The sixteen-year-old boy dipped his sponge into a bucket of bleach and water and began to scrub the dirt and algae off the gravestone. It read, simply, “UNKNOWN.” Beneath the boy’s knee likely lay the shattered bones of two or more young men of about his age.
The bodies had been tossed into a wooden box and dumped into this grave — as they had in the twenty-four other graves arrayed in a semicircle within this tiny stonewalled graveyard — when they had been rounded up months after they had fallen in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. By then, wild animals and pigs had gotten to the bodies, scattering parts everywhere. And, as this was one of the first battles of the Civil War, few of the men wore any identification.
So, with the exception of one fortunate soldier, James Allen, whose name is carved into a headstone, all of the rest of the graves, bearing an unknown number of bodies, are simply “Unknown.”
We’d come all of the way from Sunnyvale, California, to Leesburg, Virginia, to honor these anonymous young men and to restore both their final home and the battlefield on which they died. That’s why half of our crew of Boy Scouts and dads were down the hill, stacking newly fallen and chainsawed trees and feeding branches into a chipper. The other half, including me, was up the hill in the lonely little graveyard, weeding, planting grass seed, restoring the flagpole — and most compellingly, scrubbing white the old headstones.
Ball’s Bluff is not a famous Civil War battle — certainly not compared to Gettysburg — where, two years later, by an awful coincidence, these same Union and Confederate units would meet again at the Angle in the center of the Union line at the farthest point of Pickett’s doomed charge. But it is an important battle nevertheless. Of the few battles in 1861, Bull Run would be the biggest, but little Ball’s Bluff, which involved only a couple thousand combatants, had the most far-reaching consequences.
Ball’s Bluff was a classic early battle of the Civil War, characterized by over-confidence, under-competence, and a lot of confusion (not least because some of the Union soldiers were wearing gray uniforms). What history tells us is that a Union reconnaissance party crossed the Potomac upriver from Washington, near Leesburg, to scout out a sizable Rebel force. They were quickly fired upon and called for reinforcements. That’s when the Union commander made the terrible mistake of sending more and more of his troops across the river before fully understanding the nature of the battle.
The result was a catastrophe: the Union troops found themselves not only climbing a steep bluff and being channeled into two ravines, but also facing withering fire from a large contingent of the enemy. One of the first to fall was the commander, Colonel Edward D. Baker. He not only led the unit, but was also the United States senator from Oregon and one of President Lincoln’s best friends. A great speaker, it was Baker who was credited with bringing Oregon and California over and winning Lincoln the election. He remains the only sitting senator to die in battle.
Now he was dead with a bullet in his brain — and after a prolonged firefight, the Confederates pushed the Union soldiers off the bluff and down the steep bank. There, trapped in the mud, while clambering for their boats, the Yankee soldiers were slaughtered: 222 of them, many of them floating past the horrified citizens of Washington days later.
By comparison with the great Civil War battles of the years to come, Ball’s Bluff was little more than a skirmish. But Americans still weren’t used to this kind of slaughter, and were appalled. A military commission was formed, scapegoated the local commander and imprisoned him; and much of the U.S. Army’s high command was re-organized. The overall effect was to terrify most of the Army’s generals out of doing anything risky involving crossing rivers — a fear sometimes used to help explain Gen. Burnside’s disastrous decisions to only use the bridges at Antietam and Fredricksburg.