Battle of Ball’s Bluff

1949 3¢ Grand Army of the Republic stamp
US #985 – The Grand Army of the Republic was founded after the Civil War to bring together Union veterans.

The Civil War Battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought in Loudoun County, Virginia on October 21, 1861.   Though a minor battle and loss for the Union, it had some long-lasting effects on the war and some interesting historical connections.

The Union needed some positive news after the crushing defeat at Bull Run.  George McClellan, general-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, was pressured to show what his new army could do.  He sent Brigadier General George McCall to Dranesville, Virginia, to scout out the Confederate troops in nearby Leesburg.  McCall found the area abandoned, mapped it, and returned to base camp.

1978 15¢ Oliver W. Holmes, booklet single stamp
US #1288B – Holmes received a serious wound during the battle.

Confederate Colonel Nathan Evans had abandoned Leesburg when he noticed McCall’s Union troops gathering on the opposite shore of the Potomac River.  Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard heard of the move, and he ordered Evans and his men back to Leesburg.

Harrison’s Island, in the middle of the Potomac River, was held by Union forces led by Colonel Charles Devens.  Brigadier General Charles Stone ordered him to send a patrol to Leesburg at night to gather information.  An inexperienced captain named Chase Philbrick led 20 men across the river to scout out the area.  In the darkness, he mistook a clump of trees for Confederate tents. When Stone received the report, he ordered 350 men to attack the “camp” then return to their positions.  When the sun came up on October 21, 1861, Devens realized the mistake.  He sent a message to Stone and waited for instructions.  In response, 350 additional men were sent to join Devens’s men to move inland and scout the area.

1964 5¢ American Music stamp
US #1252 – Henry Washburn wrote the poem “The Vacant Chair” about the death of John W. Grout at the battle.  It later became a popular song in both the North and South.

Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker joined Devens at his camp while they were waiting for the reinforcements.  He was a US senator and friend of President Lincoln.  Devens sent Baker to the crossing area and instructed him to decide whether to withdraw the Union troops or ask for reinforcements.  On the way to the crossing, Baker met a messenger from Devens with word that his men had encountered some Confederate troops.  Baker ordered more troops, but did not consider the number of boats he had available.  The crossing took much of the day.

1984 20¢ Literary Arts: Herman Melville stamp
US #2094 – Melville wrote a poem about the battle – “Ball’s Bluff – a Reverie.”

While the Union Army was transporting its troops across the rain-swollen Potomac, Confederates reinforced their troops at Leesburg and advanced.  They forced Devens and his men to Ball’s Bluff, where Baker and his men were assembling.  The battle started around 3:00 p.m. and raged until dark.  The Confederates had the advantage of cover and backed the Union soldiers against the bluff overlooking the Potomac.

1989 25¢ Constitution Bicentennial: United States Senate stamp
US #2413 – Colonel Edward Baker is the only sitting US senator killed in battle to date.

Colonel Baker was killed at about 4:30 and his men bravely retrieved his body, despite personal injury.  The Union Army was driven down the 80 foot high rocky ledge and into the river.  In the words of a Confederate observer, “They in one wild, panic-stricken herd, rolled, leaped, tumbled over the precipice.”  The waiting boats were overcrowded with retreating soldiers and several sank.  Many soldiers drowned, and 553 Union troops were captured by the Confederate Army.

1989 25¢ Constitution Bicentennial: House of Representatives stamp
US #2412 – This battle led to the creation of a joint-congressional commission that investigated the war through 1865.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was minor compared with future battles of the war, but some of the results were long-lasting.  For the Confederates, it was a victory that raised their morale and confidence.  Congress, which wanted to find the cause for the Union defeats at Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff, established the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War.  The committee plagued Union officers and caused infighting among the high command until the war ended.  General Stone was blamed for the defeat and was imprisoned for 189 days.  Many years later, he was the chief engineer on the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:

[Total: 115 Average: 4.8]

Share this article

3 responses to "Battle of Ball’s Bluff"

3 thoughts on “Battle of Ball’s Bluff”

  1. Thank you for this history lesson. I love reading these every day. There is so much detail and research put into each of these This Day in History articles that I look forward to reading them each day. Thank you again and please keep sending these.

    Reply
    • If you want to know a little more about the Civil War, I can suggest a couple of books for you…Battle Cry of Freedom, by American historian James McPherson and The American Civil War by English historian John Keegan.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Love history?

Discover events in American history – plus the stamps that make them come alive.

Subscribe to get This Day in History stories straight to your inbox every day!