With a stroke of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s pen, the Balls Bluff Battlefield National Historic Landmark near Leesburg last week grew from 76 acres to more than 3,300 acres.
The action culminated a five-year effort by the Loudoun County Heritage Committee.
The landmark district was established in 1984 to recognize the national significance of the 1861 battle that occurred on the land along the Potomac River just east of Leesburg.
The landmark expansion does not alter the current size of the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Park, which remains at 223 acres. The designation is honorary and does not limit development or impose use restrictions beyond local zoning laws.
The expansion takes in land along both shores of the Potomac River, the river itself, and Harrison Island. On the Maryland side, there were locations which saw artillery bombardment across to the Virginia side of the river. On the Virginia side, the landmark now includes the site of Fort Evans, south of the battlefield.
Landowners in the landmark may be eligible for tax credits on rehabilitation projects involving any contributing structures that existed in the three-day period of the battle that began Oct. 20, 1861, when Union troops made a reconnaissance patrol across the Potomac at Balls Bluff that led to the following two-day battle.
There are only a couple of such properties on the Virginia side, but former commission Chairman William E. Wilken said there could be an opportunity on Harrison Island, for example, where there is an abandoned house and barn foundation dating to before the battle. It was where future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, who was injured in the battle, was sheltered before being taken by boat downriver to Poolesville, MD, and back home up to Beacon Hill in Boston, MA.
State funds are available for easements or purchase of significant battlefield properties, but Loudoun County Preservation Planner Heidi Siebentritt, who worked hand in hand with the commission on the project, said that the county government has no plans to extend historic district zoning to the Balls Bluff Battlefield. Much of the landmark consists of water and parkland owned by public entities, including the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and Loudoun County.
The Five-Year Process
Looking back, Commission member Lori Kimball said the project started five years ago with a request by the Leesburg Town Council to better protect the tree canopy along Edwards Ferry Road, which the council considered “a gateway into Leesburg.” County supervisors sent the issue to the Heritage Commission.
“When we looked at the maps, we saw that the Civil War Advisory Committee in the ’90s had looked at the battlefield approaches,” Kimball said. “We looked to see if we were eligible for a broader recognition.”
That decision set off a complex matrix of applications and approvals in five jurisdictions—Montgomery County, the state of Maryland, Loudoun County, the Town of Leesburg and the Commonwealth of Virginia—and the National Park Service.
The project was guided from the beginning by Wilken, who just stepped down as chairman of the panel. Kimball and Commission member Mitch Diamond took the first step, submitting the Preliminary Information Form to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Maryland Historical Trust.
Then-Commissioner W. Brown Morton III, who was instrumental in drawing the boundaries of Loudoun’s National Historic Landmark district around Waterford, suggested broadening the battlefield’s landmark boundaries, rather than seeking to create a new designation.
It was at that point that the team saw there was another story there.
Expanding the Vision
“Edwards Ferry was the heart of the battlefield,” Siebentritt said. The approaches to the battle, on both sides of the Potomac River, were not in the original landmark, but were integral to what happened, she and Kimball noted.
The commission’s initial intent was to recognize the historic and scenic land along Edwards Ferry Road and the Potomac River shores near Leesburg.
“But the whole Maryland side was left out,” noted Ball’s Bluff Civil War historian Jim Morgan, who served as battlefield adviser to the commission. His book, “A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Balls Bluff and Edwards Ferry, Oct. 21-22, 1861,” has become required reading for understanding the conflict and its significance. The 1984 Landmark consisted of land from the high-water mark on the Virginia banks, up to the top of Balls Bluff and fanning out to the cemetery and the parking lot.
Siebentritt suggested the commission seek a $60,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program to hire consultants for the process.
Diamond and Wilken lauded the work of Rivanna Associates of Charlottesville who did the research and wrote the report that formed the nomination. Diamond also credited Siebentritt for her management of the grant and steering of the project once consultants were hired.
“I loved doing it. I got to work with the Civil War Trust and Friends of Balls Bluff; it was a good learning experience for me,” Siebentritt said.
After numerous applications and reviews in Virginia and Maryland, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved the package, and it was sent to the Secretary of the Interior for final action.
“It’s great recognition for Loudoun County; overall it was a big positive,” Kimball said.
Setting the Boundaries
Being careful not to infringe on property owners’ rights required careful consideration of where the boundaries should be, Diamond said.
“We didn’t make this up; it had been studied twice before,” he said.
He noted an earlier map of the battlefield that encompassed 5,000 acres. Also years later, the American Battlefield Protection Program drew a boundary that was considerably larger than 76 acres.
“We took the latest ABPP boundary and cut out heavily developed areas, but followed their advice as closely as possible, and drew boundaries that made historic sense and had integrity,” Diamond said. “We concluded that by linking Edwards Ferry to the battlefield and expanding it, we’d do the greatest amount to honor the landscape without infringing on private property rights.”
The group held community outreach meetings and mailed out information letters to property owners, garnering broad support overall. “They understood the recognition of those who fought and died,” Kimball said.
Of 60 private landowners concerned, Diamond said one on the Virginia side and one in Maryland, sought to be excluded. However, VDHR included the Virginia property because it was deemed central to the battle.
Diamond said the biggest problem was the sheer size and intricacy of the project. Getting the grant was a major undertaking that required very careful documentation as well as a significant demonstration of community and official support.
“[The approval] will help keep the whole idea of preserving these sites in front of people and the importance of promoting local history—and we have lots of it,” Morgan said.
[Editor’s Note: W. Brown Morton III is the husband of the writer.].