Wednesday, 8 August 2007
The American Civil War battle of Ball's Bluff was of little military significance - hence it is not as well known as Gettysburg; Antietam or the two battles of Bull Run - but it had important political consequences.
The battle was fought on Monday October 21st 1861, in the first year of the Civil War. Northern forces had suffered their first major shock in July at the first battle of Bull Run (known by the Confederates as first Manassas - [an explanation of the different names given to battles can be found at http://www.civilwarhome.com/battlenames.htm]). They had been confident of smashing the Confederate forces and marching on to Richmond - but were routed and returned, in a great hurry to Washington DC.
As concerns about the conduct of the war increased, there was another disaster at Balls Bluff, a few miles from Leesburg in North Virginia (30 miles as the crow flies from the centre of Washington) - upstream on the Potomac.
Intelligence had been received that General Joe Johnston was preparing to leave Leesburg. A small force under Brigadier General George McCall crossed over to the Virginia side of the Potomac to investigate, advancing as far as Dranesville (about 10 miles from Leesburg). On the Maryland side Brigadier General Charles P Stone was given orders to "keep a good lookout upon Leesburg to see if this movement has the effect to drive them (the Confederate forces) away. Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them."
A small party led by Captain Chase Philbrick carried out a reconnaissance during the night of 20th October, who reported seeing about 30 tents about a mile or so from Leesburg, but no camp fires or sentries (he was mistaken - there was no camp). Stone saw an opportunity for a raid. Part of the operation involved sending Colonel Edward Baker with a small force up Balls Bluff. He was given discretion to retire the troops if they came under fire or to bring reinforcements over the Potomac to secure the site. Baker chose to push as many troops as he could across the river and up the side of the cliff. Having organised the troop movements he made his way to the top of Balls Bluff. It was now about two o'clock in the afternoon. Federal forces were in an open field whilst the confederates were out of sight - some even climbing trees to get a good position from which to fire.
The result was a disaster for the Federal forces - and when Baker was walking in front of his men on the left of the Federal lines a group of confederate soldiers dashed out of the woods and one of their number, a big, red-headed man in shirt sleeves, shot directly at Baker with his revolver, killing Baker instantly.
The assassin was himself killed and Baker's body was taken down to the riverside. From that point on the disaster escalated. The confederates charged and many federal soldiers fell as they tried to make their retreat down the steep slope of Ball's Bluff. It also became obvious that there were insufficient boats to evacuate the troops. Days afterwards bodies of men drowned in the Potomac began to wash up in Washington itself.
The political significance of the Battle was that Colonel Edward D Baker was a serving US Senator, and close friend of the President, who had named his second son 'Edward Baker Lincoln' (1846-1850).
When the 37th Congress returned for its second session in December, critics of the conduct of the war called for the establishment of a committee "to inquire into the disasters of Bull Run" and Ball's Bluff. After discussion a resolution was passed "that a joint committee of three members of the Senate and four members of the House of Representatives be appointed to inquire into the conduct of the present war; that they have power to send for persons and papers, and to sit during the recess of either house of Congress"
So the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Present War" was established. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, this committee was very controversial and some regard it as an example of the dangers of legislative committees attempting to micromanage Executive functions.