Symposium Spotlight: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

reporting by ECW Correspondent Jessica Goetz

“You will never have a complete story,” says Jim Morgan. That’s his take on the Civil War in general and on the battle of Ball’s Bluff, in particular.

Jim, author of A Little Short of Boats: The Civil War Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21 – 22, 1861, will offer at least a small glimpse of the story at this year’s Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. Morgan wrote about the battle in Turning Points of the Civil War because the small engagement led to a major development: the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCW). 

Jim has been a tour guide at Ball’s Bluff for years. As he and I talked, one thing that continued to rise to the surface was the idea that he could be telling the same story time after time, but each one was a different version—as if every single fact he’s learned and picked up couldn’t be touched on during an hour. If he had years, he might still even have to omit facts.

He also still finds himself shocked or surprised when someone comes forward with a version of the story all their own—with details or facts that he hadn’t heard before.

As tour guides, Jim and his colleges had decided that scripted tours were not how they wanted to present the information. “It has to be a conversation,” he said. This approach often resulted in people bringing forward different facts about relatives and personal connections with different areas of the field.

Jim has attended the ECW symposium for three years, but this will be his first year as one of the speakers. However, his journey to get there will be a bit longer this year. He moved to Charleston, South Carolina, last year.

Jim realized that it would be difficult for him to live anywhere and not get involved in the local history, and Charleston has certainly offered plenty for him to learn and explore.

Jim grew up exploring places like Fort Pickens, in Pensacola, Florida—a fort built shortly after 1812. His curiosity grew as his father read him stories of old battles. He cultivated that interest his entire life.

In 2004, when the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority estalbished the Ball’s Bluff battlefield, the company Jim worked for at the time asked him to do research on the battle. The more he investigated, the more he found that “there were a lot of inconsistencies” that did not add up. Furthermore, the effects the battle had on the war were undetectable at first glance.

He realized that while the battle was small, it had an impact. It wasn’t a “full shift” for the sides, he said, calling it, instead, “a momentum swing.”

The battle was a mess of miscommunication and confusion, and it resulted in the the death of a U.S. Senator, Colonel Edward Baker. The embarrassment it caused resulted in the creation of the JCCW—and that did have a major impact on the Union war effort.

“You have to understand what a turning point is,” Jim explained. Things need to be fundamentally different afterwards than they were before, in a way that affects the outcome. Union generals suddenly found the JCCW looking over their shoulders and armchair-generalling, which in turn affected the generalship of the generals.

Even moving away from Virginia, and down to South Carolina, Morgan said it still possible for him to stumble across new facts and stories related to Ball’s Bluff and the JCCW. Technology has paved the way for people to get easy access to a lot of the information already out there. It has also provided the means for even more people to add to the different narratives.

While parts of a story may be gathered easily, the story is never really finished. Details can be overlooked, omitted, and even forgotten. When searching for more information, driven by a curiosity that we start to see a shift in narrative that wasn’t there before. No story is ever really finished because it will continue to affect people in different ways at different times, shifting perspectives once again.

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Tickets for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Aug. 3-5, are available for $155 each. For details about the event, click here.