At Ball’s Bluff, you can walk down a trail, past a small national cemetery, and eventually come to a precipice. About 120 feet below, visible through the early fall foliage, is the Potomac River.
Here, on Oct. 21, 1861, the Union engineered an epic fiasco.
The federals crossed the river into Virginia, seeking to make “a slight demonstration” against an unknown number of rebels believed camped nearby. The Union soldiers had only a few skiffs for the crossing. It was an immaculate setup for a tragedy: sketchy information, a river too deep to ford, not enough boats, and soldiers who couldn’t swim.
Ball’s Bluff is the tale of a quick, tidy slaughter. It contains broader lessons about warfare, painfully learned as the bodies floated downstream.
The river factor
We think of 19th-century wars as set-piece battles, with armies colliding in cornfields and peach orchards, the soldiers demonstrating their valor as they charge the opposing line. But the generals knew there was more to it than that. They knew that success or failure in the war would depend on logistics, on supplies, on feeding men and mules, on lines of communication, on knowledge of the landscape and precision of the maps.
What they saw as they examined the Coastal Survey maps was a vast territory dominated by rivers. Much of the war was contested on rivers, along their muddy banks, and at the bottlenecks of their bridges.
Rivers were still thoroughfares in 1861. There weren’t many bridges then, or even decent roads. As John Keegan writes in “Fields of Battle,” during the Civil War “roads were still conceived as part of an internal waterway-portage system, harking back to the wilderness days of the eighteenth century.” Roads often ended at the bank of a river, without a bridge. You were expected to switch to a boat.
Rivers shaped the war both strategically and tactically. The Union’s initial goal was to encircle the Confederacy by blockading the coast with the burgeoning U.S. Navy (the number of naval vessels grew dramatically in the first year of the war) and by gaining full control of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The encirclement strategy came from the old man who initially led the Union military, Mexican War hero Gen. Winfield Scott. “Scott’s Anaconda,” it was sometimes derisively called.
The rivers in the West served the Union well: Not only did the Mississippi cleave the Confederacy and, once controlled, cut off the eastern states from the vast resources of Texas and other western states, but the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers invited invasion of the heart of rebel territory. It was an invitation that Ulysses S. Grant happily accepted when he led his soldiers on steamers up the Tennessee River in early 1862 and, with help from Navy ironclads, took Fort Henry and then Fort Donelson — unmitigated Union victories.