Battle of Balls Bluff, Upper Potomac. 15th Massachusetts Regiment bayonet charge to clear the woods of Confederate soldiers. Original antique front page of The Illustrated London News, published November 23rd. 1861. Reverse of page has 11 inch report on “The Civil War in America.”
The Battle of Balls Bluff was a small but consequential defeat for the Union early in the American Civil War, occurring just months after the Union Army’s rout after the First Battle of Bull Run and another embarrassing loss at Battle of Wilson’s Creek in the Western Theater. The Union defeat at Balls Bluff revealed something to the public about the political nature of Union appointments of officers and their occasional incompetence, and led directly to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. On October 21, 1861, Union Colonel Edward D. Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon and close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, was given orders from Brigadier General Charles P. Stone to either withdraw Massachusetts troops who already had landed on the Virginia side of the Potomac River to reconnoiter and raid a Confederate camp north of Leesburg, or reinforce the expedition in the event the raid was successful, at his discretion. Before Baker could discover the true nature of the situation, Confederates pickets detected and fired upon the Union force, and local Confederate district commander Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans quickly deployed his Virginia and Mississippi regiments against the threat, while still presenting a defense against a larger Union crossing downriver at Edwards Ferry. The inexperienced Baker crossed additional companies to the bluff, but positioned his troops poorly, with the peak of the bluff against their back and higher ground in front of their lines. After a prolonged firefight, the Confederate pressure broke the Federal line, and the assault pushed the Union troops down the difficult terrain and onto the river bank, killing Baker and 222 others, wounding 226, and eventually capturing 553. The few boats available became quickly overloaded and some capsized due to overcrowding, so evacuation became impossible. Some swam across to nearby Harrison Island, but 161 went missing, many of them drowned in the swollen Potomac. Bodies of Union troops who had drowned floated downstream towards Washington, D.C. for days after the battle.