Notes on the Battle of Ball's Bluff

Reference in C&O Canal Companion:
Historical Sketch, pages 29-31
Miles 30.9 and 35.5


Map detail from The Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of
the Union and Confederate Armies-- (Plate VII)
Northeastern Virginia and Vicinity of Washington,
Bureau of Topographical Engineers, August 1, 1862

Chronology of the Battle of Ball's Bluff
(based on U.S. Army Staff Ride Guide)

October 19, 1861:

  • Confederates withdraw from the vicinity of Washington to take up defensive position near Centreville, but 7th Brigade under Col. Nathan G. Evans remains near Leesburg.
  • The Union commander, General George McClellan sends a force from Langley, Virginia up to Dranesville, hoping to force the 7th Brigade to withdraw from the Leesburg area.

October 20:

  • Union signal station on Sugar Loaf Mountain informs McClellan that the Confederates appear to have moved away from Leesburg.
  • McClellan sends a message to General Charles P. Stone in Poolesville, suggesting a "slight demonstration" by his division to encourage the Confederates to withdraw.
  • Stone sends the 42nd New York Infantry to Conrad's (now White's) Ferry, and has General Willis Gorman advance to Edwards' Ferry send two companies of the 1st Minnesota Infantry across the river. (By evening, this party returns to the Maryland shore.)
  • A Union scouting party crosses the river at Ball's Bluff around 1PM and returns at 10PM, reporting that it saw an unguarded Confederate camp about a mile from the river. Stone orders five companies of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry to cross that night and attack the Confederate camp at daylight, with two companies of the 20th Massachusetts crossing to support them.

October 21:

  • By 4AM the crossing is complete, and around 7AM, the Massachusetts companies discover that the "camp" was actually a row of trees sillhouetted along a ridge line.
  • Stone orders another crossing at Edward's Ferry as a diversion.
  • Confederate forces begin to skirmish with the Massachusetts Infantry near the Jackson house, and additional Confederate and Union forces move to the scene.
  • At 10AM, Colonel Edward D. Baker, also a U.S. Senator and personal friend of Lincoln's, arrives at Stone's headquarters and is given command of all troops in the vicinity of Harrison's Island. Baker orders additional units to cross the river and proceeds to Harrison's Island around noon to assist.
  • By 2PM, Colonel Baker crosses over to Ball's Bluff to take command. His attempt at an advance is repulsed.
  • Around 5PM, Colonel Baker is killed and Colonel Cogswell takes over. A Union attempt to break through and escape towards Edward's Ferry fails. Union forces are driven back to the bluff and Cogswell orders a general retreat, crossing back to Harrison's Island. With only a narrow and steep path back to the river, troops scramble and fall down the bluff to get to the three boats that were ferrying the troops back and forth. Union officers advise the men to throw their weapons in the river and save themselves.
  • By 6PM, the last remaining boat is swamped and many Union soldiers attempt to swim over to Harrison's Island, under fire from the Confederate forces. Colonel Cogswell and other Union officers are captured on the Virginia shore.

October 22:

  • Under a flag of truce, a Union burial party crosses from Harrison's Island to Ball's Bluff.
  • Union General Lander is seriously wounded in skirmishing on the Virginia shore opposite Edward's Ferry.
  • After dark, General McClellan orders all Union troops on Harrison's Island withdrawn to the Maryland shore.

October 23:

  • McClellan orders General Stone to cross to Virginia at Edward's Ferry, but after nightfall orders a withdrawal.

There are no authoritative casualty figures on the Union side; as many as 200 men may have been killed, with hundreds more captured by the Confederates. Over the next two weeks, the bodies of 20 Union officers and men were found downstream along the Potomac, one of them at Great Falls. The Confederates lost a total of 36 men killed.

Col. Nathan G. Evans
Confederate States Army

Col. Edward Baker
United States Army

Gen. Charles P. Stone
United States Army

Photos from U.S. Army Military History Institute.


  • The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volumes 5 and 51, Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1893
  • Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1863
  • History of the Battle of Ball's Bluff, written by Col. E.V. White, Leesburg, Virginia, reprinted in 1985 by the Manassas City Museum. [No date given for the original printing.]
  • Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1946. [Includes a letter to his mother and portion of his journal describing the battle and his wounding.]
  • Battle of Ball's Bluff, Staff Ride Guide, Ted Ballard, Center of Military History, U.S. Army, Washington DC, 2001 [74 pages, available from Government Printing Office]



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