"The American Civil War in a Global Context"
George Mason University
Center for the Arts
4373 Mason Pond Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Peter N. Stearns, Conference Chair
Pre-Conference Lecture (Free - Registration not required)
GMU Johnson Center
George's - 3rd floor
"Treason, Stupidity, or Cowardice":
The Union Defeat at Ball’s Bluff and the Formation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
Department of History and Art History
Two of the Civil War’s first battles—both notable disappointments for the Union—took place in northern Virginia not far from Fairfax. The July 1861 battle at Manassas, and a smaller battle the following October at Ball’s Bluff near Leesburg, were both marked by confusion, disorganization, and panic. In hindsight, the confusion and disorganization were the predictable results of throwing raw recruits with precious little military training into combat under officers with precious little command experience.
But in the North, where most expected a brief war that would shatter what many Northerners still regarded as a fragile rebellion without broad support, the reversals came as a shock. The twin defeats also called the Lincoln administration’s ability to manage the war into question. The disaster at Ball’s Bluff was particularly infuriating: described as a lopsided “massacre, ” one State Department clerk suggested it could only be the product “of either treason, or of stupidity, or of cowardice, or most probably of all three combined.” The battle, which resulted in the death of four dozen Union soldiers (including Lincoln’s old Illinois friend Edward Baker) and inflicted nearly a thousand casualties on the North, had a devastating effect on Union confidence.
In response to the perceived mismanagement of the Army under Lincoln’s administration, Congress moved to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. That group of congressmen met throughout the conflict, determined to investigate the Union war effort, allocate blame for its setbacks, and advise the President regarding matters of military policy and strategy. Though later battles dwarfed Ball’s Bluff in terms of scale and casualties, its importance in shaping the Union’s civil-military relations cast a long shadow on the struggle.