On October 21, 1861, the Battle of Ball's Bluff began by mistake when a Union scouting party mistook a line of trees for a Confederate encampment. The Federals crossed the Potomac - at that time the dividing line between North and South - and climbed the 100-foot high bluff above the river. They were confronted by Confederate pickets and opened fire. The battle raged over the bluff all day with the Federals retreating by nightfall under Confederate fire.

During the retreat the Confederates shot the Union boats, forcing Federal troops to dive into the Potomac and swim to the other shore while their boats sank or drifted downstream. Many Union soldiers were drowned or shot while swimming across the river. Many remained stranded on the Confederate side of the Potomac and ultimately surrendered. Among the Union survivors was Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who was wounded at Ball's Bluff and again at Antietam and Fredericksburg II. After the Civil War, Holmes went on to serve as a United States Supreme Court Justice.

Visiting Ball's Bluff Battlefield

Your best bet to tour Ball's Bluff Battlefield is to start at the Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park. This 12-acre battlefield park is in the process of being restored to its appearance during the 1861 battle using first-hand accounts from the battle, period maps and battlefield sketches. The park contains Ball's Bluff National Cemetery, an artillery display and nearly 7 miles of hiking trails with scenic views. The 1-mile Interpretive Loop Trail takes visitors through the heart of the battlefield with interpretive signs describing battle actions. The 2-mile Potomac Heritage Trail leads down to the banks of the Potomac River where the Union soldiers crossed. In addition, there are five interlocking scenic trails that wind through the park. The Potomac Heritage Trail that leads down to the river is steep and rocky, but the other trails are for the most part level with even terrain making them fairly accessible. The park offers benches for sitting and relaxing and enjoying the views. The park entrance features an exhibit shelter with brochures, park information and trail maps, as well as a seating area where battlefield talks are held.

Visit Civil War Trust and Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park for battle details and battlefield park information.

Pictured at the top: Ball's Bluff Battlefield National Cemetery was established in 1865. The cemetery contains the graves of 25 unknown Union soldiers from the Battle of Ball's Bluff. The red sandstone walls were built in 1901.

Balls Bluff battlefield couple

Ball's Bluff Battlefield Park features an artillery display and interpretive signs that describe battle actions.

Balls Bluff battlefield overlook trail forest

The Ball's Bluff Battlefield Overlook Trail is one of seven miles of trails in the park. With the exception of the Potomac Heritage trail that leads down to the river, the trails are wide, level and fairly accessible.

Balls Bluff battlefield potomac river island

The Potomac Heritage Trail that leads to the Potomac River below the bluff is steep with uneven terrain, but rewards hardy hikers with scenic river views.

Historical Photo

Balls Bluff federal retreat

The Civil War in America--retreat of the Federalists after the fight at Ball's Bluff, upper Potomac, Virginia / from a sketch by our special artist.  The Illustrated London News, 1861  (Library of Congress)