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Civil War Trust

Recreating Disaster

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Ball's Bluff
By DOUGLAS ULLMAN, JR.

Civil War Trust staff member Douglas Ullman, Jr. participated in the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Ball's Bluff in 2011.  Doug shares his experience as a soldier in the Union army.

DU at 150th Ball's Bluff
Douglas Ullman, Jr. at Ball's Bluff (Rob Shenk)

We're standing in a wood not far from Leesburg, Virginia, atop a high bluff overlooking the Potomac.  In front of me is an open expanse, perhaps one hundred yards long, at the end of which is a line of soldiers, clad in a hodgepodge of grays and browns.  An occasional blue coat — a hint that some of the boys over there were once our countrymen — completes the picture of the ragtag band of Confederates that are now working to drive us back over the bluff and into the river. 

They advance through a shroud of smoke, the black powder discharge that still hangs in the late October air.  Between us and them are two small mountain howitzers, manned by a handful of cannoneers in red-trimmed blue coats.  In the woods to my right, the 15th Massachusetts delivers a ragged volley of musketry into the flank of the Rebels, but it does little to slow their advance.  Finally, I hear one the officers commanding the howitzers bark an order to fire solid shot.  A man snaps the lanyard on the piece and the brass tube erupts with a cacophonous blast that echoes through the wooded space. 

The only thing that seems out of place in this scene is the rather large crowd of spectators lining the road to my left — that and the fact that not a single Reb went down after that howitzer blast.  Otherwise, the battle reenactment unfolding at Ball's Bluff must look strikingly similar to the real battle that took place here 150 years ago.  The opposing Federal and Confederate forces advance piecemeal as companies or regiments, fire a few volleys, and retire whence they came.  To some measure, they're testing their opponent's strength.  But, in a larger sense, they're also testing themselves as soldiers.  At least that's what our officers tell us:  "Remember, boys," says a major, "this is your first time in battle; it would be good to duck once in a while."  A respectable number of my comrades heed this advice, adding an extra hint of authenticity to the overall scene.

It is especially gratifying to watch the battle unfold around me.  A month prior to this event, I came out to Ball's Bluff to do a little scouting.  From my own reading and from the interpretive signs on the field I could deduce where each regiment should have been.  The 15th Massachusetts was in skirmish order in the woods west of the field, while Captain Frank Bartlett's  company of the 20th Massachusetts waited in reserve atop the bluff.  Baker's California Regiment stood in line of battle near the present location of the National Cemetery.  To their credit, the park has done great work to restore the battlefield to its 1861 appearance, making it much easier to conceptualize the action that took place 150 years ago.  But it is another thing entirely to turn around and see the Massachusetts troops — complete with their state-issued red blankets — standing exactly where I think they should be. 

1st California at Ball's Bluff
Reenactors portraying the 1st California advance through the open field at Ball's Bluff. (Rob Shenk)

For many reenactors, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commemorate the War Between the States by reliving it on a grand scale.  Just as the Civil War Trust hopes the sesquicentennial will spark the public's interest in saving Civil War battlefields, so, too, do living historians across the county see this commemoration as a moment when they can capitalize on the heightened awareness of the war and educate people about more than just the great battles or the war's long-term repercussions.  This battle reenactment is more than just a weekend of camping with guns and funny clothes; it is an opportunity to honor those who fought and died by educating the public about how they lived.

The 150th anniversary of Ball's Bluff is the perfect opportunity to do just that.  Unlike some other major reenactment events, which are typically held away from the actual battlefields, we are standing where the soldiers fought in 1861.  Event organizers have made an in-depth study of the battle and have recreated events as they actually occurred, on the actual ground where they occurred.  So, while the actual Battle of Ball's Bluff resulted from the incompetence and confusion of the officers commanding, this reenactment owes its success to the preparedness and experience of the folks in charge.  Each of the field officers carries a script — a series of maps that outlines each phase of the battle and indicates which troops should be where.  During one lull in the action, the major turns to us and says, "Everyone seems to be following the script—which is rare."  Everyone here wants to get it right. 

1st Cal at Ball's Bluff 2
The "California Regiment" makes it's way to the Ball's Bluff battlefield. (Rob Shenk)

This level of preparedness trickles down into the ranks as well.  The participating reenacting units are portraying troops that actually fought here.  Thus, although the unit I am with typically portrays a company from the Irish Brigade, today we are part of the 1st California, and our officers call us Californians as we proudly march under a banner emblazoned with the words "The California Regiment."  A good number of us have even gone so far as to roll up our blankets and carry them into battle, adhering to orders that were issued 150 years ago.

After a few more blasts from the howitzers, the major orders us to march to the left of the Federal position.  As we march, we are told we are going to be right next to the spectators, and that any chatter in the ranks should be related to the battle and appropriate for the period.  "No Monty Python," one man says.  Kneeling at the edge of a tree line, we peer through the trees, trying to identify the moving forms of men.  A few haphazard shots are taken, sending sheets of smoke into the darkening woods — but with no result.  In an instant, gray troops swarm out of the woods, forcing us back.  At the same moment, the troops to my right also break for the rear, creating a confused vortex of humanity caught between instincts for fight or flight .  Companies lose their cohesion in the face of the Rebel horde, and, very quickly, it's every man for himself as we reach the woods.  There, however, we find even more confusion.  Masses of blue are huddled at the top of the bluff, and even more Confederates are slipping in behind us.  The battle, such as it was, is over. 

CS at Ball's Bluff
Confederate reenactors surge toward the Federal line at the battle's climax. (Rob Shenk)

With the Civil War sesquicentennial underway, it's important to remember why we preserve these hallowed fields.  It is so that others, both of this generation and the ones that come after, can truly appreciate the sacrifices made by our ancestors — by standing where they stood.  Living history programs, especially battle reenactments, are an important part of this education process.  They offer the lure of excitement and spectacle — of loud bangs and daring charges — to encourage people who might otherwise not visit a small regional or state park to put down their books and walk the ground.  Once there, they can experience the Civil War in a much more visceral way — a way that will give them something else to ponder and dream about besides open fields and monuments.  With its high level of authenticity, and emphasis on historical accuracy, the 150th Anniversary reenactment of Ball's Bluff is the kind of event we can hope to see more of in the coming years. 

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