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The Battle of Ball’s Bluff Was a ‘Slugfest’

Northern Virginia commemorates the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Ball's Bluff.

On Oct. 21, 1861, Leesburg became the site of the second-largest battle of the first year of the Civil War.

The Battle of , one of a string of Union defeats, destroyed the career of Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone and resulted in the death of Col. Edward Dickinson Baker, who is the only sitting U.S. Senator ever to be killed in battle.

Baker’s death probably shouldn’t have happened.  

“It was an accident,” said James A. Morgan III, author of "A Little Short of Boats: The Civil War Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21 - 22,1861," during a recent conversation.

“You had a lot of troop movement going on in the area on both sides of the [Potomac] river and there was a lot of pressure [for the Union] to get on to Richmond," he said. "General Stone ordered a reconnaissance patrol, and since the 15th Massachusetts Infantry was currently picketing Harrison’s Island, he asked them to send a unit across.”  

The inexperienced soldiers did as ordered, reporting back that they had seen a Confederate camp. The only problem, as Morgan puts it, was that “it was just a row of trees.” General Stone ordered a raiding party of approximately 300 men back across the river to attack the trees at dawn. Upon realizing the mistake, the men dispatched a messenger back to General Stone and waited for further orders.  

“As they waited,” said Morgan, “they ran into some Confederate pickets and had a little firefight, and before they knew it they had a battle on their hands that would last most of the day.”

As the morning hours wore on, the raiding party fought a number of skirmishes, Morgan said. “Union forces came over, but did so without clear orders–Colonel Baker essentially just sent troops over and said ‘go.’ Since they didn’t have orders, they just gathered on the top of the bluff, while more troops slowly made their way across in small boats.”  

The raiding party, meanwhile, from the 15th Massachusetts, continued to engage increasing numbers of Confederate forces.

“Eventually it turned into a blood-bath,” said Morgan, “but I usually I call it a ‘slugfest.’”

When the 15th Mass became tired after fighting these skirmishes, they fell back to the bluff. The Confederates advanced, and at that point it became “like two boxers punching each other,” said Morgan. The fighting went back and forth until everything went wrong for the Federals.

“Baker was killed, and then fresh Confederate troops arrived, which caused the Federals to panic,” Morgan said. The Federals fled down the hillside, only to be shot or drowned in the river.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority will host a series of events to commemorate the battle, beginning on Thursday Oct. 20. Saturday, Oct. 22 will feature a full-scale reenactment that Morgan will narrate. Events will continue on Sunday. Visit http://150thBallsBluff.com for tickets and more information.

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