Stone sent three regiments across the river, one at Ball’s Bluff and two at Edwards Ferry a few miles downriver. There wasn’t a bridge anywhere along that stretch of the river, and it was too deep to ford, so they had to rely on boats. Only three were available at Harrison’s Island, a two-mile sickle of land occupying a bend in the Potomac facing Ball’s Bluff. Stone sent a note to McClellan: “We are a little short of boats.”
They were also a little short of professional soldiers. The man who quickly took command on the bluff was a sitting U.S. senator from the young state of Oregon. Col. Edward Baker was an advocate of “bold” and “determined” war and a close friend of the president (Lincoln’s second son was named for him). Baker was gifted at oratory but impoverished in military strategy. That the Union forces were backed up to a bluff above a river, with only a few skiffs available in the event of a retreat, did not faze him.
When a New York regiment ascended the cow path up the bluff, Baker greeted a newly arrived colonel with a quotation from “The Lady of the Lake”: One blast upon your bugle horn/ Is worth a thousand men.
Unbeknownst to Baker, the Confederate commander, Gen. Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, had sent his men from Edwards Ferry to Ball’s Bluff. The rebels had superior position in the woods, picking off Baker’s men as they struggled to hold their ground. Baker himself began working artillery pieces. The rebels charged, whooping, and the fight was joined hand to hand.
The New York World reported what happened next:
“One huge red-haired ruffian drew a revolver, came close to Baker, and fired four balls at the general’s head, every one of which took effect, and a glorious soul fled through their ghastly openings.”
Historian Shelby Foote writes: “[H]e who called for sudden, bold, forward, determined war received it in the form of a bullet through the brain, which left him not even time for a dying quotation.”
In pell-mell flight, hundreds of Union soldiers scrambled, stumbled and somersaulted down the steep bluff. So many boarded a flatboat that it foundered. Soon all three skiffs had sunk.
Rebels stood atop the bluff and fired at the men below. It was, the rebels would say later, like a turkey shoot.
Whom the bullets didn’t kill, the water did. Dozens of men drowned. Americans, as a rule, couldn’t swim in 1861. They couldn’t have stayed afloat even if they hadn’t been burdened by wool uniforms, boots and heavy weapons.
Of valor the federals had plenty; what they lacked were boats and trained officers who could read a landscape. Ball’s Bluff inspired Congress to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It was a star chamber, secretive, radical, and its first victim was Gen. Charles P. Stone, accused unjustly and irrationally of treason and thrown without formal charges into a prison cell in New York harbor. Stone was eventually released and returned to the Union cause, but his reputation never fully recovered from the Ball’s Bluff calamity.
The battle offered an immediate lesson about the importance of military principles, of logistics, of avenues of retreat. Coming after Manassas, it boded ill for a quick suppression of the Confederacy. Anyone in Washington who remained unclear about the challenge facing the Union needed merely to visit the banks of the river. The bodies were washing up. One at Chain Bridge, one at Long Bridge, one all the way down near Mount Vernon.
This was going to be a very long war.
This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Civil War 150: Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.