Historic America

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, Virginia

A small park and cemetery memorializes one of the most lopsided and controversial battles of the American Civil War.

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The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought on October 21, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward D. Baker and Confederate forces commanded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans near Leesburg, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was a humiliating defeat for Union forces, including the loss of a U.S. Senator, and led Congress to establish the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

After the First Battle of Bull Run ended notions of a quick Union victory, President Abraham Lincoln authorized Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to form the Army of the Potomac and plan another advance into Virginia. Leesburg, Virginia was a strategic town on the Potomac River, so McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. McCall to investigate Confederate troop movements in the area. McClellan was under the impression that Confederate Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans had abandoned Leesburg, when in fact his withdrawal was temporary.

On the night of October 20, 1861, Col. Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry sent a patrol across the Potomac River to recon the area. A jittery officer sent word that he had seen a Confederate camp, so Devens sent a raiding party of 300 men across the river the next morning. Though there was no camp, Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, ordered more Union troops to reinforce the 15th Massachusetts.

In late afternoon on October 21, approximately 1,700 Confederates arrived under Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans and surrounded the 1,720 Federals on three sides. With their back to the river, the inexperienced Union troops panicked and tried to flee. Col. Baker was shot and killed, the only sitting U.S. senator to ever die in battle. Union soldiers scrambled down the 300-foot bluff and many drowned trying to cross the river.

When the smoke cleared, Confederate forces had lost 36 killed and 117 wounded compared to 921 to 1,002 Union casualties. Bodies of Union soldiers floated down the Potomac River toward Washington, DC for days after the battle. Brig. Gen. Stone was blamed for the loss and imprisoned for nearly six months without charges, and Congress formed the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate the defeat.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

Americans moved quickly to memorialize the battle, and Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery was established in 1865 to commemorate a mass grave of 54 Union soldiers killed during the battle. There are 25 headstones marking the remains, although only one soldier, James Allen of Company H, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, has been identified. The 76 acres of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984 and is currently managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, located at the end of Ball’s Bluff Road northeast of Leesburg, Virginia, is open to the public daily from dawn to dusk. It features over seven miles of marked trails, several small monuments and interpretive signs, and the national cemetery. A gravel parking lot is available. Guided tours are also available, but dates and time vary. Call 703-737-7800 or email for more information.

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