The Lingering Impact of Ball’s Bluff

The importance of battles is not always judged by their size and number of casualties. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, fought 161 years ago today outside of Leesburg, Virginia, is one such example.

Federal troops were driven into the Potomac River following their defeat atop Ball’s Bluff. (LOC)

The Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff was the latest in a string of such setbacks including Big Bethel, First Bull Run, and Wilson’s Creek. Coupled with the death of Senator Edward Baker, Radical Republicans in Congress demanded answers. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCW) became the means to get those answers and more throughout the remainder of the war.

Ball’s Bluff historian Jim Morgan wrote an excellent essay about the battle and the JCCW’s implications for the Union war effort in our Turning Points of the Civil War book. “One general effect of the committee,” Morgan wrote, “was to put Union army general officers on their guard.” He continued, “officers could no longer simply follow their orders and perform their duty. The committee was watching, and everyone knew it.”

For Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams, who pleaded to take offensive measures against enemy troops in western Virginia in February 1862 and constantly was rebuffed, Ball’s Bluff loomed large. “That cursed Ball’s Bluff haunts the souls of our chiefs,” he said. Long after the guns quieted at Ball’s Bluff 161 years ago, this battle continued to hover over the heads of Union generals until 1865 and beyond.

6 Responses to The Lingering Impact of Ball’s Bluff

  1. I enjoyed my visit to Ball’s Bluff, and would like to return. There is a small National Cemetery on the site which I believe Oliver Wendell Holmes (who fought there) helped organize. As a former Californiam, I was interested to see that the California Brigade was in the fight.

    1. Actually, the California Brigade was comprised mostly of Pennsylvanians. Senator Baker simply wanted a symbolic way to tie the west coast to the Union. Recruiting troops to be CALLED a California Brigade was his answer and even he referred to the whole effort as a “pious fraud.”

      In the aftermath of Baker’s death at Ball’s Bluff, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th California regiments (there was no 4th) eventually were redesignated at the 71st, 69th, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania. The California Brigade became the Philadelphia Brigade.

  2. Radical Republicans were looking for a scapegoat. McClellan would have been preferred, but he was, at that time, untouchable. Baker would have been appropriate, but he was a national celebrity, Lincoln’s dear friend, and, now, a heroic martyr. That left the naïve yet loyal, Charles Pomeroy Stone. Stone was skewered for obeying the law, being a democrat, and, to some degree, for ineffective supervision of the tactical commander on the field (i.e., Colonel/Senator Baker). McClellan, “The man directly to blame for the affair [Ball’s Bluff] was Col Baker” [letter to his wife]. Major Henry Livermore Abbot, not a Stone fan, “You know my opinion about his [Stone’s] incapability but to doubt his loyalty is simply ridiculous” [letter to his family]. Stone was imprisoned for 6 months without a trial. “What of habeas corpus” you say. Me too. –Mig

    1. The Lincoln administration was never characterized as part of the Radical Republican coalition, and especially not in October 1861. The Radical Republicans in Congress were critics of Lincoln. However, both Lincoln and the congressional Republicans sought a scapegoat for the embarrassing battlefield loss. Following the battle, Stone became the focus of the US Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Instead of focusing on tactical decisions made during the battle, the committee focused on Stone’s loyalty to the Union and his views on slavery. Stone was eventually arrested in February 1862 and held without trial or charges until his release on August 16, 1862.

  3. Ball’s Bluff is a very important late 1861 affair. Politicians can be some kind of dastardly. Watch your back.

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