The Battle of Ball's Bluff
Harrison's Island, Leesburg
Though a small engagement with relatively few casualties, the rout of Union forces at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff had political ramifications that would change the nature of the rest of the war.
Based on misunderstood orders from Maj. Gen. George McClellan, Brig. Gen. Charles Stone sent a small scouting party across the Potomac River in the vicinity of Leesburg, Virginia on the evening of October 20, 1861. In the darkness of night, the inexperienced head of the scouting party, Captain Chase Phillbrick, mistook a tree line for a line of tents, and returned to Stone with a report of an unguarded camp. Stone decided to take advantage of this opportunity with a nighttime raid and sent about 300 men under Colonel Charles Devens back across the river. When Devens discovered that the line of trees was not, in fact, a campsite, in the early hours of the 21st, he decided to stay and wait for reinforcements, to attempt to reach Leesburg.
As dawn broke on the 21st, Mississippians under Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans encountered Devens’ advanced units and a sharp skirmish began. Additional Union support or a timely retreat across the river could have ended the matter at this point. However, there were only three small boats available and attempts to use them to bring reinforcements resulted in a terrific bottleneck. Stone sent Col. Edward Baker, a U.S. Senator to take command of the field and assess the situation. Baker immediately began gathering troops to reinforce the men on the Virginia side of the river. When support finally arrived—four hours later—communications between the various Union commanders had been inefficient and often misunderstood.
In the meantime, the delay gave Confederate commanders time to organize their forces, as well as for fresh units to come offer support. In the midafternoon, Evans led a spirited counter attack. Whatever resistance the Federals could have offered crumbled when Col. Baker fell with a mortal wound. A complete rout ensued and Evans’ triumphant Mississippians drove the Yankees over the bluff and into the Potomac river, firing into the backs of those who attempted to swim for safety. Rather than risk escape, many Union soldiers chose to surrender. By the end of the day Evans’ when had captured 553 prisoners. By comparison, the Confederates had suffered fewer than 200 total casualties
This minor Union defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff had severe political ramifications in Washington. The death of Baker, the only U.S. Senator ever to be killed in battle, was particularly shocking, as was the disparity in casualties. As a result, a concerned Congress established the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would lead Union commanders to second-guess their decisions for the rest of the war.