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It was just 160 years ago today, October 21, 1861, when both the Union and Confederate armies, having recovered and drilled since the battle of Bull Run, met again near the Potomac River. Union forces had crossed the Potomac River and soon all hell broke loose. In warfare, fighting is not always a constant, instead, there is a lot of training, marching, and reconnaissance work as well. And it is this reconnoiter with the enemy that will bring the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
The Confederates held a strong position at Leesburg, Virginia, and yes, it’s named after the ancestors of soon to be General Lee. Military intelligence is great, except when it’s not, and the Yankees believed that Leesburg was defended by small units of Rebels. As a result, the impetuous Union Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone, serving under General McClellan, decided to jump at the chance and move his forces to Leesburg. However, the intelligence was wrong, and the Confederates had guessed the importance of the town, in turn had sufficiently garrisoned it. Brigadier General Stone soon was in trouble, as more Union forces began to arrive under the command of Colonel Edward Baker, a Senator from Oregon who joined up to fight.
In the melee that would follow, not only were the Yankees soon finding themselves in a hornet’s nest, but many soldiers had trouble crossing the Potomac River due to a lack of boats. Colonel Baker himself was killed, and the Union was forced to withdraw back across the river, listening to many cheers from the Rebs on the other side. As a result of the Union defeat, Congress established the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would continue to stick its political nose into everything during the war.
I always tell my students that the study of history is not only what happened, but how it happened. Spoiler alert, the Union wins the war, but how do we win, for 160 years ago today, it didn’t seem like it.