On October 21, 1861, Union troops suffer a devastating defeat in the second major engagement of the Civil War. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia produced the war’s first martyr and led to the creation of a Congressional committee to monitor the conduct of the war.
After the Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, President Abraham Lincoln appointed General George McClellan to organize the defeated Federal Army of the Potomac. McClellan spent the fall assembling and training his force, but he was under pressure from Lincoln, the public, and Congress to take action against the Confederates, who were waiting just across the Potomac River. McClellan ordered General George McCall to make a reconnaissance across the river, and he instructed General Charles Stone to watch the nearby town of Leesburg, Virginia, while McCall’s men were moving.
Stone sent a detachment across the river on the night of October 20, and the inexperienced soldiers reported seeing a Rebel camp, which turned out to be shadows. Stone decided to move more men over until a force of 1,600, under the command of Colonel Edward Baker, was poised for an attack the next morning. Baker was a close friend ofLincoln, and the president had named his second son after him.
Baker placed his men in a dangerous position. They were in a clearing with their backs to the edge of Ball’s Bluff, a 100-foot high cliff above the Potomac. They faced a wooded ridge that was rapidly filling with Southerners. The Confederates launched an attack that afternoon, and Baker’s command was soon in trouble. Baker was killed, and many of his men jumped from the bluff to their deaths or scrambled down a narrow trail only to find their boats swamped in the river. Less than half made it back to the other side of the Potomac.
The Union suffered 49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 missing and captured, while the Confederates suffered 33 killed, 115 wounded, and one missing. Lincoln was stunned by the loss of his friend Baker, who became a Northern martyr despite his ineptitude in conducting the battle. The political fallout was swift. Angry Republicans were highly suspicious of McClellan, a Democrat, and other generals. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was formed in December of that year. This group was stacked with Radical Republicans who favored tougher treatment of the South and slaveholders. The committee’s first investigation was the disaster at Ball’s Bluff, and General Stone became the scapegoat. He was arrested for treason soon after and jailed for six months.
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