The Battle of the Balls Bluff was a Union debacle that occurred during a period of quiet in the Eastern theater, ensuring it a great deal of publicity. Southerners celebrated it as a follow-up thrashing to First Manassas, while Northerners bemoaned yet another defeat in northern Virginia. As such, the little fight would have major implications, particularly for the Union.
Despite traditional historical interpretations, the engagement was not the result of a preplanned Federal attempt to take Leesburg. It was rather an accident that evolved out of the carelessness of an inexperienced infantry officer who reported seeing something that was not there.
Captain Chase Philbrick’s Company H, 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was picketing Harrison’s Island, an island 2 miles long and 300-400 yards wide that bisects the Potomac River at Ball’s Bluff. The bluff itself, some 35 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., runs for about 600 yards along the Virginia shore, rising steeply from the 50-yard-wide flood plain that separates it from the river.
On October 20, Philbrick’s commander, Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone, whose Maryland-based division was rather grandly known as the Corps of Observation, began moving troops around to give the impression that he was about to cross in force in response to an order from Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George McClellan that he should conduct ‘a slight demonstration’ to see what effect it might have on the enemy.