Back to Brett's ACW Eastern Theater Book Reviews

Back to Ball's Bluff

Byron Farwell

Ball's Bluff: A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow


Updated 2/28/05 The following is a review of Ball’s Bluff: A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow (EPM, 1990), by Byron Farwell. Farwell’s book covers the October 21, 1861 Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a small fight between the Confederate Brigade of Nathan “Shanks” Evans and the Union forces under Senator Edward “Ned” Baker, in which Baker’s troops were mauled, driven off of Ball’s Bluff, and chased across the Potomac River. The book contains 239 pages, of which 220 contain the actual story. There are only a few pages at the end containing both the bibliography and an index, with no notes. In addition, there are only two maps, both on the same page at the beginning of the book. One contains a rough sketch of the area around Ball’s Bluff, including Leesburg, Virginia. The other is a poorly reproduced map of the battlefield itself, but it hardly gives the reader the kind of detail I prefer and expect out of good battle histories. This book definitely could have used more maps. There is also no Order of Battle. This is another omission for which I do not particularly care. Farwell’s book is really more for the beginning Civil War buff or the more general military history buff, as he describes some relatively simple things in detail which a veteran reader will not need an explanation for. Indeed, as the title implies, Farwell’s book is not so much meant as a minute tactical study of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff as it is a look at the oversized consequences this small fight engendered. Farwell’s main point is that Gen. Charles Stone, who commanded the Division to which Baker’s Union Brigade was attached, was unfairly made a scapegoat for the whole situation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, when Col. Baker, a very close friend of Lincoln, was clearly responsible. Farwell’s book is most definitely NOT a tactical study of the battle. Before reading this book, I had only a vague knowledge of the particulars of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. That knowledge has been increased slightly, but it still remains vague. Only three chapters focus on the fighting itself, and many times Farwell is commenting on Baker’s actions away from the fight rather than the actual maneuvering of troops. The two maps at the beginning of the book are wholly inadequate for a beginning student of the war. I have been a student of the war for the better part of my 26 years, and this allowed me to at least be familiar with where Leesburg and Loudoun County are located in reference to the main Union and Confederate Armies, and also to Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, this book is aimed at the beginning student of the war, or just students of general military history rather than those of us looking for detailed studies of Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The notes and bibliography are inadequate, and Farwell provides no order of battle. This is inexcusable. Surprisingly, I still enjoyed the book in spite of these faults. Farwell never intended this to be a tactical study, as I said in the opening sentence of my conclusion. Instead, he has put together a book looking at the injustices meted upon General Stone by everyone from his subordinates all the way to the President of the United States. Although he has few notes and a sparse bibliography to back him up, Farwell does make a convincing case with the information he did look at. It clearly shows Baker was at fault, Stone was scapegoated, and Lincoln and others in power looked the other way. Farwell kept me interested throughout, and I finished the book in only two days, a rarity for me in this extremely busy time in my life. I would recommend this book to beginning Civil War buffs with one caveat; find some decent maps of the Ball’s Bluff battlefield and the area around Leesburg, Virginia before reading the book. It will make your life a lot easier. I own another book on Ball’s Bluff called A Little Short of Boats: The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, by James A. Morgan III. I have briefly perused the book. It looks more like the tactical level study I crave, and others have told me much the same thing. If you are a wargamer or student of tactics like me, go for Morgan’s book. If you enjoy interesting history without needing to know where Regiment X was at time Y, Farwell’s book will be a nice read. There is a place on everyone’s shelf for both books, I would imagine.

For a full summary, click HERE.

239 pp., 2 maps


In Association with