The Battle of Ball's Bluff, also known as the Battle of Harrison’s Island or the Battle of Leesburg, was fought on October 21, 1861, in Loudoun County, Virginia, as part of Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's operations in northern Virginia during the American Civil War.
While a minor engagement in comparison with the battles that would take place in years to follow, it was the second largest battle of the Eastern Theater in 1861, and in its aftermath had repercussions in the Union Army's chain of command structure and raised separation of powers issues under the United States Constitution during the war.
On October 19, 1861, McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. McCall to march his division to Dranesville, Virginia, twelve miles southeast of Leesburg, in order to discover the purpose of recent Confederate troop movements which indicated that Col. Nathan "Shanks" Evans might have abandoned Leesburg. Evans had, in fact, left the town on October 16-17 but had done so on his own authority. When Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard expressed his displeasure at Evans's move, Evans returned. By the evening of October 19, he had taken up a defensive position on the Alexandria-to-Winchester Turnpike (modern day State Route 7) east of town.
McClellan came to Dranesville to consult with McCall that same evening and ordered McCall to return to his main camp at Langley, Virginia, the following morning. However, McCall requested additional time to complete some mapping of the roads in the area and, as a result, did not actually leave for Langley until the morning of October 21, just as the fighting at Ball's Bluff was heating up.
On October 20, while McCall was completing his mapping, McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone to conduct what he called "a slight demonstration" in order to see how the Confederates might react. Stone moved troops to the river at Edwards Ferry, positioned other forces along the river, had his artillery fire into suspected Confederate positions, and briefly crossed about a hundred men of the 1st Minnesota to the Virginia shore just before dusk. Having gotten no reaction from Colonel Evans with all of this activity, Stone recalled his troops to their camps and the slight demonstration came to an end.
Stone then ordered Col. Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry (stationed on Harrison's Island facing Ball's Bluff) to send a patrol across the river at that point to gather what information it could about enemy deployments. Devens sent Capt. Chase Philbrick and approximately 20 men to carry out Stone's order. Advancing in the dark nearly a mile inland from the bluff, the inexperienced Philbrick mistook a row of trees for the tents of a Confederate camp and, without verifying what he saw, returned and reported the existence of a camp. Stone immediately order Devens to cross some 300 men and, as soon as it was light enough to see, attack the camp and, per his orders, "return to your present position."
This was the genesis of the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Contrary to the long-held traditional interpretation, it did not come from a plan by either McClellan or Stone to take Leesburg. The initial crossing of troops was a small reconnaissance. That was followed by what was intended to be a raiding party.
While the messenger was going back to Col. Devens with this new information, Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker showed up at Stone's camp to find out about the morning's events. He had not been involved in any of the activities to that point. Stone told him of the mistake about the camp and about his new orders to reinforce Devens for reconnaissance purposes. He then instructed Baker to go to the crossing point, evaluate the situation, and either withdraw the troops already in Virginia or cross additional troops at his discretion.
On the way upriver to execute this order, Baker met Devens' messenger coming back a second time to report that Devens and his men had encountered and briefly engaged the enemy, one company (Co. K) of the 17th Mississippi Infantry. Baker immediately ordered as many troops as he could find to cross the river, but he did so without determining what boats were available to do this. A bottleneck quickly developed so that Union troops could only cross slowly and in small numbers, making the crossing last throughout the day.
Meanwhile, Devens's men (now about 650 strong) remained in its advanced position and engaged in two additional skirmishes with a growing force of Confederates, while other Union troops crossed the river but deployed near the bluff and did not advance from there. Devens finally withdrew around 2:00 p.m. and met Baker, who had finally crossed the river half an hour later. Beginning around 3:00 the fighting began in earnest and was almost continuous until just after dark.
Col.Baker was killed at about 4:30 p.m. and remains the only United States Senator ever killed in battle. Following an abortive attempt to break out of their constricted position around the bluff, the Federals began to recross the river in some disarray. Shortly before dark, a fresh Confederate regiment (the 17th Mississippi) arrived and formed the core of the climactic assault that finally broke and routed the Union troops.
Many of the Union soldiers were driven down the steep slope at the southern end of Ball's Bluff (behind the current location of the national cemetery) and into the river. Boats attempting to cross back to Harrison Island were soon swamped and capsized. Many Federals, included some of the wounded, were drowned. Bodies floated downriver to Washington and even as far as Mt. Vernon in the days following the battle. A total of 223 Federals were killed, 226 were wounded, and 553 were captured on the banks of the Potomac later that night. It is interesting to note that the Official Records incorrectly state that only 49 Federals were killed at this battle, an error probably resulting from a mistaken reading of the report of the Union burial detail which crossed over the next day under flag of truce.
Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, survived a nearly fatal wound at Ball's Bluff to become a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902. Herman Melville's poem "Ball's Bluff - A Reverie" (published in 1866) commemorates the battle.
The site of the battle has considerably overgrown today, though ongoing efforts by volunteers have thinned out the overgrowth and made interpretation of the battlefield much easier. It is preserved as the Ball's Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1984. The park is maintained by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.