The Battle For Ball's Bluff

An historical account of Ball's Bluff describing first battle between Union and Cofederate troops.

It is often said that politics and soldiering do not mix. In the case of the Battle for Ball's Bluff this saying rang true with grim reality. Senator Edward D. Baker of Oregon had been a staunch supported of the Lincoln administration and he supported the war against the rebellious southern states. Through his connections he had managed to obtain a commission in the Union army while he retained his Senate seat. As we shall soon see, he would have faired better had he stuck to politics.

With his commission as a colonel in the Union army, he assumed command of a 1,700-man infantry brigade stationed along the Potomac on the Maryland side of the river. In October of 1861, he received orders to cross the Potomac into Virginia and attack the Confederate forces encamped at Leesburg.

The plans were amiss from the very beginning. As the brigade arrived at their embarkation point, they found only three small boats waiting to ferry them across the river. The three boats together could only accommodate 25 men per trip. Needless to say the crossing was very slow.

Baker had not scouted the territory he was about to advance into. He was unaware of the 100-foot cliff called "Ball's Bluff" that awaited his brigade on the Virginia side. Baker had no idea that the only viable route to the top of the bluff was a narrow cow path that etched its way into the cliff. Further, because of his lack of experience in military tactics, he made the ultimate blunder. He left his forces no way to withdraw from the conflict should it become necessary. Once onto the Virginia side of the river, the brigade's escape route was cut off. Nevertheless, he launched his campaign with confidence.

The brigade made its way to the top of the bluff and found they were confronting 4 regiments of Confederate soldiers who had hidden themselves on a wooded knoll above the bluff. As the Union troops began a seemingly unopposed advance across open ground, the Confederates opened fire on them with murderous accuracy. They continued to fire into the surprised and disorganized Union ranks. Just as the confident Baker realized the disaster he had created he was killed by a sharpshooter's bullet. At that instant the Rebel troops charged the disorganized Yankees. With their commander dead, the panic-stricken Union troops made a mad dash to escape the onslaught. The remnants of Baker's Brigade rolled, jumped, and tumbled over the cliff and onto the heads and bayonets of their comrades on the beach below. As the Rebels arrived at the edge of the cliff they took up positions and began firing into the panicked blue mob below.

The firing continued as the Union soldiers scrambled into the boats that brought them. Their panicked haste caused them to capsize the boats. Many of the soldiers drowned. The Confederates controlling the bluff picked off those soldiers that could swim. The rest either surrendered or tried to hide.

In the final analysis, the Union losses included: 200 killed or wounded and over 700 captured. Confederate loses were 7 wounded.


Edward D. Baker commanded an Illinois regiment in the Mexcican War, and came home with a reputation for courage and leadership in battle.

Baker was probably Lincoln's closest friend. The first child the Lincolns had was a son (who died in childhood) named Edward Baker Lincoln.

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