CHAPTER TWO: “Unintended Consequences: Ball’s Bluff
and the Rise of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War”
by James Morgan III
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · About the Author
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
Perched above a snarl in the Potomac River not terribly far from Leesburg, Virginia looms Ball’s Bluff. Tucked behind the suburban sprawl—a tiny green respite from the apartment complexes, shopping centers, and traffic lights that line U.S. Route 15—there is little to announce the battlefield, save a brown and white sign pointing motorists toward the river. In a region where it is difficult to escape the Civil War, Ball’s Bluff is but a dim memory. Because the war itself quickly dwarfed the battle in which Confederate Colonel Nathan Evans’ troops ensnared Union General Charles Stone’s men, it is difficult for us to conceive of the horror and indignation provoked by October 21, 1861—a battle that some Civil War northerners preferred to label a “massacre.”
Ball’s Bluff, then, offers a reminder that there is no correlation between scale, size, and significance. When we track the war in real time—as Civil War Americans felt it—we realize that the conflict had many chronologies and many “turning points.” Each regiment, each town, each family, and each individual would experience the war in their own way. For the men of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, for instance, as for their families back home, Ball’s Bluff became a measuring stick. For Radical Republicans in Congress, Ball’s Bluff became a line in the sand—something they could not allow to happen again. For the thousands of family members whose loved ones there became casualties, Ball’s Bluff was the day the world stopped turning. No one could have imagined that by the spring of 1865, what happened that day would be deemed a bloodless skirmish: terminology that, together with reports of “light casualties,” always stops me in my tracks.
When we study the war’s battles and military campaigns, we too often forget that the soldiers who fought them were annexed by their memories. Past experiences necessarily bracketed and lent context to subsequent battlefield performances. The moans of wounded and dying comrades, the sting of a disastrous reverse, or the thrill of the successful charge—these were things that soldiers remembered and carried with them into the future. While the nation has mostly forgotten Ball’s Bluff, the men who fought there never could. How much differently would modern Civil War histories read if their “turning points” were also ours?
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By Christopher Kolakowski, Chief Historian, Emerging Civil War
On November 14, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing to discuss possible revisions to the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons. This was merely the latest event in the long history of Congressional inquiry and oversight of the U.S. military and defense establishment dating back to the beginning of the United States. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCW) fit squarely into this tradition.
The President is commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, but Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants the Congress the power “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” This means Congress has important management oversight over the United States Army and United States Navy, and today the U.S. Department of Defense.
Congress provides for the strength of the Army and the number of officers, especially general officers, it can have; senior generals today are Senate-confirmed in their appointments. This function is why it took Congressional action for such major initiatives as re-creating the rank of Lieutenant General for U.S. Grant in 1864, the 1947 reorganization of the War and Navy Departments into the Department of Defense, and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms. Congress also passed and managed the draft laws as part of its “raise and support Armies” duties. Section 8 is also why Congressional committees today have such a prominent voice in setting force structure and weapons procurement.
As part of the oversight duties, Congress has periodically felt the need to play a more active part in managing the U.S. military. It is in this role that the JCCW came into being. It was not the last of its type, as Congress has since used the JCCW model to investigate the attack on Pearl Harbor, naval expansion, aviation policy and the creation of the Air Force, and myriad other topics related to defense and national policy. Senator Harry Truman chaired a committee from 1941 to 1944 that examined U.S. war production during World War II; consciously recalling the JCCW’s partisan approach and the problems it created, Truman worked to be nonpartisan while meeting his mandate, establishing a standard that remains today. Truman’s integrity in that role helped propel him to the Presidency.
Edward Baker as a U.S. senator (left) and in military uniform as a colonel (right). “His command was…as accidental as the battle in which he died,” says Jim Morgan. “In the end, he became the only U.S. Senator ever to be killed in combat.” (credit both images: Library of Congress)
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Below: “Death of Col Edward D. Baker: At the Battle of Balls Bluff near Leesburg Va. Oct. 21st 1861,” a highly stylized, hand-colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives circa. 1861. Compare that to the image, beneath, reproduced with Jim Morgan’s essay in Turning Points: “Death of Col. Baker [at Ball’s Bluff (near Leesburg, Va.) in the Civil War, Oct. 22, 1861,” a steel engraving by H. Wright Smith after drawing by F.O.C. Darley. (credit both images: Library of Congress)
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A monument to Edward Baker on the Ball’s Bluff battlefield purportedly marks the location of Baker’s death. However, the monument sits several yards away from the actual spot, which was, according to Jim Morgan, “a good 50 yards or more away from the bluff.” The monument instead marks “where his body was first put down after his men retrieved it and that people seeing his body assumed that’s where he was killed,” Jim says. The monument also sits not far from Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery (the third-smallest in the National Cemetery system). (credit: Chris Mackowski)
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During the 38th Congress, Sens. Johnson and Wright and Rep. Covode left the committee. They were replaced by
For an interview with Jim Morgan about his book A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edward’s Ferry, click here. For ECW’s review of the book, click here. To purchase the book, click here. You can also read an in-depth interview Jim did with the Civil War Trust on the 150th anniversary of the battle here.
For more ECW stories related to the battle of Ball’s Bluff:
- One of the Smallest–and Most Significant–Battles of the War (Sept. 4, 2011)
- Author James Morgan and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff (Oct. 3, 2011)
- Ball’s Bluff and the Fall of Charles Stone (Oct. 26, 2011)
- A single piece of brass (Oct. 12, 2012)
Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park is administered by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. You can visit online here. You can find out more information about Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery, the third-smallest in the National Cemetery System, here and here.
For more on the impact of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, read Eric Wittenberg’s five-part ECW series, “A Civil War Witch Hunt: George Gordon Meade, The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.”
For the published findings of the Joint Committee, click here.
For lyrics to “The Vacant Chair,” click here. A number of versions of the song are available on YouTube, including a traditional rendition by Bobby Horton, a bluegrass version by Kathy Mattea, a four-part harmony by the Statler Brothers, and even a duo by Andy Griffith and Barney Fife. For Civil War buffs, here’s a version by the 2nd South Carolina String Band:
About the Author
A lifelong Civil War enthusiast, Jim is a native of New Orleans, where his family eventually settled after “Morganza,” the family plantation some 40 miles upriver from Baton Rouge, was destroyed during the Civil War. His Civil War ancestors served in the Pointe Coupee Artillery, the 6th Louisiana Battery, and the 41st Mississippi Infantry.
Jim grew up in Pensacola, Florida, lived for 23 years in Loudoun County, Virginia, not far from the Ball’s Bluff battlefield, and recently moved to Charleston, SC. A former Civil War reenactor, he has done both Union and Confederate artillery and infantry impressions.
He is a past president of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable and was a co-founder and chairman of the Friends of Ball’s Bluff. He served on the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee from 2009-15 and on the board of the Mosby Heritage Area Association from 2009-17. During that same period, he was a member of the Thomas Balch History and Genealogy Library advisory board.
Jim’s tactical study of Ball’s Bluff, A Little Short of Boats: the Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, is widely considered to be the definitive work on that fight. He has written on various other Civil War topics for Civil War Times, America’s Civil War, Blue & Gray, and other periodicals. He is a contributing author to The Civil War in Loudoun County: A History of Hard Times and to Turning Points of the Civil War.
Jim retired in 2014 from the State Department where he held a number of positions in Washington and abroad, the last being Acquisitions Librarian for the Office of International Information Programs. He served in the US Marine Corps from 1969-71 and holds master’s degrees in Political Science from the University of West Florida and Library Science from Florida State University.