The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was an accident that resulted from a faulty intelligence report—not, as often portrayed, a deliberate but bungled Union attempt to take Leesburg, Va. Following up on troop movements in the area in mid-October 1861, Union Brig. Gen. Charles Stone ordered a reconnaissance patrol to cross the Potomac River at Ball’s Bluff on the night of October 20. That patrol mistook a row of trees for an unguarded Confederate camp. Stone sent a raiding party in response, which soon discovered the error. Instead of recrossing the Potomac, however, the patrol’s commander, Colonel Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts, sent notice to General Stone for further instructions.
As Colonel Devens waited, his men clashed with some pickets from the 17th Mississippi. The fight snowballed from there, as both sides sent in additional troops throughout the 21st. Eventually, about 1,700 men on each side engaged in this clash, which resulted in an overwhelming Confederate victory.
The battlefield today, 223 acres owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, is a preservation success story. In March 2000, the NVRPA and the town of Leesburg jointly acquired 141 acres of land adjacent to the park, land that was about to become a housing development. The town now maintains 86 of those acres in “passive recreation” while the other 55 have been integrated into the battlefield park. This historic ground has been saved.
The park—officially named the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park (“Battlefield” was added to the name in 2004)— features the Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery as its centerpiece. Though federal property, the cemetery is jointly managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the NVRPA. Containing the remains of 54 Union soldiers killed in the battle, it is the nation’s third smallest national cemetery and should not be missed.
Two markers outside the cemetery commemorate the deaths of Union Colonel (and U.S. Senator) Edward D. Baker and Confederate Sergeant Clinton Hatcher of the 8th Virginia. Despite what is commonly believed, neither man was killed on the actual site of his marker. Nor is either marker a grave; Baker is buried in the Presidio in San Francisco, and Hatcher rests in the Ketoctin Baptist Church cemetery in Purcellville, Va.—about 15 miles from Leesburg.
The NVRPA organized a battlefield guide group in 2000 and began offering regular weekend tours to visitors. A great deal of research has been conducted since then. The story of the battle has been updated and, where necessary, corrected.
Partly because of that, changes were being made at Ball’s Bluff this summer. Efforts were underway to replace the old historical signs with updated text and illustrations. Four additional signs and a privately funded monument to the 8th Virginia also are being added. Two new interpretive trails are being prepared for visitor use, which also means the creation of new brochures and trail maps. The tour season was expanded to include the month of April this year, and additional holiday tours and special events have been added to the schedule.
An unveiling of the new signs and trails will be announced in the near future, probably for early September. Information on all of these activities and forthcoming events is available at the NVRPA Web site: www.nvrpa.org.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.