On this day (Oct. 21) in 1861, a 1,700-man Confederate force, under the command of Gen. Nathan G. Evans, decisively defeated a Union force of about the same size, under the overall command of Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone, in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff (also known as the Battle of Leesburg or the Battle of Harrison Island).
Compared with the humiliating Union defeat exactly three months earlier in the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Bull Run and later more well-known bloody battles, Ball’s Bluff was really little more than a skirmish.
In this one-sided engagement, Union casualties far exceeded those of the victorious Confederates. The Union reported about 60 percent of its engaged troops were killed, wounded or missing, whereas the Confederates reported only about 10 percent of their soldiers were casualties (36 killed, 117 wounded and two missing).
However, this skirmish, characterized by one Union official as “the massacre at Ball’s Bluff,” was, he further contended, “the work of either treason, or of stupidity, or of cowardice, or most probably of all three united.”
In the three-month period between the Battle of First Bull Run and the “skirmish” at Ball’s Bluff, Union General in Chief George McClellan was training the Army of the Potomac in preparation for an all-out invasion of Virginia. As a prelude to the long-anticipated invasion, McClellan ordered General Stone’s 15th Massachusetts Division to make a “slight demonstration” to force the Confederates to abandon Leesburg, which was located 40 miles upstream from Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River (the boundary between Maryland and Virginia).
On the morning of Oct. 21, Stone sent several companies of his division from their camp in Maryland across the Potomac into Virginia at the steep, wooded Ball’s Bluff to dislodge, what he was led to believe, was a small Confederate garrison in Leesburg. Instead of a small garrison force, Stone’s ill-disciplined invading soldiers encountered a well-situated, well-supplied and well-rested Confederate force, which, rather easily, drove the Union force back to Ball’s Bluff.
The Union withdrawal quickly became a rout as the panic-stricken Federals fell back to the crest of the bluff, where many of them, to avoid capture, tried to swim across the Potomac River back into Maryland. In their haste to swim across the river, many Federals drowned or were shot in what could be described as a “turkey shoot.”
Among the Union killed was Col. Edward D. Baker, who still is the only sitting U.S. senator to be have been killed in military action. Baker was a longtime close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, who had named his second son, Edward, after his friend and had spent the day before Baker’s greatly lamented death visiting with him at the White House.
When Lincoln heard about Baker’s death, a reporter observed the president’s “bowed head and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale and wan, his heart heaving with emotion.”
The Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff coupled with the July 21, 1861, Bull Run disaster and the Aug. 10, 1861, inglorious defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek caused near panic in the North and led to an investigation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and to the dismissal from the Army and imprisonment of General Stone for alleged friendliness with the enemy, ineptitude and cowardice in battle, and possible treason.
Happily, Stone later returned to the Army, although his military career was marred because he had become the scapegoat for the Union defeat.
However, the real culprit in the Ball’s Bluff fiasco was General in Chief McClellan, who initially ordered Stone’s ill-trained and ill-supplied troops to cross the river against the Confederate garrison.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.