McClellan’s First Failure: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

On this day in 1861, a small battle took place near Leesburg, Virginia, northwest of the Union Capital of Washington. The battle was one of the first maneuvers for the Army of the Potomac under its new commander, George B. McClellan. Although a smaller battle when compared to the Battle of First Manassas three months prior, it was another disaster for the United States, having lost two major battles prior to this one. Here, we shall look at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and its impact.

Union retreat from Ball's Bluff

On October 21st, 1861, Union and Confederate forces clashed along the Potomac River near the town of Leesburg, Virginia, on a hill overlooking the river called Ball’s Bluff. Four days prior, it appeared that Confederates had abandoned the town following a minor skirmish at Harper’s Ferry. Major General George B. McClellan, overall commander of the Army of the Potomac, was curious as to this action, and ordered Brigadier General George McCall and his Pennsylvania Division to push from Langley, Virginia toward Dranesville, and probe toward Leesburg to discover why the Confederates were evacuating the town. McCall was at Dranesville by the 19th of October. However, by that time, Confederate forces had returned to Leesburg. McClellan then ordered the division of Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, directly across the river from Leesburg, to cross and probe toward the Confederate position.

The following day, Stone began to move, giving the appearance that he was about to cross the river in force. However, the Confederates simply watched the maneuver without taking action against them. By the end of the day, Stone’s maneuver was at an end, and McClellan ordered McCall to withdraw his division back to Langley. However, instead of ending the whole affair at that point, Stone ordered a reconnaissance move to see how successful his maneuvers had been. The patrol was conducted by men from the 15th Massachusetts, under command of Captain Chase Philbrick. When they were a mile away from Ball’s Bluff, Philbrick saw a row of trees, and mistook them for an enemy encampment, and reported it to General Stone. In response to this faulty information, the General ordered an attack on the “encampment.”

300 men from the 15th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Charles Devens, made up the primary force. Three miles downriver at Edwards Ferry, Stone attempted to create a diversion by crossing a small force of cavalry so as to attract attention that way. However, it wasn’t long before Devens discovered the error made by the small patrol, and sent a messenger to Stone to report this mistake. However, before the messenger could get to Stone and back with a reply, Devens and his men engaged Confederate pickets, beginning the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Stone responded to Devens’ message by ordering an expanded reconnaissance, sending Colonel Edward Baker, a U.S. Senator, and his men to move toward the Bluff and assess the problem, unaware of the fighting that had already begun. On his way to the bluff, Baker learned that the battle was underway, and ordered more men across. However, a major problem became apparent at that moment, as there were few boats available for a river crossing of this size, leading to the development of a bottleneck on the river.

The battle itself was mostly a series of long lulls punctuated by moments of brief skirmishing until 3:00 P.M., when skirmishing became nearly continuous until darkness fell. Around 4:30, Colonel Baker was killed in action, and the arrival of fresh Confederates later that evening forced the tired Federal troops to retreat shortly before dusk. Many of the troops were killed attempting to flee from the Bluff, their bodies falling into the river, washing up on the banks near Washington in the days and weeks to come.

Although the engagement was smaller when compared to previous major battles at Manassas, Virginia and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, casualties were somewhat lopsided. The Confederates lost somewhere around 150 killed, wounded or captured. The Federals lost 223 killed and 226 wounded, with 553 taken prisoner, or 1002 total casualties. Among those killed were Colonel Baker, who remains the only United States Senator to ever die in battle, whose body would be among those to wash up along the banks of the river in the days following the battle. It was the first actions taken by the Army of the Potomac under McClellan, and this defeat may have led to his over-cautiousness as commander when finally moving against the Confederates on the Peninsula the following year. Although smaller in scale, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff was another defeat felt strongly by the Lincoln administration, and the Union as a whole. It would be nearly a year before Lincoln finally had a victory in the east, and see hope that the war might be won.

Works Consulted

Morgan, James A. “The Accidental Battle of Ball’s Bluff: A Little Short of Boats.” Hallowed Ground Magazine, Fall 2011.

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One response to “McClellan’s First Failure: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

  1. I had the honor to work as a volunteer at the World Trade Center about 10 days after the attack…after seeing the army of volunteers of every race,color , sex, age… a lasting thought was that when America marshals its people we can accomplish anything

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