Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Anniversary: Battle of Ball's Bluff

On this day in 1861 Union and Confederate forces joined the incomparably named Battle of Ball's Bluff near Leesburg, Virginia. The battle was of limited scale relative to future battles, but the Confederate victory had lasting political consequences.

The battle seems to have been initiated on a mistake and was largely unplanned and improvised. A Union reconnaissance party crossed the Potomac into Virginia and, in the dark, mistook a row of trees for Confederate tents. A subsequent Union raid found no Confederate camp and instead reverted to reconnaissance. The Union position was reinforced and was growing at the bluff. Friend of Abraham Lincoln, Senator and Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker entered the battle at approximately this point. Upon learning of a skirmish from a messenger, Baker, previously uninvolved, ordered all available troops to cross the river and join the battle. Lacking sufficient boats, the crossing was slow. Confederate forces organized as the Union force was slowly but frantically assembled.

The resulting battle was an overwhelming Confederate victory with Union casualties over 200 and many more wounded and captured. Many Union soldiers drowned in the retreat, their bodies floating down the Potomac toward Washington. Colonel Baker was among the dead, the only U.S. Senator ever killed in battle. Partly because of Baker's death, the battle was heavily scrutinized and led to the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which caused considerable Union bureaucratic difficulties for the duration of the war.

Below is a stanza of Herman Melville's Ball's Bluff: A Reverie.

They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
(It was the breezy summer time),
Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in rosy clime
Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.

(image credit: Death of Col Edward D. Baker: At the Battle of Balls Bluff near Leesburg Va Oct 21st 1861, Currier & Ives, Library of Congress, wikipedia.org)