A few Veterans Days ago, my wife and I made a day trip to Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Loudon County, Virginia. You’d never know it was there, tucked away as it is behind a suburban housing development. Once you step out of your car and into the park, you’re in another place altogether. For one thing, Ball’s Bluff is really two sites in one. Just inside the park is a small National Cemetery, containing the remains of 54 soldiers in 25 graves, all killed during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. We were there on a cold, cloudy day, the kind of day that really made us think somberly about that long-ago battle near the beginning of the Civil War. Given that it was a small engagement, we were able to walk most of the battlefield, up to the edge of the high bluff where the inexperienced Union soldiers made their last stand.
This battle was relatively inconsequential militarily, but it had a larger impact politically. An overly ambitious reconnaissance in force that resulted in the death of Abraham Lincoln’s friend Colonel and Senator Edward D. Baker, it cost Union General Charles Stone his career and was the impetus for the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which became long-term Radical Republican thorn in the side of Lincoln’s Administration.
The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History has a neat little booklet on the battle that I wish we’d had that day. Battle of Ball’s Bluff was developed as a staff ride guide for Army personnel so they can “learn from the past by analyzing the battle through the eyes of the men who were there.” The best part of the booklet is the blow-by-blow account of the battle, accompanied by a number of detailed maps. As I said, the battlefield is relatively small, so you can really get a sense of what happened in just an hour or two.
What sticks in my mind is the fearful predicament of the Union troops, unfamiliar with the area and forced back to that steep bluff above the Potomac. Many of them jumped to their deaths or died on the narrow little strip of land beneath under a rain of Confederate musket fire (left). I’m not that crazy about heights, so looking down from the top of that cliff really brought at least a bit of the grim reality of that day home to me.