The Ball’s Bluff Aftermath

October 23, 1861 – The Federal defeat at Ball’s Bluff outraged northerners, sent the Lincolns into mourning, and increased calls for Major General George B. McClellan to wage “all-out war” against the Confederates.

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit:
Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit:

On the rainy morning after their horrific defeat, about 3,000 Federals remained on the Virginia side of the Potomac, mostly south of Ball’s Bluff at Edwards’s Ferry. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone received reinforcements from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, overall commander in the region. As Stone and Banks debated whether to withdraw to Maryland, they remained unaware that Brigadier General George A. McCall’s Federals, who were supposed to have made the main demonstration against Leesburg, had fallen back from Dranesville the previous day in accordance with orders from Major General George B. McClellan.

The Federals drove off a Confederate assault around 4 p.m., with many using their bayonets and wielding their empty muskets like clubs. Around the same time, President Lincoln received the official notification of the Ball’s Bluff defeat at Washington: “We have met with a sad disaster. Fifteen hundred men lost, and Colonel Baker killed.” Lincoln, who had named his second son after Baker, wept at the loss of his close friend. The Lincolns went into mourning and received no visitors at the White House on that day.

Meanwhile, the northern press began publishing damning reports on the fiasco. Harper’s Weekly opined: “History affords few examples of such slaughter.” Leslie’s Illustrated concluded: “This time military incompetence must accept its own responsibilities. The battle was not a great military blunder, but a great military crime.” McClellan arrived at Stone’s headquarters on the night of the 22nd, where Stone expressed concern that he would be blamed for the disaster. McClellan assured Stone that the fault had been Baker’s, not his.

The next day, McClellan posted more troops at Harrison’s Island and Edwards’s Ferry, leading many to believe that he planned to avenge the defeat. An article in the New York Herald stated that the Ball’s Bluff engagement “was undoubtedly but the prelude to an advance of General Banks’ army, which in all probability will be made to-day.” However, the Potomac soon rose to an unfordable level, and McClellan issued orders to withdraw.

Funeral services for Colonel Baker took place at the White House on the 24th. The Lincolns’ eight-year-old son Willie wrote a poem in Baker’s honor and submitted it to the National Republican. When Mrs. Lincoln was criticized for wearing lilac instead of black, she replied, “I want the women to mind their own business. I intend to wear what I please.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist belonging to the Radical faction of Republicans, used the service to blame slavery for being “the assassin of our children, and the murderer of our dead senator.”

The Ball’s Bluff disaster infuriated the Radicals, many of whom distrusted McClellan’s motives since he was an avowed Democrat. A group of senators met with the general on the night of the 25th and demanded answers as to why the defeat had been so severe. They also demanded that McClellan lead the army into battle, overlooking that the defeat indicated the army may not be ready for offensive operations. McClellan refused to take responsibility for the defeat, instead arguing that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had impeded his plans and made it impossible for him to coordinate his forces.

Based on this, the Radicals turned to Lincoln and began pressuring him to remove Scott from command. The Radicals demanded an “all-out war” to destroy both the Confederacy and slavery. They asserted that an immediate defeat would be no worse than McClellan’s stationary posture. Lincoln defended McClellan before visiting the general to see if any movement could be made. McClellan told the president that the army was not ready, and Lincoln concluded, “you must not fight until you are ready.”

But Lincoln wanted to know when the army would be ready, and he and Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited McClellan on the 30th to see if the general could provide more details on his military situation (i.e., troop strength and positions, and McClellan’s plan of attack). The next day, McClellan enlisted the help of close friend Edwin M. Stanton, former U.S. attorney general, in preparing a formal report.

The report concluded that McClellan could either take the time to strengthen the army until spring for an offensive that would most likely succeed, or he could lead an advance now that would most likely fail. McClellan recommended the former, while transferring all available troops in the other theaters to his command in the meantime.

Estimating General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac to number “not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded, and strongly entrenched,” McClellan asserted that he needed at least 240,000 men to attack. However, McClellan relied on faulty intelligence reports from Allan Pinkerton to calculate enemy strength; in reality Johnston had less than 50,000 men in northern Virginia. This began a trend in which McClellan resisted taking the offensive by consistently overestimating enemy strength.

Stanton wrote on McClellan’s behalf: “No time is to be lost–we have lost too much already–every consideration requires us to prepare at once, but not to move until we are ready.”



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