It is a mere 50 feet square, with tiny markets hemmed by a fence of red river stone. Yet Ball's Bluff National Cemetery, little known but long remembered as an 1861 Union burial site, still stirs the blood in Virginia, where love of tradition and the military is transcendent.

So it upset Hugh Harmon of Leesburg when 475 acres of hilly forest land adjacent to the little plot in northeastern Loudoun County was transferred last spring to a Swiss-based group of European investors. Perhaps unknowingly, the corporation had acquired an early Civil War battleground.

"The land is zoned R-1 -- one house per acre," says Harmon, a selfdescribed "local Don Quixote" who is assistant director of the county's economic development office when he isn't busily plotting his private campaign to save the Ball's Bluff battlefield.

To tha end, Harmon says he soon plans to take to the street -- specifically, the main street in Leesburg -- where he will hold a onenight vigil on Oct. 17 dressed in Union uniform and armed with a Springfield rifle.

Toward dawn, he says, he will retreat to the north, firing a few salutes to the ghosts of Union troops who were pushed into the Potomac by Confederate soldiers 120 years ago next month.

The object of this firepower display is two-fold: to rally support among Civil War reenactment buffs and skirmish associations, and to dramatize what Harmon calls the travesty of a National Park Service too bound up in budget cuts to consider acquiring the battlefield.

"We [Leesburg] are a natural link in a chain of historic events from Manassas to Sharpsburg and further north," says Harmon, arguing that U.S. ownership of at least 78 acres of the land where the heaviest fighting took place would be an economic, as well as historical, boon to the area.

Even this one-man crusade by Harmon, a Delaware native who was raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and is active in the 3,000-member North-South Skrimish Association, is unaccustomed publicity for the Ball's Bluff cemetery.

Tucked away on a country lovers' lane off Rte. 15 north of Leesburg, the plot is "certainly among the smallest" in the national cemetery system, says Frank Granito of the Veterans Administration, which owns the site.

It costs the federal government about $1,500 a year to cut, fertilize and seed the grass on the gravesite itself and 5 1/2 surrounding acres owned by the VA.

The work has been performed since the early 1950s as a labor of love by Leesburg Postmaster Leonard Stickler. "If it weren't for Leonard Stickler," says Harmon, "we'd be up to our ears in weeds and beer cans."

The site has been ravaged periodically by vandals. It is perhaps the only national cemetery where the flag does not fly, according to Harmon, because "they not only stole the flag, they stole the flagpole."

Buried there is a common grave are 53 unknown Union troops, most believed to be members of two Massachusetts infantry regiments. A separate marker memorializes the lone identified soldier: "James Allen, Co. H, 15th Regt., Mass. Inf."

The body of the Union commander who was killed in the fighting, Edward D. Baker, a U.S. senator from Oregon and confidant of President Lincoln, is buried in San Francisco. A marker in his memory stands on turf now owned by the Swiss investment group.

The parcel previously was owned by Helmi Carr, a 30-year landowner whose Fort Evans Farm, named for the Confederate commander at Ball's Bluff, includes remnants of Civil War fortifications.

Harmon says the Europeans, operating as the Beus Corp., have promised to honor an easement allowing access to the cemetery.

Development in Northern Virginia already has led to the digging up and paving of many of the campsites, skirmish grounds and reconnaissance routes in the area, according to Lewis Leigh, a Fairfax lawyer and Civil War relic hunter.

Part of the terrain where the Battle of Ox Hill occurrd, the last day of fighting in the bigger Battle of Second Manassas in 1863, now lies under the Fair Oaks Shopping Mall near Fairfax City, Leigh notes.

Whether it is too late to preserve the Ball's Bluff battleground is what worries Harmor. In the tradition of the early American pamphleteer, Harmon recently had printed, at his own expense, 5,000 copies of a broadside urging support for his cause.

It is a matter, he says, of "the erosion of America's heritage -- acre by acre and foot by foot."