Battle of Ball’s Bluff, 21 October 1861

A very minor early battle during the American Civil War, most noteworthy for its political after-effects. Ball’s Bluff is about thirty miles up-stream from Washington, on the Potomac River. In the autumn of 1861, Confederate forces held the south bank of the river, while a small Union force, commanded by General Charles Stone, guarded the river crossings around Poolesville, which included a crossing via Harrison’s Island. Ball’s Bluff overlooked the landing point on the southern bank of the river.

Link to map of battle of Ball's Bluff
Balls' Bluff

On 20 October, General McClellan ordered General Stone to find out if some recent troop movements had had the result of moving the enemy away from this area. General Stone passed that order on to Colonel Edward D. Baker, a former Congressman and Republican Senator since 1860, who had resigned to join the army. Baker was a friend of President Lincoln, and a well know fire-eating Republican. However, he turned out to be an appalling military commander.

On 21 October he moved his brigade across the Potomac to join a small detachment at Ball’s Bluff. The Confederate commander, General N. G. Evans, concentrated his available troops against Baker. Both sides went into the fight with about 1,700 men, but the Confederates were in a much stronger position. Baker’s men were trapped against the river, with inadequate shipping to allow them to retreat.

Baker was killed in the fighting, along with 48 of his men. Another 158 were wounded, and 714 missing or captured. Baker had managed to loose half of his command, and had he survived would no doubt have taken all of the blame for the debacle. However, having died in the fighting, the blame was soon moved to Stone.

The atmosphere in Washington at the end of 1861 was feverish. The Union cause had suffered a series of setbacks, and many in Congress were looking for scapegoats. Despite his key role in protecting Washington at the start of the war, Stone made a perfect target. He was a friend of General McClellan, which was enough to make him suspect in some eyes. He had adopted a conservative policy towards slaves while serving on the upper Potomac, returning runaways from Maryland to their owners. While this was entirely consistence with Lincoln’s policy at this time, it did not go down well with more radical Republican senators.

On 9 February 1862, Stone was arrested on the authority of the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War. He was suspected of dubious loyalty, and even of having deliberately sent Baker, a well known Republic, to his death. The committee was never able to bring proper charges against Stone. Eventually he was released, and even, in May 1863, returned to duty. Even then he was not above suspicion, and in April 1864 he was demoted to Colonel. Although he was later promoted to command a brigade, soon after he resigned.

There is no evidence to support the charges made against Stone. He had served loyally in Washington at the start of the war. The disaster at Ball’s Bluff was clearly Baker’s own fault. However, Baker had had friends in Congress. Stone alienated many with his attitude to runaway slaves, and even more when he entered into a public dispute with the Governor of Massachusetts. In the atmosphere of late 1861, after defeat at Bull Run and with General McClellan apparently unmovable around Washington, Stone made a suitable target for Republicans who wanted the war prosecuted more vigorously.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 October 2006), Battle of Ball’s Bluff, 21 October 1861 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_balls_bluff.html

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