Battle of Ball’s Bluff - HISTORY
Year
1861

Battle of Ball’s Bluff

On this day in 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 actionagainst 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 attackthat 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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Von Braun moves to NASA

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs an executive order transferring the brilliant rocket designer Wernher von Braun and his team from the U.S. Army to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Von Braun, the mastermind of the U.S. space program, had ...read more

USS Constitution launched

The USS Constitution, a 44-gun U.S. Navy frigate built to fight Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli, is launched in Boston Harbor. The vessel performed commendably during the Barbary conflicts, and in 1805 a peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the Constitution‘s ...read more

Battle of Trafalgar

In one of the most decisive naval battles in history, a British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson defeats a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off the coast of Spain.At sea, Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy consistently thwarted Napoleon Bonaparte, ...read more

Guggenheim Museum opens in New York City

On this day in 1959, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, thousands of people line up outside a bizarrely shaped white concrete building that resembled a giant upside-down cupcake. It was opening day at the new Guggenheim Museum, home to one of the world’s top collections of ...read more

100,000 people march on the Pentagon

Demonstrators including radicals, liberals, black nationalists, hippies, professors, women’s groups, and war veterans march on the Pentagon.The rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial started peacefully, though Dr. Benjamin Spock—baby specialist, author, and outspoken critic of ...read more

Fisk homers off foul pole

On October 21, 1975, Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hits a homer off the left-field pole to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth game of the World Series. The Sox went on to lose the championship, of course. Still, even 30 years later, the films and photos of Fisk urgently ...read more

Harding publicly condemns lynching

On this day in 1921, President Warren G. Harding delivers a speech in Alabama in which he condemns lynchings—illegal hangings committed primarily by white supremacists against African Americans in the Deep South.Although his administration was much maligned for scandal and ...read more

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is born

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is born on this day in 1772 in the small town of Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire.Coleridge’s father died when he was a boy, and young Coleridge was sent off to boarding school in London. He was a lonely student who fell into dissolution and debt after ...read more

Dizzy Gillespie is born

An iconic figure in the history of jazz music who was instantly recognizable even to millions of non-jazz fans by his puffed-out cheeks and his trademark trumpet, with its horn bent upwards at a 45-degree angle, John Birks Gillespie—better known as “Dizzy”—was born on this day in ...read more

Mystic Pizza, with Julia Roberts, opens

On this day in 1988, Mystic Pizza, a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts, Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor as three young women who work at a pizza parlor in Mystic, Connecticut, opens in theaters. The then-unknown Roberts played Daisy Arujo, a feisty, wild-child waitress from a ...read more

Mudslide buries school in Wales

On this day in 1966, an avalanche of mud and rocks buries a school in Aberfan, Wales, killing 148 people, mostly young students. The elementary school was located below a hill where a mining operation dumped its waste.Aberfan is a small mining village in the Taff River Valley. A ...read more

Thousands protest the war in Vietnam

In Washington, D.C. nearly 100,000 people gather to protest the American war effort in Vietnam. More than 50,000 of the protesters marched to the Pentagon to ask for an end to the conflict. The protest was the most dramatic sign of waning U.S. support for President Lyndon ...read more