As most Civil War buffs know, there is just something about standing on the actual spot where events occurred that transforms words in a history book into something real and tangible. As a historical fiction author, I have found visiting battlefields and historic sites imperative for getting the feel of places and events, even if I have to imagine the sounds and scenes of battle.
Last year I had the great honor of taking part in the Potomac River Crossing at White’s (Conrad’s) Ford, to commemorate the 1862 crossing of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland. The event takes place again this Saturday, and if I didn’t have to work, I would most definitely be there to take part again.
Sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Maryland Division, Colonel William Norris Camp #1398, the event is a great day of fellowship, history and good Southern cooking – so if you’re in the area I urge you to go.
The actual crossing of General Lee’s army took place in September of 1862 after they had defeated the Army of the Potomac in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Over three days, Lee moved 30,000 men and 246 cannon across the Potomac—though not all at White’s Ford. Lee split the army, some crossing at Point of Rocks, some at Noland’s Ferry and still others at Cheek’s Ford.
At White’s Ford, on the very ground (and rocks) on which I stood last year, Stonewall Jackson’s Command crossed on Sept. 5, followed by J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Division. The next day, James Longstreet’s Command along with McLaws and Anderson’s Divisions crossed there.
To get to the crossing point, participants must pass by Lock #26 of the C&O Canal. Being an admirer of Jeb Stuart, I know a little more about his hurried crossing at White’s Ford in October of 1862 than I do of Lee’s crossing in September. Stuart’s passage came after his raid into Chambersburg, and was made under great pressure from pursuing Federal forces.
With his rearguard in imminent danger of being cut off, Stuart placed John Pelham with one gun to hold off the attacking force long enough to get the lagging rearguard across. John Blackford, who went out in search of the lost rearguard and directed them to hurry upon finding them, writes in his book War Years with Jeb Stuart, “We could hear the boom of Pelham’s gun in the distance, and as long as that continued in action, I knew the way was still open.” As the rearguard rode toward White’s Ford, Blackford says, “There stood Pelham with his one gun on the towpath of the canal, holding open the gap.”
That towpath is the path I walked to the river and back last year. And Lock #26, where a huge, old tree still stands, is the area where Pelham had placed his gun.
Blackford continues, “We were not half across when the bank we had left was swarming with the enemy who opened a galling fire upon us, the bullets splashing the water around us like a shower of rain.”
The members of the William Norris Camp are great hosts and I highly recommend this annual event to anyone who enjoys walking in the footsteps of history.