Historian Jim Morgan was both the honoree and the featured speaker during Sunday’s Friends of Ball’s Bluff’s annual Remembrance Dinner, held at The Woodlands at Algonkian Regional Park.
Morgan, who recently retired and moved to Charleston, SC, was recognized for his work telling the story of the Oct. 21, 1861, battle just outside of Leesburg, as well as highlighting its importance in shaping early months of the war.
The event was co-hosted by the Mosby Heritage Area Association, on whose board of directors Morgan had served. Friends, colleagues and members of the historical fraternity gathered to pay tribute.
Morgan was the founding chairman of the Friends of Ball’s Bluff organization. Under his guidance, a strong force of volunteer guides emerged who today give weekend tours of the Ball’s Bluff battlefield.
Morgan was one of the first guides at the battlefield, and it was his first-hand experience on the ground on which the battle was fought that led him to question some earlier assumptions about the conflict.
His resulting book, “A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff & Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861” has been deemed a definitive account of the battle.
Morgan’s talk focused on the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. In 1861, a shaken Congress established the committee after a series of unexpected and humiliating Union defeats early in the war, culminating in the disaster at Ball’s Bluff at which Sen. Edward D. Baker of Oregon, a close friend of President Lincoln, was killed.
Baker’s death proved the tipping point. In December, Congress voted to establish a joint committee to examine all aspects of the war. Five Republicans and two Democrats were selected, reflecting the then Republican control of Congress. By the time committee disbanded in 1865, it had met more than 270 times, issuing a report that ran eight volumes.
Comprised of ardent abolitionists, the panel was considered “very partisan and ideological,” according to Morgan—even worse than the Spanish Inquisition courts—in its determination to dismantle slavery. However well-intentioned, the panel was considered poorly equipped to understand or analyze military decisions made by wartime commanders, and carried an anti-West Point bent. Deliberations were made in secret, with no public hearings, although members routinely leaked their work to the press. Morgan acknowledged the committee did uncover corruption in military supply contracts.
For some military leaders, in particular Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone, whose actions at Ball’s Bluff, Morgan said, were unfairly and harshly judged—it resulted in imprisonment and disgrace. Confessing himself an admirer of Stone, Morgan said “it was like a Greek tragedy,” adding the general would have been better off had he been judged by an Inquisition court.
Stone’s career was over. “He was hit worse than anyone else,” according to Morgan.
Following dinner, the accolades to Morgan flowed, as Jim Anderson—who succeeded Morgan as chairman—outlined plans for the year, including the new partnership with Balls Bluff Elementary School—to expand the Friends of Ball’s Bluff’s educational outreach.
NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert saluted the agency’s partnership with the battlefield group, saying the volunteers’ assistance had been phenomenal.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) read a lengthy tribute to Morgan entered into the Congressional Record, while Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk also gave tribute to Morgan on behalf of the town.
MHAA Executive Director Jennifer Moore called Morgan a team player, always someone she could rely on for practical advice and willingness to “roll up his sleeves” to get the job done.
Former MHAA Executive Director Rich’ Gillespie rounded out the tributes. He called Morgan a critical member of the MHAA board with had very high standards and one who always did his own research. “What is your source for that,” Morgan would routinely query, Gillespie noted.
Gillespie had been impressed by Morgan’s willingness—ever since he first arrived in the county—to pitch in with whatever was needed—serving as “a perfect model of the outsider becoming the insider.”
Although on different sides of the political fence—Morgan a staunch Reagan Republican and Gillespie a Democrat—Gillespie said nevertheless they could find common ground.
“We could always listen to each other,” he said.
Learn more about the battle and Friends of Ball’s Bluff’s at novaparks.com.