A few weekends ago I need an escape where trees, water, and history could be found. With the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff coming up and since the 20th Massachusetts accidentally became my regiment of the year for escapism research, it seemed like an appropriate time to visit this piece of hallowed ground near Leesburg, Virginia.
There will be articles coming up later on the blog with more historical details about this 1861 battle, so this weekender will focus more on what to see and how to see it at one of the nicest regional battlefield parks I’ve ever visited.
In a nutshell, the battle happened on October 21, 1861, when Union troops crossed the Potomac to discover if the Confederates were near Leesburg. The “simple” reconnaissance mission compounded with a false report brought on the battle which ultimately pinned Union troops along the high bluff and at the shoreline of the river. Federal units charged piecemeal into the open ground, sometimes company by company and the Confederate rushed troops to the scene of action. A lack of boats prevented Union reinforcements from arriving effectively or the survivors to withdraw easily. Colonel Edward Baker, a U.S. Senator and friend of President Lincoln, was killed in the battle, and ultimately the combat debacle led to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
First thing to know about visiting, it’s a little challenging to find, and you’ll think you’ve lost your way. But trust the driving directions in the books or your GPS and you’ll arrive…after passing through a modern subdivision. You can park in the pull off outside the gate or you can drive in and you’ll find a relatively large parking area and the main trailhead.
The interpretive trail to the main open field and bluff area of the battlefield park are well marked and an easy stroll with enough of an incline to see the importance of the terrain but easily navigable out to the cemetery. If you decide to go on the trails down the bluff, that’s a different story! The granite markers and memorials are interpreted, there are two cannons, and you can look into the small National Cemetery.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and want to see what the bluff looks like from the river, follow the trails down. It’s an absolutely terrible place to fight a battle…but it’s a really pretty walk through the woods along the river. There are trail guides and trail blazes which are pretty good; I would recommend having the map on your phone or bring a printed version.
The trail network totals several miles if you wish to explore all the paths along the river and over/along the bluffs. Away from the main interpreted area, some of the trails are steeply inclined and require small waterway crossings. I spent about 3 hours at the park and still missed doing a few of more outlying trails which is a good reason to visit another day.
On October 23, 2021, Friends of Ball’s Bluff will be hosting a commemorative event, including living history, Civil War music, cannon demonstrations, and the evening luminaries at the cemetery. For more information, please visit their website: https://www.novaparks.com/parks/balls-bluff-battlefield/events/160th-anniversary-of-the-battle-of-balls-bluff