Staff Ride Guide
BATTLE OF BALL'S BLUFF
CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY
The U.S. Army has long used the staff ride as a tool for professional development, conveying the lessons of the past to contemporary soldiers. In 1906 Maj. Eben Swift took twelve officer-students from Fort Leavenworth's General Service and Staff School to the Chickamauga battlefield on the Army's first official staff ride. Since that time Army educators have employed the staff ride to provide Army officers a better understanding of a past military operation, of the vagaries of war, and of military planning. It can also serve to enliven a unit's esprit de corps-a constant objective in peacetime or war.To support the Army's initiatives, the Center is publishing staff ride guides such as this one on the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Virginia. This account is drawn principally from contemporary after action reports and from the sworn testimony of participants before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a congressional entity created to investigate the Union defeats at First Bull Run and Ball's Bluff.Although not in a class with Antietam and Gettysburg or other great Civil War clashes with respect to size or consequences, the Battle of Ball's Bluff nevertheless provides important lessons in small unit actions, leadership, tactical planning, and the role of courage and military professionalism under fire. This small volume should be a welcome training aid for those undertaking a Ball's Bluff staff ride.
Ted Ballard has been a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History since 1980 and a part of the Center's staff ride program since 1986. Battle of Ball's Bluff joins his other battlefield guides to First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Wilderness/Spotsylvania. In addition to being the author of numerous articles on military history, he was a contributor to the Center's publication, The Story of the Noncommissioned Officer Cops; the author of Rhineland, a brochure in the Center's series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of World War II; and a contributor to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command publication, American Military Heritage, and to the Virginia Army National Guard publication, The Tradition Continues: A History of the Virginia National Guard, 160 7-1985.
On the night of 20 October 1861, Union Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone put into action a plan to attack what had been reported as a small, unguarded Confederate camp between the Potomac River at Ball's Bluff and Leesburg, Virginia. Later, after Stone learned there was no camp, he allowed the operation to continue, now modified to capture Leesburg itself. But a lack of adequate communication between commanders, problems with logistics, and violations of the principles of war hampered the operation. What originally was to be a small raid instead turned into a military disaster. The action resulted in the death of a popular U.S. senator and long-time friend of President Abraham Lincoln, the arrest and imprisonment of General Stone, and the creation of a congressional oversight committee that would keep senior Union commanders looking over their shoulders for the remainder of the war. For such a small and relatively insignificant military action, Ball's Bluff would cast a long shadow.The purpose of a Ball's Bluff staff ride is to learn from the past by analyzing the battle through the eyes of the men who were there, both leaders and rank-and-file soldiers. The battle contains many lessons in command and control, communications, intelligence, weapons technology versus tactics, and the ever-present confusion, or "fog," of battle. Hopefully, these lessons will allow us to gain insights into decision making and the human condition during combat.Today, the battlefield is enclosed in the 225-acre Ball's Bluff Regional Park, managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. A short trail includes interpretive markers and a small national cemetery containing the remains of fifty-four soldiers. Through the years the park has become overgrown but plans are currently under way to return the battlefield terrain to its 1861 appearance.Several persons assisted in the creation of this staff ride guide. At the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Diane Sedore Arms of the Editorial Branch edited the manuscript and, in the Graphics Branch, Teresa K. Jameson designed the final product and S. L. Dowdy turned sketch maps into finished products. Edwin C. Bearss, Historian Emeritus, National Park Service, took time out from his busy schedule to review the manuscript for historical accuracy. Also, Daniel D. Lorello, New York State Archives, provided a plethora of primary source material on the New York regiments involved in the battle. My thanks to all.
In the narrative the names of Confederate personnel and units appear in italic type, Union personnel and units in regular type. Any errors that remain in the text are the sole responsibility of the author.