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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Seventeen Miles

I got to know Craig Stevens, a strong supporter of Civil War preservation when he and I recently made a tour of the South Mountain battlefields. A couple of weeks ago, he asked me to retrace with him the path that A. P. Hill followed when he marched his Light Division from Harpers Ferry, to the sound of the guns at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862.

To prepare for my trip with Craig, I drove the route the day before our tour. I obtained a National Park Service (NPS) map from Antietam National Battlefield that shows A. P. Hill’s route from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg. If you wish to get this map when you visit the battlefield, be sure to ask specifically for the one showing A.P. Hills route. There is another map for travelers who desire the most direct path to and from Harpers Ferry. I took a third route from Sharpsburg to Harpers Ferry that followed the scenic Harpers Ferry Road along the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

Arriving in the town, I set my trip odometer to zero at John Browns’ Fort at the end of Shenandoah Street. For the first two miles, the route is a narrow gravel road called Potomac Street. The Potomac River is visible on the right along stretches of the road. Several culverts that cross the road made me fear at times for the undercarriage of my low-slung Honda Civic. I followed Potomac Street, until it joins Bakerton Road two miles outside of Harpers Ferry. If you are like most sane people, you will be unwilling to subject your car to the insults of this tortuous path. Instead, you can join the march route at Bakerton Road and only miss the first two miles. To do this, leave Harpers Ferry, and pick up US 340 south. Within a mile, turn right at Bakerton Road. For another mile or so, you will see the School House Road portion of the Bolivar Heights battlefield. Remember that this is not part of A.P. Hill’s route. When you pass under a railroad overpass that intersects Potomac Street, you are back on the way. The Potomac River will not be visible on Bakerton Road for about 2.8 miles. When you eventually see it again briefly off to your right, the road is elevated somewhat above the river. Bakerton Road then again turns inland and ends at Moler's Cross Road. The Bethesda Methodist Church known as the White Church on the NPS map is located here. This crossroad is 6.8 miles from the starting point in Harpers Ferry. There is a wayside here that describes A.P. Hill’s seventeen-mile march.

Herein lays the first interesting discrepancy I discovered on our trip. The wayside has the historic campaign map included in the Official Records (OR) Atlas Plate 29-1. It is the map titled “Map of Harpers Ferry and Sharpsburg” by Lieutenant S. Howell Brown. The wayside map depicts a different route than the one I have on the NPS map. The NPS map indicates a right hand turn at Moler’s Crossroad and a quick left about 1/10th of a mile down the road at a Christmas tree farm on to Knott Road. This road eventually returns to the river at River Road, about one mile east of the ford. The wayside map indicates a turn to the left on to Engle Moler’s Road, and a right about 1.7 miles down at Trough Road. Trough Road ends at Boteler’s Ford. I followed the NPS map route that day. It is 3.3 miles to the ford. On another day, I followed the Trough Road route to the ford. It is only 2.3 miles to the ford using Trough Road. For purposes of calculating the mileage for my trip and for this article, I am using the River Road (longer) route. However, if any of you know the definitive route that A.P. Hill took, I would like to hear from you.

So following the NPS map, I left Moler’s Crossroad and took twisting Knott Road to River Road. Unlike Bakerton Road, the River Road is much closer and just slightly higher in relation to the river. Most of the riverfront seems to be privately owned here but I managed to take a couple photographs from the road. At the intersection of River Road and Trough Road are the historical markers for the ford variously known as Pack Horse, Blackford’s, or Boteler’s Ford.

Fords as I understand the definition are places where a river is wider and shallower. For wagons, artillery, horses, and men to cross, the river bottom at a ford must be relatively smooth and free of large rocks and debris, and the banks on each side must be gentle enough to allow easy access to the river.

There is really no place to park nearby but I managed to squeeze on to the right shoulder. To my right was the river and ford. To the left were the impressive heights where the Battle of Shepherdstown was fought. The only indication that I was actually at the ford was a white “No Dumping” sign. It was a dark, drizzly day here on the river. I parked the car and followed a path down to the ford. Here at last was Boteler’s ford. At the banks of the river, two fishermen curiously watched my approach. I observed rafters standing in water only ankle deep. To the left (north) along the river, I spied remains of the milldam that was also used as a crossing by A.P. Hill. In the distance I could also see the railroad bridge that crosses the river and the Rumsey memorial column just outside of Shepherdstown. Here at this secluded spot was the location where A.P. Hill crossed on the 17th of September and where two days later, Robert E. Lee re-crossed, his dreams of a final victory lost in the blood of Antietam. This was my first time here and there was a powerful moment as I imagined all the history that passed over this quiet place.

I was starting to wonder about the distance. My trip meter indicated that I had travelled just 11.1 miles from downtown Harpers Ferry to the ford. It didn’t feel like this march would end up being seventeen miles. There would have to be another six miles to go from the other side of the ford to Harpers Ferry Road. Freezing the trip meter at 11.1 miles, I returned to my car and drove west on River Road to Shepherdstown, where the road becomes German Street. I crossed the river into Maryland and after the bridge made an immediate right on to Canal Road. Passing the boat launch at Lock 38, I parked in the large parking lot on the left further down the road. I walked down the towpath to the Boteler’s Ford wayside. Looking across the river, I spied my two fisherman friends on the other side. Like the West Virginia side, this is a place where much history has passed. It is a quiet almost idyllic spot. The rain was falling gently but it was warm enough for the rafters and a few waders to enjoy the river. Again I thought of A.P. Hills crossing around 2PM on the 17th and galloping ahead to Sharpsburg to seek out Lee. One night later, it would be the scene of Lee’s retreat back into Virginia and the end of his high hopes for a successful campaign. In another day this place would witness the Battle of Shepherdstown. I paused for another moment to reflect and then headed back down the path to the parking lot, as the rain grew heavier. I drove about 0.9 miles back down Canal Road to where the wayside on the towpath is located. Restarting the odometer, it was just 0.7 miles to the turn off from Canal Road to Millers Sawmill Road and only another 1.5 miles to the intersection of Millers Saw Mill Road and Harpers Ferry Road. According to my calculations, then it was just 11.1 miles from Harpers Ferry to the ford. After crossing the river it is an additional 2.2 miles to Harpers Ferry Road, the point where the brigades of Gregg, Branch and Archer launched their decisive assault. This is a total of only 13.3 miles.

Until now, I had not given the distance issue much thought. It is commonly held that this was a trek of seventeen miles, no doubt based on the figure that A.P. Hill himself used in his official report. Hill states that “The head of my column arrived upon the battlefield of Sharpsburg, a distance of 17 miles, at 2:30 o’clock, and reporting in person to General Lee, he directed me to take position on our right (OR, vol 19, 1:981). The reports of his brigade commanders in the OR make no other reference to a specific distance. But seventeen miles is how history largely seems to remember it. Ezra Carmen in The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, James Murfin in Gleam of Bayonets, Steven Sears in Landscape Turned Red, and A.P. Hill biographer James Robertson all repeat this assertion. Only Dr. Joseph Harsh in his classic study Taken at the Flood calls this distance into question, as “the Confederates own map make the route appear five or so miles shorter” (TATF: 418). Interestingly, the “Confederates own map” referred to by Harsh is the one used at the Moler’s Crossing wayside.

I was hard pressed to figure where seventeen miles came from. Could it be that Hill used the distance of the route that he took when he rode ahead to find Lee as the basis for his report? I came back to the ford to measure that route. I traced the route west on Canal Road from the ford to the Shepherdstown Pike and then east along that road to Cemetery Hill just east of Sharpsburg. Lee spent a lot of time that day on Cemetery Hill because it offered such a good vantage point, but with the Federal advances in the afternoon that exposed Cemetery Hill to increasing Federal artillery fire, Lee moved to a position south of the Shepherdstown Pike across from his headquarters. If Hill found Lee at Cemetery Hill, and if he followed the roads, and did not try to travel cross-country, then that is barely 16 miles from Harpers Ferry. But if Lee had moved back to his other position by the time Hill arrived, then we are back to an even shorter distance.

I have provided the attached map in an attempt to clear up the different mileage calculations I made for this study. Hill and the Light Division’s route from Harpers Ferry to the Boteler’s Ford using the NPS map, is marked in yellow. The route of Hill’s division after it crossed the ford to its attack positions at the Miller’s Sawmill Road-Harpers Ferry Road intersection is marked in red. Finally the route that A.P. Hill might have taken when he set out ahead of the division to find Lee is marked in green.

Is the actual distance that Hill and the Light Division marched be it 17 or 15 or 13 miles that day really that important? A seventeen-mile march in eight hours is a much harder prospect than a 13-mile march. If Hill’s troops started marching at 7:30 with the first troops making the 11.1 miles to Boteler’s Ford by 2:00 PM, that is a marching rate of 1.7 miles per hour. (11.1 miles divided by 6.5 hours) These troops crossed the ford and arrived in the vicinity of the battlefield around 3:40 PM. The distance of 2.3 miles (if you count the river) was made in an hour and forty minutes, a rate of about 1.4 miles per hour. (2.3 miles divided by 1.6 hours) The slower rate of march probably comes from a slower pace crossing the river, and the time needed by Hill’s commanders to put the troops into battle line. I am hardly an expert in march rates but this does not appear to be a fast speed for troops newly fed from the captured spoils of Harpers Ferry. The march rates may be academic here for this discussion. What is paramount is the arrival time and location. Had Hill’s division arrived sooner, it is possible that Lee would have sent him to the left or center of his line; and then there would have been nothing to stop Burnside’s Ninth Corps on the Confederate right. If the division had marched up the Shepherdstown Pike instead of Miller’s Sawmill Road, a distance a little closer to 17 miles, Hill would not have been in the perfect position that he was in to launch his devastating flank attack.

Craig and I discussed this the next day as we drove the route. Nothing will ever detract from the impact of Hill’s arrival on the battlefield at the decisive place and time. It was certainly his finest hour. Hill’s action at Sharpsburg cemented his reputation. Lee would later say that Hill was “the best soldier of his grade with me”. Even Jackson, a man whom Hill had a difficult relationship with going back to their days at West Point, was deeply impressed with Hill’s ability as a fighter. These impressions of Hill would remain with Lee and Jackson to literally the end of their days.

People often say that in life, it is not the destination that is important, but the journey to get there. However in this case, I would submit that Hill’s journey that day, whether seventeen miles or not, is not the issue. What counts is the fact that the destination landed him square on the dangling left flank of the Union Army. A Union Army that was within minutes of breaking Lee’s line and cutting off his own escape path back to Virginia was itself knocked back nearly to the bridge it had captured four hours earlier. Hills march and powerful assault changed the battle at the tactical level from a decisive victory for the Union with the potential for complete destruction of Lee’s Army to a draw.

10 comments:

  1. Jim,

    Excellent research! I wonder how Hill in the first place estimated that he made a 17 mile march?

    As you point out, and Harsh surmised, there is no reasonable route Hill could have taken which would give 17 miles. It was just luck then that he arrived at the right time and right place to stop Burnside's advance which could have driven Lee out of Sharpsburg and put the ford in jeopardy.

    Larry Freiheit

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  2. It's amazing how some things get locked in stone and we just accept them. I run into this all the time at that other battlefield. Good work Jim!

    John C. Nicholas

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  3. Thanks John, I really wanted to be sure about the distance but those numbers are how it works out. Hope to see you soon.

    Jim

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  4. Larry
    Like John said, sometimes we hear something so many times, we come to accept it as fact. This was the case here. I tried some different route combinations to come up with 17 miles and nothing worked out. Like you say, the bottom line is he got there when he did at the right place and time. Thanks for your post.

    Jim

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  5. I cannot think of any method that General Hill would have been able to accurately determine the number of miles his troops marched between Harper's Ferry and Sharpsburg other than relying upon a map and my understanding is that maps of that era were not always accurate. The General might have arrived at the distance of seventeen miles by relying upon an inaccurate map or he might have simply made what he thought was an educated guess. Regardless of how much captured rations his troops might have consumed prior to the march, it would seem that 1.7 miles per hour between Harper's Ferry and Boteler's Ford is a good pace considering the equipment the soldiers were carrying, the condition of the roads and the warm and humid weather. It also seems that the rate of speed would begin to decrease during the march as the troops became more exhausted. Regardless of the distance traveled, an eight hour march under the conditions that day is admirable.

    Regards,

    Ed

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  6. Ed,
    Thanks for your comment. I have thought along the lines of perhaps an inaccurate map as well. There is certainly no detracting his accomplishment of the day and to not only complete a march of whatever distance on a warm and humid day and then launch a powerful attack against the Union flank is certainly what has put Hill in the history books. I agree, it was an admirable accomplishment.
    Regards
    Jim

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  7. Jim: I am driving to Harper's Ferry from Shapsburg tomorrow and will return via Hill's route. Thanks for the inspiration! Today was my first visit to the Antietam battlefield and topography explains EVERYTHING that is unclear even after reading a thorough study like Sears' book. I am looking forward to a similar experience tomorrow as I imagine A. P. Hill's mad rush to the sound of the guns.

    Clark

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  8. Clark,
    I am glad you found the post informational and inspirational! Enjoy the ride!

    Regards
    Jim

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  9. Jim, Great work! I'm very impressed by your research...keep questioning history! Thanks for your 28 years of Army service to our nation.

    Sincerely,
    Dale

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  10. I live along the route shown above and have casually researched the route over the years. Although this is not conclusive I believe Trough Road is the road Hill followed. Several years ago a group of Hardcore re-enacters from SC followed Hill's route. I had the chance to speak with them in detail. It was amazing the nitty gritty stuff they knew about this march. In particular one gentlemen seemed to be more informed than the others and he was absolutely sure that Trough road was the authentic route. Moreover Trough road was the better road in those days, more established, wider etc. Finally as you noted it is shorter.

    WJM
    Harpers Ferry
    Occupied VA, USA

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