The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was an accident. Fought on October 21, 1861, and long thought to have been a deliberate but bungled Union attempt to take Leesburg, it actually evolved from a faulty intelligence report provided by an inexperienced Union officer.
Hearing that the Confederates had abandoned Leesburg on October 17th, Gen. George McClellan wanted to find out why. He ordered Gen. George McCall’s Pennsylvania division to advance in force from Langley to Dranesville, then to probe from there toward Leesburg. The Confederates, in fact, had withdrawn from the town but had returned by the time McCall arrived in the area on October 19th. The next day, McClellan informed Gen. Charles P. Stone, commanding Union troops across the river from Leesburg, of McCall’s mission and suggested that Stone conduct a “slight demonstration” to gauge the Confederate reaction.
Stone moved troops down to the river at Edwards Ferry so as to give the appearance that he was about to cross in force, but Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans, the Confederate commander, did not react. By evening, Stone’s demonstration was over and McCall was preparing to move his division back to Langley the next morning. The story would have ended there had General Stone not ordered a reconnaissance patrol to cross the river to determine the effects of his demonstration. Around dark on October 20th, Capt. Chase Philbrick and approximately 20 men from the 15th Massachusetts quietly rowed from Harrison’s Island to Ball’s Bluff.