The diminutive Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery is located approximately two miles from the Town of Leesburg, in Loudoun County, Va. Land for the half-acre cemetery was acquired through donation in 1865, and the government received a quitclaim deed from the original owner’s heirs in 1904. Because of its location and size, the cemetery has never required a superintendent.
Within the cemetery, which is enclosed by a brick wall, lie the remains of 54 soldiers who died during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The remains are interred in 25 graves, and the only known interment is James Allen of Co. H, 15th Massachusetts Infantry.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff began the morning of Oct. 21, 1861, with Union and Confederate forces evenly matched. The Confederates were more experienced in battlefield strategy, however. As the conflict continued, Southern troops forced the Union army back toward the bluff. The decisive blow came in the afternoon when Col. Edward D. Baker, the Union commander, was shot in the head and killed. His death spurred on the Confederate soldiers, and a Union retreat was sounded. Some Union soldiers escaped down a cart path, but the majority was forced down a steep and rocky 80-foot bluff. Soldiers who reached the Potomac River tried swimming to Harrision Island or escaped by boat or logs. Many drowned, weighed down by their clothes and ammunition. Others were shot by Confederate troops firing down from the top of the bluff. Still others were captured and marched into Leesburg.
Among the many wounded abandoned on the Virginia shore when Union forces retreated was a young first lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Although wounded several times during the war, he survived and became one of the most notable justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since the 1950s, there has been periodic interest in reinterring the remains of this cemetery to Culpeper National Cemetery and disposing of the property. Public sentiment as well as congressional censure has blocked any such action.
Ball's Bluff National Cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984.