One of the smallest but more significant battles in Loudoun occurred at Ball’s Bluff, which is remembered for a faulty intelligence report that led to the early and disastrous defeat of advancing Union troops on October 21st, 1861. A 300-man Union party crossed the Potomac to raid a Confederate camp, only to discover the "camp" was actually a row of trees that had been mistaken for tents by an earlier reconnaissance patrol. While awaiting new orders, the Union troops inadvertently came upon a Confederate patrol and the first fight ensued. Communication delays and misunderstandings resulted in each side sending troops in a piecemeal fashion throughout the day. Of the 7,000 Federals in the area, only about 1,700 made it across the river to fight because there were so few available boats. A major river crossing had not been in the plans.
With a late afternoon surge of about 600 members of the 17th Mississippi, the worn out Federals fled in panic down the steep slopes of the bluff and into the Potomac. Overcrowded boats full of Union troops also capsized. The drowned bodies floated downstream to Washington, to the horror of residents unaccustomed to the ravages of war. This battle led to the formation of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to investigate war practices.
In all, about 1,700 men from each side fought at Ball’s Bluff, with Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone commanding Union forces and Brig. Gen. Nathan “Shanks” Evans leading the Confederates. Included in the 223 Federals killed was Col. Edward D. Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon and friend of President Lincoln, who remains the only senator to die in combat. The joint committee found Gen. Stone to blame for suspected disloyalty and treason, ruining his career. In later battles, Union commanders would fail to act for fear of similar Congressional reprimand.
Some 226 Federals were wounded and 553 captured at Ball’s Bluff. The Confederates suffered fewer than 40 killed, 110 wounded and three captured.
Today, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield is a National Historic Landmark. It is also the site of one of the smallest national cemeteries. Hiking trails and interpretive signs aid in understanding this important and tragic part of American history.