HomeStudent Lesson Plan - Ball's Crossroads Skirmish

Student Lesson Plan - Ball's Crossroads Skirmish

The following lesson plan requires a combination of completing four tasks.  These include watching videos, reading, analyzing primary source material, and finally a written assignment.

Skirmish Drill
Union soldiers conducting skirmish drill

Historical Background
It’s been over 160 years since the start of the Civil War and many Arlington County students are unaware of the history that took place in their backyards. Overshadowed by the major battles that were to take place later in the war, the early military engagements in Arlington are a forgotten period of US history.
On August 27th, 1861, several companies of the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry, ventured into Four Mile Run Valley, near today’s Bluemont Park.  While starting to climb Upton’s Hill the New York troops came under fire from several hundred Confederate Troops.  The skirmish, which lasted several hours, was reported in the New York Times.  It was called the Ball’s Crossroad Skirmish. 

Task #1
Watch the following videos to review the events leading up to the Civil War.

Following the rebel attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina on April 12, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln called up 75,000 troops to defend Washington, D.C.  After Virginia’s Referendum Vote to secede on May 23, 1861 Lincoln ordered over 10,000 Union troops to occupy the Arlington Heights overlooking the Potomac River.

Over the next several months additional troops coming from all over the north, set up camps throughout Arlington.  These inexperienced volunteer regiments sent out skirmishers and pickets to find out where the Confederates were.  Eventually both sides engaged militarily and all throughout the county there were small skirmishes.

Watch the following video to learn about the Arlington Mill Skirmish, the first military engagement to take place in Arlington.

Mapping the Civil War in Arlington:
Today there are a number of well-known digital collections that provide access to primary source material. One such collection is called Mapping the Civil War in Arlington. Mapping includes regimental histories, photographs, and historic newspaper articles that are associated with well-known Arlington landmarks like Four Mile Run and Upton’s Hill.

One of the goals of Mapping is to help students “rediscover” Arlington’s Civil War history and to teach you how to “think historically.” To better under the concept of historical thinking,  watch the following brief video: 

Task #2

Visualizing History: Arlington and the Civil War

23rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment:
Many of the Union soldiers that came to Arlington were from New York.  One well-known regiment was the 23rd New York Volunteers.  Organized in Elmira, New York, the 23rd New York or also known as the “Southern Tier Regiment” arrived in Arlington in early August of 1861. The regiment of about 900 soldiers, set up camp near Ball’s Crossroads, known today as Ballston.  Two weeks earlier the Union army, led by General McDowell had marched out to Manassas and fought with Confederate forces defending the strategic railroad junction there. The July 21, 1861 Battle of Bull Run was fought by two inexperienced armies. There was fierce fighting on both sides, but Union forces eventually withdrew and retreated back to Washington. 

The unexpected Union defeat caused panic in Washington. Confederate forces under the command of General James Longstreet moved closer in.  They occupied the strategic Munson and Upton Hills.  The 23rd New York immediately found itself in a theater of war.  For the next several weeks skirmishes between Union and Confederate soldiers occurred on a regular basis. 

In the early part of the war Union troops entering into Northern Virginia lacked updated maps.  Review one of the war's first maps that showed Arlington in the summer of 1861. Take a look at the following map.  Why was Arlington and it's hilly terrain strategic to the Union Army? (Hint: what is across the Potomac River?)

Seat of War Map

The Civil War was the first large military conflict documented by photography. During the war, dozens of photographers--both as private individuals and as employees of the Confederate and Union Governments--photographed civilians and civilian activities; military personnel, equipment, and activities; and the locations and aftermaths of battles. Because wet-plate collodion negatives required from 5 to 20 seconds exposure, there are no action photographs of the war.

One of the most famous Civil War photographers was Mathew B. Brady.   While he actually may have taken only a few photographs of the war, he employed many of the other well-known photographers including Alexander Gardner during the conflict. Since Mathew Brady had a photography studio in Washington, he and other photographers often visited Arlington to take photographs of the Union soldiers and their camps.  These historic images provided a visual legacy of Arlington’s role during the war.

Today, historians use photographs as a primary source to study the war.  They examine these images for clues about who was there, what equipment was used, what the landscape was like, and even how people behaved.  Thanks to the Library of Congress and other organizations, thousands of these images are now available online.

The early war in Arlington was well documented by journalists, illustrators, and photographers.  In addition, the soldiers wrote diaries and letters back home to loved ones.  Today, many of these primary source documents, including newspaper articles, illustrations, and photographs are available online for historians to research.  While relatively new, photography was growing in popularity.  At the start of the war many photographers entered into Arlington to take photographs of the Union camps.  Some even set up portable studios to take portraits of the soldiers.

Watch the following video about early Civil War photography.

Photograph Analysis 
Historians analyze photographs to better understand how people lived during a specific historic period.

Step 1: Go to the following links and select one photograph.

Soldiers of the 23rd New York Volunteers

Camp Life of the 23rd New York

Assorted Images of the 23rd New York

Step 2: Take your time and look at the photograph you selected.   Looking at your photograph, complete the Photograph Analysis Tool, to learn strategies on photographic analysis. When you finish, compare your findings with your classmates who analyzed the same photograph.

Task #3: Researching Primary Sources
You are a reporter for the New York Times and are covering the Civil War in Arlington. Many of the soldiers in the Union Army are from New York State. Your readers are very interested in the war and what their husbands, fathers, and sons are doing in Virginia.

You just learned that there was a skirmish between Union and Confederate forces in the Four Mile Run Valley, at the base of Upton’s Hill.  For the past several days there has been increased military activity and it appears this engagement involved several hundred soldiers.  Read the following primary source accounts of the event:

Read the following primary resources

Camp Fires of the 23rd

The Civil War Papers of Lt. Colonel Newton T. Colby, New York InfantryNew York Times Articles

New York Times Articles

Task #4: Final Assignment - Writing about history

Working together in groups or as an individual student  choose from the following:

  • Pretend that you are a journalist and write a short newspaper article.  Remember that you have to be concise since you are going to submit it by telegraph back to your editor.  But make sure that it is interesting.

  • Write an article for the Arlington Historical Society explaining the significance of the Ball's Crossroads Skirmish as a military engagement.

  • Pretend that you are a soldier from the New York 23rd and write a letter home to your family describing life in the army and the Ball’s Crossroads skirmish.