The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

By the end of 1861, the Union changed its commander but also suffered its third major defeat; this one northwest of Washington at Ball’s Bluff on the banks of the Potomac River.

Following the defeat at Bull Run, the Union leadership realized that the war could not be won without a change in strategy at the least. President Abraham Lincoln, in the three days after the battle, signed two bills that called for 1,000,000 volunteers to be recruited into the army for three-year terms.[i] Lincoln also determined that a change in leadership was necessary: he summoned George B. McClellan to take command of the assembling army of volunteers that would be named the Army of the Potomac.[ii]

General George B. McClellan in 1861. By: Mathew Brady.

For two months after his appointment at the head of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan took what were entirely raw recruits and dispirited men and transformed them into soldiers.[iii] He and his men “rounded up stragglers,” took officers out of the Washington barrooms, and eliminated incompetent officers all while training the newly-minted soldiers.[iv] The army’s training and discipline fostered an admiration for McClellan himself that no other general, Union or Confederate, would enjoy during the war.[v]

McClellan was “one of the mysteries of the war,” wrote Ulysses S. Grant.[vi] He had been well-educated, earned admission to West Point two years early, graduated second in his class, earned acclaim for engineering achievements during the Mexican-American War, and been president of a railroad before taking the reins of the Army of the Potomac.[vii] Having earned so much success in the absence of despair or apparent hardship, one may have questioned his ability to be modest. When he visited Washington, he understood himself to have “become the power of the land,” and have “conversation after conversation calling on me to save the nation—alluding to the Presidency, Dictatorship, etc.”[viii] He continued:

“You have no idea how the men brighten up now when I go among them. I can see every eye glisten. . . . You never heard such yelling. . . . I believe they love me. . . . God has placed a great work in my hands. . . . I was called to it; my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end.”[ix]

The camaraderie between McClellan and his men was remarkable and created a sense that they were “forging the finest army the world had ever seen.”[x] When McClellan rode past the men, he saluted by giving “his cap a little twirl, which with his bow and smile seemed to carry a little of personal good fellowship even to the humblest private soldier. If the cheer was repeated he would turn in the saddle and repeat the salute,” observed one soldier.[xi]

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott in 1861.

McClellan’s ascendancy was inevitably going to displace an American military legend: Winfield Scott. Scott was a hero of the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812, earning him the glory of being general in chief of the military.[xii] Tension erupted between the two, as McClellan communicated directly with President Lincoln and worked 18-hour days which had appeared to result in improving the Army of the Potomac.[xiii] Lincoln was left with few options, and on November 1, 1861, Scott retired and Lincoln appointed McClellan as general in chief of the Union army.[xiv]

By the time that McClellan was general in chief, he had already proven his ability to overestimate the enemy and miscalculate his attacks. When Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston had gathered 45,000 men southwest of Washington, McClellan estimated that the enemy numbered 150,000, which was 30,000 more than McClellan had.[xv] Then, when Confederates had marched onto Munson’s Hill near Washington, McClellan advanced on them only to find “a log shaped and painted to resemble a cannon,” much to the amusement of the media and McClellan’s critics.[xvi]

The confidence in McClellan and the Union’s tactics were undermined in a battle that took place 40 miles up the Potomac River from Washington near a hundred-foot bank called Ball’s Bluff. The Confederates had taken the town of Leesburg, Virginia, and Union General Charles Stone led his men upriver to launch an attack on the Confederate flank.[xvii] General Stone assigned Colonel Edward Baker, a friend of President Lincoln’s, a sitting senator, and former Illinois politician, to lead the attack on the Confederates.[xviii] Baker led the attack across the Potomac and ran directly into the Confederates posted on top of Ball’s Bluff.[xix] While crossing the river, Confederate snipers took their shots at Union men, but Baker was confident that his four regiments were capable of bringing about a victory.[xx] Baker led his men to the top of the hill, where his men and he discovered that they had no cause for comfort as the Confederates unleashed a wave of bullets.[xxi] Just as Baker sought to rally his men along the line, a beardless, young Confederate “emptied five barrels of his revolver into him, at twenty paces,” with the first bullet passing through his brain.[xxii] Baker instantly died.

A Map of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. By: J. Wells.

The Union men had found a position at a glade above the river, which only encouraged the Confederates as they gained mass and increased their firing on the Union, even climbing into trees to deliver shots.[xxiii] As the Union men sought to rally themselves and fight off the rattled feeling overcoming them as they saw a group of soldiers bring Colonel Baker’s body to the rear, the Confederates formed up, let out a rebel yell, and concentrated their fire.[xxiv] The Union men “gave way; rushed a few steps; then, in one wild, panic-stricken herd, rolled, leaped, tumbled over the precipice.”[xxv] The Union men tumbled down the jagged rocks, some clutching their muskets, screaming out in pain and terror as they prepared to cross the Potomac River back to Maryland.[xxvi]

The Potomac River Near Ball’s Bluff.

Confederates stood on the top of the bluff and unleashed volleys on the Union men as they began to swim across the river.[xxvii] Union men with equipment and muskets in hand “went to the bottom like lead,” while others “sprang down upon the heads and bayonets of those below.”[xxviii] There were only two boats in the river, and after loading their cargoes of injured men, both sank and caused men to be “swept away to unknown graves.”[xxix] The surface of the water was filled with “heads, struggling, screaming, fighting, dying,” grasping at each other and trying to catch their breath and make it across the river.[xxx] Some, clutching others, ended up causing both to sink into the water and drown.[xxxi] Others had more sinister ideas: an “officer was found with $126 in gold in his pocket; it had cost his life.”[xxxii]

Major Oliver Wendell Holmes of Co. A and Co. G, 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in uniform with sword
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

While the Confederate casualties were negligible, Union losses were nearly 1,000: more than 200 shot and more than 700 captured.[xxxiii] Among those injured was a young Lieutenant named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would later make his way to the United States Supreme Court and be one of many Civil War veterans who would have a consequential career in government.[xxxiv] News of the battle was delivered through a telegraph to President Lincoln, and when he learned that his friend Baker had died in the action, he left the army headquarters “breast heaving, tears streaming down his cheeks,” and stumbled into the street continuing to weep.[xxxv]

The disaster at Ball’s Bluff led Congress to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate the cause of the defeats at Ball’s Bluff and Bull Run, and the committee became host to a political battleground.[xxxvi] General Stone was the first victim, being suspected of treason partly because of his proslavery reputation and also as a result of his sending troops into Ball’s Bluff which the committee determined to be a decision leading to certain defeat.[xxxvii] For the remainder of the war, the committee would shape the direction of the war and place blame for tactical miscalculations.

Although the Union had suffered a defeat, it had a new commander that appeared to be capable of leading the army to victory. Lincoln, pleased with McClellan’s demeanor and confidence, met with him after his appointment as general in chief at his headquarters.[xxxviii] Although McClellan was beaming with confidence, Lincoln must have been aware that his 18-hour days and camaraderie with his soldiers would only carry him so far. Lincoln reminded him: “In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the Army will entail a vast labor upon you.”[xxxix] McClellan, undeterred and confident as ever, responded: “I can do it all.”[xl]

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 348 citing Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III, Vol. 1, 380-83.

[ii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 348.

[iii] See id. at 349 citing Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, 5 vols. (New York, 1949-59) I, 113.

[iv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 349.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id. at 358 quoting Warren W. Hassler, Jr., General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union (Baton Rouge, 1957), xv.

[vii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 359 citing Joseph L. Harsh, “On the McClellan-Go-Round,” in John T. Hubbell, ed., Battles Lost and Won: Essays from Civil War History (Westport, Conn., 1975), 55-72.

[viii] See George B. McClellan to Ellen Marcy McClellan, July 27, 30, Aug. 9, Oct. 31, 1861, McClellan Papers, Library of Congress, published in W. C. Prime, ed., McClellan’s Own Story (New York, 1887).

[ix] See id.

[x] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 101.

[xi] See id.

[xii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 360.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id.

[xv] See id. at 361.

[xvi] See id. citing Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Vol. I, 300.

[xvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 362.

[xviii] See id.

[xix] See id.

[xx] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 106.

[xxi] See id.

[xxii] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 118.

[xxiii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 106-07.

[xxiv] See id. at 107.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] See id.

[xxvii] Id. at 108.

[xxviii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 119.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] See id.

[xxxi] See id.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 108.

[xxxiv] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 115.

[xxxv] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 108.

[xxxvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 362.

[xxxvii] See id. at 362-63.

[xxxviii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 110.

[xxxix] Id.

[xl] Id.

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