Historian James Morgan will be the featured speaker and the special honoree during the annual Battle of Ball’s Bluff Remembrance Dinner next month.
The event is presented by the Friends of Ball’s Bluff, co-sponsored this year by the Mosby Heritage Area Association, to celebrate Morgan’s years promoting the battlefield—now one of the region’s best preserved and popular Civil War sites—and the important role the battle played in the war’s early days.
Morgan recently retired to the warmer climes of Charleston, SC. Organizers are hoping that his return will prompt a good attendance at the Feb. 25 program. The subject of his talk is, “The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,” which was established by Congress in reaction to the shocking Union defeat outside Leesburg on Oct. 21, 1861.
A 23-year resident of Loudoun, Morgan is regarded as a leading historian on the county’s role in that conflict. His book, a tactical study of the battle, “A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry,” is widely considered a definitive work on the subject.
Morgan is a past president of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable and was a co-founder and chairman of the Friends of Ball’s Bluff. He has written numerous articles on the Civil War for various publications.
One could say that the Civil War has always been in Morgan’s blood. A native of New Orleans, LA, his ancestors settled there after the family plantation was destroyed during the war. His ancestors fought in various battles during the war.
Morgan served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-1971, and holds master’s degrees in political science from the University of West Florida and Library Science from Florida State University. He retired in 2014 from the Department of State/U.S. Information Agency, his last position being as acquisitions librarian for the Office of International Information Programs.
After getting involved in the county’s history community, Morgan increasingly focused on developing the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield—and finding the human resources to aid in that task, especially the development of the now-popular battlefield tours offered by volunteers each weekend.
“The reality is that the Friends of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield organization would not exist if it were not for Jim Morgan,” said Robert Glenn, who serves as media officer for the organization. He noted the park attracted more than 2,000 visitors last year, in large part because of Morgan’s leadership in the guided tour program. Today, he said, the battlefield has become one “of the shining stars” of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s historic sites.
Morgan was a key advisor for the two-year effort to increase the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield National Historic Landmark, which the U.S. Dept. of the Interior expanded from 76 acres to 3,300 acres in 2016.
Mitch Diamond, a member of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission who worked on the expansion project, said Morgan is probably the nation’s leading scholar on the battle, noting that “A Little Short of Boats” had altered established views of the battle that took place along the border between the Union and the Confederacy.
The book provided a new understanding of the misunderstandings and blunders that led to the tragic engagement and to the Congressional inquiry that followed.
Morgan was one of four to receive a Loudoun History Award from the Thomas Balch Library’s Advisory Commission last November. Noting that 70 percent of Loudoun’s population has lived in the county for less than 10 years, he said that those who are cognizant of Loudoun’s history must “show the way” to newer residents.
And that’s what he’s been trying to do as a battlefield tour guide, along with his colleague Bill Wilkin.
The battlefield tours draw people from all over, Morgan said. It’s a mix of those who love to walk in the morning, take the dog for a hike, history buffs, and sometimes people who’ve just heard “there was a battle near here.” He and Wilkin have drawn up a bibliography for those interested in learning more. He tells visitors to walk the battlefield on their own, or try another guide’s group, as each has his or her own routes across the land. All guides use their own hook to tell the Ball’s Bluff story.
“Most people are really excited to learn; they’ve taken the initiative to see the battlefield,” Morgan said. Many are touched by the tiny cemetery, where Quartermaster James Moore in September 1865 came to gather the remains and to lay out the ground. Interred are the remains of 54 soldiers; it is the third smallest national cemetery in the country.
Morgan dates his interest in history to his parents, particularly, his father, who loved to read. Also, Civil War author Bruce Catton was a “tremendous influence.” Another major inspiration was historian Ed Bearss, who wrote the preface for Morgan’s book. “I modeled my style on him.”
As he was preparing to leave Loudoun, Morgan was satisfied with his efforts to preserve and promote the county’s rich history were in good hands, citing a number of experienced professionals at the helm of various organizations dedicated to preserving and further investigating Loudoun’s history of both black and white citizens.
“There’s so many good people in Loudoun who really know their stuff—that’s hard to find,” Morgan said.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff Remembrance Dinner will be from 5:30-9:30 p.m. on Feb. 25 at The Woodlands at Algonkian Park. There will be an auction on Civil War artifacts. The cost will be $45 for Friends of Ball’s Bluff members, $55 for non-members. Credit cards in advance only; walk-ins accepted with cash or check. To RSVP, contact Dale Hook at 703-352-5900; firstname.lastname@example.org; or register online at novaparks.com. The Woodlands at Algonkian is located at 47001 Fairway Drive, Sterling.