Union General George B. McClellan felt pressure from Washington to go on the offensive. McClellan directed General George McCall to march to Dranesville, Virginia, on October 19, 1861, causing Confederate General Nathan “Shanks” Evans to move into a defensive position on the Leesburg Turnpike. McClellan also ordered General Charles Stone to move on Edwards Ferry, part of an ill-coordinated attempt to cross the Potomac and conduct reconnaissance of Confederate positions at Leesburg.
The following day, based on faulty information, a Union force under Colonel Charles Devens crossed the Potomac, and met fierce resistance from Evans’ Confederates. Colonel Edward Baker (also a U.S. Senator) was to cross the Potomac at Harrison’s Island towards Ball’s Bluff to bring aid to Devens, but was hampered by the lack of ferry boats. The Northern forces met disaster as Evans pressed the attack and drove the Federals over Ball’s Bluff and into the Potomac. Many soldiers drowned in the retreat.
Later in the year, on December 20, a mixed Confederate force under General James Ewell Brown Stuart clashed with elements of a Union force under General Edward Ord on the Georgetown Pike, near the intersection with the Leesburg Pike. In this small Battle of Dranesville, Stuart pulled back his men, leaving the North with a small victory to close the decidedly difficult year of 1861.