The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, in October 1861, was a minor affair when compared to later battles in the Civil War. But the disaster for the Union, which took place on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River about 40 miles from Washington, D.C., would have major consequences on the conduct of the war.
A Union colonel killed in the battle, Edward D. Baker, happened to be a popular United States Senator as well as a longtime friend of President Abraham Lincoln.
The blundering of Union commanders inspired action on Capitol Hill. The fiasco, coupled with the death of a colleague, disturbed members of Congress to the point where they created a special committee to investigate the conduct of the war.
Union Forces Crossed the Potomac, Attempting to Seize Leesburg
Rumors that the Confederates were abandoning the town of Leesburg, which was situated near the Potomac River, northwest of Washington, D.C., prompted Union commanders to probe the Confederate defenses. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, whose Union troops had been training on the Maryland side of the Potomac opposite Leesburg, went beyond his initial orders and began putting troops across the river on October 21, 1861.
After the Union troops made it across the Potomac in boats, they had to follow a path to reach the top of a hill known locally as Ball’s Bluff, which was situated about 100 feet above the river.
Sent by General Stone to command the Union troops at Ball’s Bluff was Col. Baker, who had known Abraham Lincoln years earlier when they had both been lawyers in Illinois. The two men were close enough that one of Lincoln’s sons, Edward, had been named for Baker.
Baker, after his time in Illinois, had settled in Oregon and became one of the state’s senators. When the Civil War broke out he was commissioned a colonel, and at times he would appear in the U.S. Senate chamber in his military uniform.
Although popular in Washington's political society, Baker was strictly an amateur soldier, and his lack of training and experience soon became a problem at Ball’s Bluff. His troops were also inexperienced. And while the 2,000 Union troops actually outnumbered the Confederates facing them, the Confederates had taken up advantageous positions, hidden in the woods.
Confederates Attacked and Trapped the Union Troops at Ball’s Bluff
Baker's men occupied a very bad position, with their backs to a very steep hill dropping down to the Potomac.
Confederate sharpshooters began a harassing fire. Union soldiers were being picked off, and Col. Baker was killed by a bullet to the head.
Three regiments of Confederates, troops from Virginia and Mississippi who had fought previously at the Battle of Bull Run, emerged from the woods and attacked the Union troops. Panic broke out as Union soldiers attempted to retreat, with men going over the cliff and landing in the river below.
As the day ended, overrun Union soldiers were surrendering in large numbers while others tried to swim back across the Potomac. The casualties on the Confederate side were slight, but more than 200 Union troops had been killed or wounded and nearly 700 had been taken prisoner. Many more were missing, presumed to be drowned in the river.
President Lincoln Was Devastated By the Death of His Friend, Col. Baker
At the War Department, President Lincoln was receiving reports about the battle via telegraph. When a message was received that Col. Baker had been killed, Lincoln was visibly shaken.
According to some reports, Lincoln left the building to return to the White House and nearly collapsed in the street. Civilians passing by saw Lincoln fighting back tears. It was reminiscent of the scene in May 1861, when another friend of Lincoln, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, had been killed in Virginia.
Congress Begins to Oversee the Conduct of the War
The fiasco along the Potomac, along with the death of an officer who was also a senator, shook Capitol Hill. The Congress, very worried that the war was being lost, voted to create a new special committee, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.
The new committee began to hold secret hearings on the Battle of Ball's Bluff, and General Stone, who was being blamed for the debacle, was arrested and placed in prison.
Stone languished in jail for nearly six months, though he was never charged with a crime. Indeed, his imprisonment seemed to be a form of political punishment. Following his release from prison he returned to the Army, but he never again played a major part in the war.
The Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War would become known for meddling in military affairs, and the committee and its actions would at times create open hostility between the military and the country's civilian leadership.
So while the Battle of Ball's Bluff may have been a minor affair along the Potomac, it would set off years of skirmishing on Capitol Hill.