A century and a half after a strategic error resulted in the slaughter of more than 200 Union troops in Leesburg, the solemn quiet at Ball’s Bluff battlefield will again be broken by the sound of musket fire and the shouts and cries of soldiers in combat.
On Saturday, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and Morven Park will host a reenactment of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on the historic battlefield, just one day after the 150th anniversary of the fight.
“This is the first reenactment we’ve ever held at Ball’s Bluff,” said George E. Tabb Jr., park manager for the NVRPA. Most reenactments of major Civil War battles — such as Antietam or Gettysburg — occur off-site because of National Park Service preservation regulations, Tabb said.
But this weekend, more than 1,000 reenactors will literally follow in the footsteps of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who fought along the banks of the Potomac River on Oct. 21, 1861.
“All reenactments are exciting, and they’re all interesting, but the geography plays so much of a part in these battles, you don’t really get a feel for it unless you can see it,” Tabb said. “This will combine the reenactment with the same topography. People will get some feel for how it actually looked and how it actually felt.”
Geography was always a pivotal factor in Civil War conflicts, but never more so than at Ball’s Bluff, where a tragic series of events was set in motion by a Union captain sent on a reconnaissance patrol across the Potomac. In darkness, Capt. Chase Philbrick mistook trees for the outlines of Confederate tents, and a raid on the supposed camp was ordered, according to Jim Morgan, president of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable and a volunteer battlefield guide at Ball’s Bluff.
The consequences of the misunderstanding escalated throughout the following day. Skirmishes between Union and Confederate soldiers began early on the morning of Oct. 21. Thousands of federal soldiers found themselves without a way to easily cross the Potomac to reinforce their comrades; it was too deep to ford, and only a handful of boats were available. Those who did make it across fought sporadically throughout the afternoon, then were faced with fresh Confederate reinforcements late in the day, when more than 600 newly arrived soldiers advanced on the weary Union troops, according to Morgan. The Union troops fled toward a bluff above the river, down a steep embankment and into the water, where many drowned or were shot.
The climax of the bloody conflict will be re-created for visitors Saturday between 2 and 3 p.m., Tabb said. Attendees will witness the death of Col. Edward Baker, the only sitting U.S. senator to be killed in the Civil War, see the Union troops falter and ultimately succumb to the unrelenting Confederate onslaught.
Of course, the gruesome end to the battle will be somewhat altered for reenactment purposes, Tabb said.
“There will be no situation where the Union troops are forced down over the cliff,” he said. “Instead, we’re going to run them right up to the cliff, then we’re going to capture them and march them off.”
The reenactors will arrive Friday and set up camp in Morven Park, Tabb said. Many are from Loudoun and other parts of Virginia; others will travel to Leesburg from as far away as South Carolina and Oregon.
Guests with tickets will be able to tour the encampments and watch the reenactment, said Kevin Bowman, senior interpreter at Morven Park. The park is anticipating a well-attended event, with about 1,200 tickets sold as of Monday afternoon, Bowman said.
The encampment grounds will open at 9 a.m. and will feature history exhibits, drill demonstrations and modern and period vendors, Bowman said.
After the reenactment, the park will hold a battlefield illumination event Saturday evening.
“This is something that was made popular by Antietam National Battlefield, where they lit a candle for each soldier that was killed or wounded in the battle,” Tabb said. Three hundred battery-operated candles will be lighted at Ball’s Bluff in a dignified and quiet ceremony, he said.
“It will be one of the few times the park is open at night, and people can walk down the park road to the cemetery,” Tabb said. “There will be a bugler there who will occasionally play taps.”
The weekend of commemorative activities and reenactments will conclude Sunday, Tabb said, with a wreath-laying and 21-gun salute at the Baker Monument, where the senator was killed.