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The Battle of Ball's Bluff: Summary & Political Ramifications

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  • 0:06 A Recipe for Disaster
  • 2:33 The Battle of Ball's Bluff
  • 5:13 Aftermath
  • 6:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Battle of Ball's Bluff, which took place on October 21, 1861. We will examine the actions leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and the political ramifications that occurred as a result of the battle.

A Recipe for Disaster

In October of 1861, nearly four months had passed since the disaster at Bull Run, where Union troops had broken and ran in the face of a Confederate onslaught. The administration had made a few military upgrades since that day. President Lincoln and his colleagues certainly hoped their decisions would be improvements. For instance, General George B. McClellan was now the commander of the Union's Department of the Potomac. He was busy building his army, training his troops, and keeping a close eye on the enemy, but he was not fighting. This was about to change.

McClellan was ready to make a little move. He wanted to nudge the Confederates out of Leesburg, Virginia, which would be a useful transportation hub for the Union. To that effect, McClellan told General Charles P. Stone, who was in charge of the Corps of Observation along the north side of the Potomac River, to make a slight disturbance and force the enemy to move.

On the evening of October 20, Stone sent a group of rookie soldiers across the Potomac to scout out the situation. Peeking over the river bluff, they thought they saw a line of tents standing silently in the dim moonlight. It was a rebel camp, and it seemed to be unguarded! Without checking further, they hurried back to tell Stone. The general was pleased. It would be easy to attack an unguarded camp and from there push the enemy away from Leesburg. Unfortunately for the Union, though, the scouts were wrong. There was no rebel camp atop the bluff. What they saw was actually a line of trees.

The scouts failed to report something else that would have been good for Stone to know as he prepared for the next day's attack: the river bluff that they had peeked over was Ball's Bluff, a hundred-foot-high bank, shrouded in thick, woody brambles. The top was accessible by one skinny, little cow path that led up from the river. What's more, there were only four small boats available for crossing the river. This would seriously limit the Union's options for both reinforcement and retreat. It was not a good situation. In fact, it was a recipe for disaster.

The Battle of Ball's Bluff

Stone, however, didn't know any of this, for his scouts had been so excited about the 'rebel camp' that they didn't tell him. The next day, October 21, Stone ordered Colonel Edward Baker to cross the Potomac and prepare for a fight at Ball's Bluff. Baker was a U.S. Senator and a good friend of President Lincoln, but he had hardly any military experience. Nevertheless, he was ready for action, and he bravely led his group of about 1,700 soldiers across the river and up the bluff.

They then ran into a bit of a problem. There wasn't a rebel camp on the other side of the river, but there were Confederates, over 1,500 of them led by General Nathan Evans. The tree line that the scouts had seen the night before filled up with soldiers in gray, who soon started firing at the startled Union troops. Baker's men were in a tight spot. They were standing in a clearing with the bluff at their backs. There was not much room to move and little cover to shelter them from the Confederate fire.

The Union soldiers fought back as best they could. All afternoon, reinforcements trickled in, crossing the Potomac on the four small boats. Baker did his best to rally the troops, but late in the afternoon, he fell with four bullets lodged in his heart and brain. He died instantly. By 6 p.m., the Confederates were closing in on the Union troops on three sides. Suddenly, the commander of the 17th Mississippi shouted, 'Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!' as he led his men in a sharp charge against the Union position.

The Union line shattered, and the soldiers ran for their lives. They had only one direction to go - down the bluff. A Confederate soldier described the scene, noting that the Union soldiers 'seemed suddenly bereft of reason; they leaped over the bluff with muskets still in their clutch, threw themselves into the river without divesting themselves of their heavy accoutrements, hence went to the bottom like lead.'

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