"LEESBURG - BALL’S BLUFF" Top 5 Page for this destination Leesburg by mtncorg

Leesburg Travel Guide: 33 reviews and 66 photos

Leesburg is a burgeoning town of the fringes of the outer DC metroplex. The town has maintained its inner historic core which dates back to a time when Leesburg was its own town and not simply another suburb. But it is not the historic center nor the suburban malls that brought me here. I came to see the Civil War battlefield of Ball’s Bluff, where Abraham Lincoln’s personal friend and Oregon’s Senator died October 21, 1861.

The park - forested bluffs along the banks of the Potomac River - is found on the northeastern edge of Leesburg. You get there by driving north on US Hwy 15 (King St) to Battlefield Parkway. Turn right and drive through neighborhoods and cross through the light at the junction with US Hwy 15 Bypass. Take the next left, Ball’s Bluff Road and follow signs to a parking lot within the park. A short two mile trail takes you through the forests atop the bluffs and you pass by information tablets set out to explain the battlefield and actions that took place. You can also walk down to the edge of the Potomac River and visit the Ball's Bluff National Cemetery, the smallest National Cemetery in the U.S. with 54 Federal soldiers buried and only one whose identity is known.

Following the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861 both Federal and Confederate sides took a wait and see attitude towards their next steps. President Lincoln pushed his new commander, George McClellan to do something besides just drill his new army. He had Gen. Charles Stone push across a couple reconnaissance forays across the Potomac to see if the Confederates would withdraw from the area around Leesburg on their own. One of these forays led to the sharp battle here atop Ball's Bluff ending in a Union disaster in which less than 700 men of the 1700 who started the battle were not on the casualty or prisoner list after the end of the battle.

The Federal commander on the scene was Colonel Edward Baker who was a personal friend of Lincoln's from days in which both served as lawyers in Illinois. Baker had followed the 49ers to California with the Gold Rush after leading troops during the Mexican-American War of 1848. Just before the beginning of the Civil War, a nascent Republican party in Oregon lured Baker north from California to become one of the first Senators from the Beaver State. He accompanied Lincoln to at the latter's inauguration. With the firing on Fort Sumter, Baker became involved with the raising of volunteer regiments from the Philadelphia area - an area where Baker had grown up as a youth. The regiment he raised was known as the 1st California in deference to Baker's years in the Golden State. The regiment would become the 71st Pennsylvania with time and become part of the Philadelphia Brigade serving in many of the battles of the Civil War to come. Historians tend to give Baker most of the blame for the disaster here. I have read some who think Baker was a strutting sycophant who liked his uniform so he could wear it in the halls of Congress, but Baker did have some battlefield experience from his days in Mexico - something very lacking on either side early on in the War. The errors committed on the battlefield were not his alone and the Federal position did not collapse until after Baker's death Baker is the only U.S. Senator to ever die in battle.

The aftermath of the battle was serious also for General Stone. Horrified at the results of the battle and Baker's death, Congress set up a special committee and Stone was arrested and imprisoned for over a half a year without charges. Later released, he served another two years before, realizing his career - which had started very promisingly at West Point - was over and he resigned. He would spend 13 years in the Egyptian army before returning to New York where he was the designer for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. Stone is buried at West Point.

For an excellent overview of the battle and a visit to the site today, you can do no better than visiting the Army's military history website for an online Staff Ride.

  • Intro Updated Apr 10, 2009
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Comments (1)

  • goingsolo's Profile Photo
    Jun 11, 2007 at 4:37 PM

    I'm joining you virtually on this civil war tour. Excellent overview of one of the lesser known, but astonishingly tragic, battles of the war b/w the states. Great descriptions and info. Thanks for sharing.


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