Eight months after the theft of a roadside historical marker commemorating the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Leesburg, a new marker has been erected in its place.
More than 100 people gathered July 18 for the unveiling and dedication of the replacement marker. Positioned on the Route 15 Bypass, just north of Battlefield Parkway, it gives a brief description of the Oct. 21, 1861, Civil War battle that was waged along the Potomac River, less than a mile away.
A private organization, Friends of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield, raised the money for the new marker and worked with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to obtain the necessary approvals, the group’s chairman, Jim Morgan, said.
“This is important,” Morgan said at the dedication ceremony, calling the replacement of the marker “a deliberate act of historic preservation.”
“If a man loses his memory, he loses himself. He loses his soul, really,” Morgan said. “A community can lose its memory, too, and it does that by forgetting its history. That’s why this sort of thing matters.”
Morgan said he learned in November that the original marker, which had stood since 1928, had rusted and fallen off its pole. He tried to load it into his truck, but it was too heavy for him to lift by himself. When he returned two days later, he found that it had been stolen.
Although Virginia has the oldest historical marker program in the country, with more than 2,500 official site markers, the state stopped funding new markers in 1976, said architectural historian Aubrey Von Lindern of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“In most cases, we rely on private organizations such as churches, historical societies and ‘friends’ groups to apply for new markers and to pay for their manufacture,” Von Lindern said.
When the Friends of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield learned that the marker was missing, members sent fundraising appeals to their contacts in Civil War and historic preservation communities across the area.
“And people responded,” Morgan said. “We actually raised more money than we needed.” A group of Civil War reenactors known as the Stonewall Brigade contributed about half the $1,630 needed to replace the marker, he said.
The need for a new sign also presented an opportunity to improve on the old one. The original marker simply gave the date and location of the battle and said that a Union force crossed the river and was driven back by Confederates, Morgan said. So he drafted new text to give more background and information about the battle.
In about 100 words, it tells the story of how 1,700 Union troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Charles Stone crossed the Potomac into Virginia, where they clashed with an equal number of Confederate soldiers led by Col. Nathan Evans. The Confederate troops eventually forced the Union troops to retreat “in disarray,” back across the river.
The marker also notes that Sen. Edward D. Baker of Oregon was killed in the battle. He remains the only sitting U.S. senator to be killed in combat.
“In a way, having [the old marker] stolen gave us the opportunity to put up a better sign,” Morgan said.
The dedication ceremony included speeches by Morgan, Von Lindern and Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd. The mayor acknowledged soldiers on both sides of the war, including “a number of African American individuals who joined the Union forces to fight to end slavery in this area.”
The ceremony concluded with a volley of shots fired by the Stonewall Brigade reenactors.
Among those in attendance was a group of about 80 teachers who were participating in a national teacher institute sponsored by the Civil War Trust, Morgan said. The group fit the ceremony into a schedule that included tours of the Manassas, Ball’s Bluff and Antietam battlefields.
Umstattd said that Ball’s Bluff is an important battlefield that “needs to be commemorated.”
“We need to let people know it’s here,” she said. “This is the best place to do that.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.