Monday, October 21, 1861
The encounter between Union and Confederate forces at Ball’s Bluff began as a reconnaissance by the Union to determine the strength of the Confederate forces at Leesburg, Virginia. At 4:00 AM five companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts regiment and seven companies of the Twentieth Massachusetts regiment crossed the Potomac River from Harrison’s Island, a strip of land between the Maryland and Virginia banks of the Potomac that served as a staging for their landing. The Fifteenth Massachusetts and Companies D and I of the Twentieth Massachusetts advanced up the steep slope, named Ball’s Bluff, on the Virginia side of the river, while the remaining companies of the Twentieth remained on reserve at the river bank. The Fifteenth Massachusetts advanced upon Leesburg and encountered Confederate fire. Colonel Edward Baker ordered the remainder of the Twentieth to scale Ball’s Bluff and, following orders of his superior, General Charles Stone, deployed additional regiments from Harrison’s Island to the Virginia shore. The Union forces encountered several regiments of Confederates along the heights of the bluff, and were pinned at the ridge. Union and Confederates exchanged a hailstorm of gunfire. The Union forces held their own for nearly three hours until 4:30 PM, when Colonel Baker, the senior officer on the field, was killed. The Union line began to unravel from right to left, and Union soldiers made a hasty retreat down the steep slopes of Ball’s Bluff. The Confederates lined along the heights of the bluff and showered gunfire upon the retreating Union forces, who had insufficient boats to carry them across the Potomac. Many of the Union soldiers who attempted to swim across the river were shot or drowned in the attempt. Those who remained on the riverbank risked capture by the Confederates.1
1George A. Bruce, The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861 - 1865 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1906), 24-61.