […] had won impressive military victories at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Lexington, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. Independence seemed likely, as the correspondent for the London Times reported from Washington […]

    Like

  7. […] who had suspected that certain politicians in Washington sought to blame him for the defeat, had received assurances from General-in-Chief George B. McClellan that he had not been […]

    Like

  8. […] many fellow Leesburg residents doubted Stone’s loyalty, and their doubts had been verified by the Ball’s Bluff disaster. Pinkerton also revealed evidence that Stone had violated the Confiscation Act by returning […]

    Like

  9. […] The Battle of Ball’s Bluff […]

    Like

  10. […] major military moves by either side thus far. The Federals had just suffered a military disaster at Ball’s Bluff, and more people in both North and South began growing louder in their calls for […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: