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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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New York Soldier Returns Home (Final)

Here is the U.S. Army video about the return of the New York soldier from the Antietam National Battlefield two weeks ago. My son Jim and I had the honor to be asked to be the Union soldier honor guard for the ceremony. It was quite a privilege.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Somewhere in the Middle of the Potomac River

Saturday was the second annual Wading of the Potomac at Boteler’s Ford. This occasion commemorates the Battle of Shepherdstown fought on September 20, 1862. The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association sponsored the event. It included two separate wadings, the first led by Maryland Campaign historian and Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) President Tom Clemens, and the second by Thomas A. McGrath author of Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862. Afterward Ed and Carol Dunleavy hosted a barbeque for the hikers at their home.

I was unable to make the trek last year and was looking forward to this day for quite awhile. I was part of the first group who hiked with Tom Clemens. We were shuttled from the Dunleavy’s and dropped off on the Maryland side of the Potomac at Boteler’s Ford. Tom led us to the C&O Canal towpath where he recounted the story of Lee’s retreat on the night of September 18th and the pursuit the next day by Fitz John Porters Union Fifth Corps. We were ready to hit the water! It was a wonderful late summer day with scarcely a cloud in a gorgeous blue sky. The beautiful Potomac flowed majestically by us – a brown ribbon sparkling with golden flecks of sunlight. As I gingerly made my way into the river, I was surprised how warm the water was. Equally surprising was the water level – a bit deeper than I thought. It is generally a fairly smooth river bottom, one of several criteria that Tom identified for a stretch of the river to be considered a ford. Others include easy access for entrance and egress to the river, and a water level shallow enough to allow the passage of wagons, artillery, ambulances, men and horses. We were crossing a little south of a mill dam clearly visible to the right. The dam was built to funnel water into a waterway that was used as a power source for a cement factory on the (West) Virginia shore. Ahead of us loomed the heights that dominate the river ford and are a key part of the Shepherdstown battlefield. The crossing was proceeding nicely. There were a lot more underwater plants in the river than I expected. I had to watch my balance in a fairly swift current with a bit of a slippery bottom. I pulled out the camera and filmed a 360 degree panorama video in the middle of the river which is displayed below. As I neared the West Virginia




side the river bottom noticeably deepened and grew progressively muddier as I neared the shore. I lost my crocks in the muddy bottom but they obligingly floated to the surface for me to retrieve them. It was a little tricky extricating myself from the muddy river bottom but I managed. We regrouped and put on dry socks and hiking shoes. Tom then led us north along a river path and showed us the ruins of the old Boteler cement factory and several kilns (photo at left). Here, terrified Union fugitives from the 118th Pennsylvania cowered after their precipitous retreat back to the river caught between Confederate rifle and short fused Union artillery fire. We moved up to the River Road and saw for the first time at close range, the cliffs that tower over the river (see photo below left). The path over these cliffs taken by these retreating Corn Exchange soldiers would be the death of many of these green troops. Moving inland from the river along a draw used by advancing Union soldiers earlier in the battle Tom described the action using the fine maps from McGrath’s book. We ended up at the furthest advance of the Union line on the field where troops from Pender’s Brigade first struck the Federals forcing them to start their disastrous retreat. On the way back to the Dunleavy’s we made a final stop at the Osbourn farm. The photo at the bottom left is a look north from the farm. Pender's Brigade would be attacking in that direction toward the advanced Federal positions.

This was a very well organized and informative tour of the Shepherdstown Battlefield. My hat is off to everyone in the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association for putting this together. Tom Clemens and Tom McGrath presented excellent tours and Ed and Carol Dunleavy opened their home and offered a wonderful table afterward. I can only envision that the interest and participation in the tour will be even greater next year. I know that I am already looking forward to it.

More important, today’s program has motivated me to learn more about this important battle. Tom McGrath’s book is a good place to start. I was well into it and had hoped to finish before today. And from what I have read which is over half the book, it is an exceptional treatment of this battle. Equally important is the need for all of us to support every effort to preserve a field that as Tom Clemens describes it as the place where Lee realized that his Maryland Campaign had come to an end. Learn more about it at the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Civil War Battles and Battlefields

My friend Steven Mynes has a great blog that documents his visits to Civil War battlefields. It is called Civil War Battles and Battlefields. I ran into Steve at the battlefield hikes at Antietam on September 17th. He has an excellent post here on the early morning hike around the Cornfield. At the left is a photo by Alexander Gardner of the D.R. Miller farm house which is located west of the Cornfield. Take a moment to look over Steve's blog.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A New York Soldier Goes Home 147 Years Later

I echo John Hoptak's sentiments that no one out there expresses the feeling and emotion better than Antietam Ranger Mannie Gentile did today in describing the ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery where the remains of a young New York soldier killed 147 years ago in the Cornfield were sent on their way home. See Mannie's post here, and his You Tube video below.
My son Jimmy, also a volunteer, and I had a small part to play as the Civil War Union soldier honor guard at the ceremony. Jimmy (in the photo taken just before the ceremony) is just 18. In that uniform, I could envision a young man much like my son. This week if you are of a mind, think of the sacrifice of the soldiers at Antietam, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice that day almost exactly 147 years ago, and those who soldiered on after that. And remember too, those who serve in our armed forces today. Freedom is not free.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Antietam Commanders: Part 2 George B. McClellan


Note: This is the second of two biographies I am posting here on the Antietam Commanders. They are part of a presentation that I have made on a number of occasions to senior federal government managers. It is part of a leadership development program that looks at the words and deeds of senior Antietam commanders and how they relate to leadership competencies that are part of today's Federal government Senior Executive Service (SES). Today is General McClellan's story. The narrative ends as the sun rises on the morning of September 17, 1862.


George Britton McClellan commanded the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam. McClellan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 3, 1826, the son of a prominent physician. Raised in the upper classes of Philadelphia society, young McClellan received an excellent education and at the age of 15, gained admission to West Point. Graduating in 1846 and ranking second in his class, he selected the elite Corps of Engineers for his military branch. Among his classmates was Thomas Jackson, known in the Civil War as “Stonewall” Jackson. War with Mexico was underway when McClellan graduated. He was immediately sent to join the staff of General Winfield Scott in his campaign to capture Mexico City. McClellan performed dangerous scouting missions and placed siege artillery in several battles. He received two honorary promotions known as brevets up to the rank of captain for his actions. After the war, this young and upcoming officer wrote a manual for the bayonet, designed a cavalry saddle (that was used into the 20th century), and was a military observer in Europe during the Crimean War between Russia and England and France. While there, McClellan learned Russian in three months and translated a Russian army manual into English. However, he had grown bored with the slow promotions and lack of challenging assignments in the peacetime army and resigned in 1857. His last assignment was with the First Cavalry Regiment then commanded by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner. Sumner would one day work for McClellan as one of his corps commanders. McClellan was hired as chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. He proved to be a successful railroad executive, and by the start of the Civil War had risen to President of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. When
Fort Sumter was fired on, McClellan, a soldier at heart eagerly returned to the Army. Such was his reputation that the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio all offered him command of their troops. Accepting the offer from Ohio, McClellan led a campaign into West Virginia defeating a small Confederate Army there in June of 1861. While not present on the battlefield, McClellan nevertheless got credit for one of the earliest Union victories of the war. In the moment of great crisis following the Union defeat at Bull Run in July of 1861, Lincoln ordered McClellan to Washington and gave him command of the forces defending the capital. His promotion to Major General in the Regular Army at the tender age of 34 made him the second highest-ranking officer in the United States Army after old General Scott, his former commander in Mexico. McClellan quickly demonstrated his organizational genius by building the powerful Army of the Potomac out of the green Union troops flooding into Washington. He was the hero of the hour. His officers and men loved him. But typical of McClellan throughout his life, he could never get along with his superiors. He and Scott soon clashed on a wide range of issues. McClellan’s youth, energy, enthusiasm and a fair amount of political scheming, soon wore down the old general. Finally, Scott, America’s preeminent soldier for the last 50 years retired late in 1861 and was replaced by George McClellan, now General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Through the fall and winter of 1861, the Army remained around Washington despite increasing demands for action from Congress and Lincoln’s cabinet; demands which McClellan flatly ignored. While beloved by his men, McClellan continued to be a difficult man for his superiors to deal with as General Scott could attest to. He viewed politicians in general and the President in particular as social and intellectual inferiors. He was a War Democrat, not a Republican. He opposed a “hard war” against the people of the south longing for the nation’s return to status quo ante bellum – the way things were before the civil war. McClellan disliked slavery but did not think emancipation should be government policy. His fundamental policy disagreements with the administration and Congress, penchant for secrecy, and continued refusals to take to the field made him many powerful enemies in Washington. Lincoln patiently stood by the general but counseled him in increasingly urgent terms to “strike a blow”. In the spring of 1862, McClellan was finally ready to move. Instead of advancing directly south toward Richmond and protecting Washington as the President clearly preferred, McClellan took an indirect approach. Known as the Peninsular Campaign, he transported the Army of the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and landed it on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, threatening Richmond from the east. Had McClellan moved quickly, this strategy might have been successful. However, he believed himself outnumbered and conducted a cautious campaign that ground slowly toward the Confederate capital. The Confederates under McClellan’s friend Joseph avoided battle until five miles from Richmond. At Fair Oaks, Johnston finally attacked McClellan on May 31, 1862. During this battle, Johnston was seriously wounded. Jefferson Davis who was on the battlefield “temporarily” replaced Johnston with Robert E. Lee. At the end of June, Lee launched a series of bloody attacks known as the Seven Days Battles which drove McClellan away from Richmond. Frustrated with McClellan’s lack of success and fearing for the safety of the capital, Lincoln ordered the Army transported back to Washington in early August 1862. Many of McClellan’s troops were funneled to the Army of Virginia commanded by John Pope. By the time he returned to the Washington area at the end of August, McClellan was essentially a commander without an army. Meanwhile, with the threat to Richmond gone, Lee advanced rapidly north, and in a brilliant campaign crushed Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30-31, 1862. Maintaining the initiative and momentum Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Maryland on September 4, 1862. Again, in a moment of crisis, Lincoln turned to McClellan, despite the universal opposition of his cabinet. He ordered McClellan to pursue and destroy the Rebel Army which was now deep in Maryland. McClellan, to his credit quickly reorganized and revitalized his demoralized forces. But in typical fashion believing himself heavily outnumbered, he conducted a slow and cautious pursuit of Lee. McClellan’s fortunes dramatically improved upon the discovery of a lost copy of Lees operational plans at Frederick on September 13, 1862. They showed the Rebel Army to be divided and widely dispersed. Pushing aside weak Confederate forces at South Mountain on September 14th, McClellan found Lee with Longstreet’s command of 18,000 men boldly standing on the banks of Antietam creek. Believing that the rolling hills across the Antietam hid an army nearly as large as his 87,000 man force, McClellan spent the next two days perfecting his battle plans while Stonewall Jackson’s command, flush with victory at Harpers Ferry arrived at Sharpsburg and doubled the size of Lee’s Army. He established his headquarters at the Pry House and though nearly two miles away, had a clear view of the Union center and right. McClellan’s plan was to strike both of Lee’s flanks and force him to commit his reserves to one or both of the threatened sides of his line. McClellan would then launch his reserves against the weakened Confederate center and achieve a decisive breakthrough that would destroy Lee’s Army. As the sun rose on the morning of September 17, 1862, McClellan could observe his plan unfold as Hooker’s First Corps began its attack on the Union right. The bloodiest day in American history had begun.

The Antietam Commanders: Part 1 Robert E. Lee


Note: As we approach the 148th anniversary of the decisive battle of the Civil War, I thought I would share two biographies that I have developed and used in a program I call Antietam Leadership Lessons. It is a presentation that I have now made on a number of occasions to senior federal government managers. It is part of a leadership development program that looks at the words and deeds of senior Antietam commanders and how they relate to leadership competencies that are part of today's Federal government Senior Executive Service (SES). Today is General Lee's story. The narrative ends as the sun rises on the morning of September 17, 1862.

Robert Edward Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation in Virginia. A son of one of Virginia’s oldest families, Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry Lee led Washington’s cavalry in the Revolutionary War. Later on, the elder Lee served as governor of Virginia. A series of bad business ventures landed Lee’s father in debtor’s prison for a time. Seeking to restore his poor health, Lee journeyed to the West Indies, when young Robert was six and the boy never saw him again. Henry died in 1818 on his way home. His father’s circumstances had a profound effect on Lee. Though proud of his father’s wartime and political accomplishments, Lee was determined to conduct himself honorably and responsibly. Raised by his mother in somewhat modest circumstances, the prospect of a free college education and Lee’s family connections secured for the young man an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point in 1825. One of the senior classmen when Lee entered the academy was one Jefferson Davis from Mississippi. Lee graduated in 1829 ranked number two in his class. Selecting the elite Corp of Engineers as his branch, Lee served with distinction in various fortification and levee building projects around the nation in the 1830 and early 1840s. In 1831, he married Mary Custis, a great granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first husband. Together they raised seven children and enjoyed a happy stable home life. Over the years Mary suffered increasingly from arthritis which ultimately invalided her. In 1847, Winfield Scott, commander in chief of the US Army selected Captain Lee as one of the senior engineers for his expeditionary force in Mexico. Lee distinguished himself in several brilliant and daring reconnaissance’s deep behind enemy lines. Wounded at the battle of Chapultepec, Lee received three brevets for gallantry ending the war as a brevet colonel. His wartime success won for him the undying respect and admiration of his commander and mentor General Scott. Among the other engineers on Scott’s staff that Lee came to know was young 20 year old George McClellan, fresh out of West Point. After the war Lee resumed duties as an engineer. In 1852 he was selected to be the Superintendent of West Point. Lee improved the curriculum and facilities and spent a lot of time with the cadets. Among them were his eldest son Custis, and a young Virginian by the name of James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart. In 1855, Lee transferred to the cavalry and was assigned as the lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas. His commanding officer was another future Confederate general Albert Sydney Johnston. This was a trying time for Lee. His duty alternated between serving on court martials and pursuing the elusive Apache Indians in western Texas. The long months far away from his family were particularly difficult. In 1859 while home on leave, Lee was placed in command of the military force sent to capture John Brown at Harpers Ferry. In 1861 after 32 years in the Army, Lee was promoted to Colonel and given command of the 1st Cavalry Regiment. As the secession crisis deepened and Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lee on April 18, 1861, was offered a senior command in the Union Army by his old mentor Winfield Scott. He declined the offer, swearing to only raise his sword in the defense of his home state of Virginia. On April 19th, Virginia seceded from the Union, and Lee with a heavy heart resigned from the US Army the next day. He was offered and accepted command of the Virginia state forces on April 23, 1861. When the Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Lee was promoted to the rank of full General in the Confederate Army on June 14, 1861. For the next nine months, Lee served in two unfulfilling and thankless assignments. He first commanded troops in Western Virginia who were defeated by George McClellan in July of 1861. Later he was responsible for the fortification of the southeastern coast. Lee’s apparent relegation to these two assignments left some with the impression that Lee was a man who had not lived up to his potential. However Jefferson Davis was not among those who shared these sentiments. Summoned back to Richmond from Charleston in March of 1862, Lee became the President’s principal military advisor. He orchestrated Stonewall Jackson’s successful Valley Campaign in March of 1862 which threatened the Northern capital and denied reinforcements to General McClellan’s army at a critical time as it slowly advanced down the Peninsula toward Richmond. Then on May 31, Joseph Johnston commanding the Army in front of Richmond was seriously wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines. Davis, who was on the field of battle with Lee immediately placed his trusted lieutenant in what many viewed as temporary command of the Johnston’s army. For the next three weeks, Lee ordered the army to dig in as he reorganized and planned. He earned the nickname of “Granny Lee” and the “King of Spades” for his seeming unwillingness to fight and propensity for digging in. Porter Alexander, a Confederate staff officer with the Army asked an aide to President Jefferson Davis if he thought Lee had audacity enough to lead a field army. “Lee is audacity personified,” the man replied. “His name is audacity, and you need not be afraid of not seeing all of it that you will want to see.” That prophecy came true less than three weeks later when Lee launched a series of bloody attacks against McClellan’s forces. Lee was never quite able to trap and destroy the Union Army largely because of the inexperience of his own commanders, and tenacity of the Union soldiers. Nevertheless he drove the Federals back 30 miles. With the threat to Richmond reduced, Lee divided his army. He remained with Longstreet to observe McClellan and sent Stonewall Virginia back into the Shenandoah Valley to confront another advancing Union Army under John Pope. When Lincoln ordered the return of McClellan’s Army to the Washington area, Lee and Longstreet rejoined Jackson northwest of Fredericksburg and in a three week campaign smashed Pope’s Army at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30-31. In less than 10 weeks, Lee had virtually cleared the state of Virginia of northern troops. Lee now had the initiative and had to decide what his next step would be. Lee advised President Davis of the desirability of moving into Maryland. Having worked closely with President Davis in previous assignments and knowing his demand for constant, up to date and detailed information, Lee maintained a regular correspondence with the President throughout his command. Davis, himself a West Point graduate and former Secretary of War in the Pierce administration considered himself a military expert and would have much preferred a general officers commission in the Confederate Army to the Presidency. A distant and often extremely difficult man to work with, Davis never established the same amiable working relationship with any of his other army commanders, as he had with Lee. Davis therefore readily concurred with Lee’s proposal. Though much reduced by battle, fatigue and straggling, Lee’s army now aptly named the Army of Northern Virginia, crossed the Potomac River into Maryland on September 4, 1862. Lee’s plan was to draw the defeated Union Army out of its Washington fortifications and deep into Maryland or Pennsylvania. There, he expected to inflict a final devastating defeat on ground of his choosing and end the war. On September 9th his army was resting at Frederick. Lee developed Special Order 191, his plan for the capture of Harpers Ferry and the resumption of his offensive. He again divided his army and sent Stonewall Jackson to clear Harpers Ferry. Lee moved with Longstreet, to Hagerstown Maryland, and left a thin line of infantry and cavalry to guard his rear along the South Mountain passes. Lee was confidant that the Union Army would not appear until long after Jackson had captured Harper’s Ferry and rejoined him near the Pennsylvania border. But his plans went awry. It took Jackson longer than planned to encircle Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, McClellan advanced faster than Lee anticipated. Moving into Frederick, he discovered a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 left in a farm field near one of the Confederate camps. McClellan now realized that he was perfectly positioned between the widely separated wings of Lee’s Army to defeat each one in detail. McClellan’s push through the passes on September 14th forced Lee to reconsider his campaign. With Harpers Ferry still besieged and McClellan between the two wings of the Army, Lee briefly considered withdrawing into Virginia. However, Jackson’s message late on the 14th predicting the eminent surrender of Harpers Ferry the next day convinced Lee to stand his ground in Maryland. He withdrew Longstreet’s battered forces to the west bank of Antietam Creek and boldly awaited McClellan’s approach. When the sun came up on the morning of September 17, 1862, Lee’s army of less than 40,000 men faced the Union Army of the Potomac with nearly 87,000 men. Somewhere out there among those 40,000 men was Lee’s 18 year old son, Robert E Lee Jr, a private in an artillery battery sure to be in the most severe of the fighting. The bloodiest battle in American history was about to begin.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Great Addition to your Civil War Library

Every month, we see one or two new books out on the Civil War. Certainly if I had unlimited resources, I would be doing a lot more buying than I do now. So it is important to be discriminating in my purchases. Our Boys Did Nobly, John Hoptak's latest book is an important addition to the scholarship on the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, and very likely the turning point in the American Civil War. As a native of Schuylkill County Pennsylvania where the three regiments originated and a National Park Service ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, Mr. Hoptak brings an intimate knowledge of the terrain, soldiers, and tactics of these battles to his book. This work is not just narrowly focused on the actions of these three Pennsylvania regiments. It is also an excellent overall account of the Maryland Campaign itself. It covers the origination of the three regiments in the first year of the war and then focuses on their roles in this campaign from the opening moves of Confederate General Robert Lee in the invasion of Maryland, to Union General George McClellan’s countermoves, to the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam.

Mr. Hoptak is an excellent storyteller and his style is clear and easy to follow. Important for me, he punctuates his story with the actual times that events occur so one gets a good sense of the chronology. The work contains many never before seen first hand quotations and photographs of the participants, has an excellent and beautifully rendered set of maps by Antietam Ranger Mannie Gentile, and is extremely well footnoted. Often overlooked in the Maryland Campaign is the Battle of Crampton’s Gap (seen in the photo). It receives a very thorough telling here.

If you think this is just the story of three Pennsylvania regiments, look again. Whether new to the Civil War or a seasoned enthusiast, you will learn much about the Maryland Campaign that only an author of Mr. Hoptak’s knowledge and writing skill can offer. I highly recommend this book. Get it at the Antietam Book Store, or here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Soldier Found At Antietam to Be Buried in Saratoga New York

Here is an article that appeared on September 4, 2009 in the Albany Times Union by staff writer Dennis Yusko detailing the burial of the New York soldier found in the Cornfield last October. According to the article, the New York Army National Guard, National Park Service and U.S. Veterans Administration plan to bury the soldier's remains on September 17, 2009 the 147th anniversary of the battle. Don Roy, director of the New York Military Force Honor Guard, will retrieve the remains from Antietam on September. 15. They will stay overnight at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. On September 16, the coffin will be taken to the State Military Museum in Saratoga Spring New York where the Saratoga cemetery's Honor Guard and 125th NYVI will guard it. The coffin will remain on public display through the evening. The next day, a procession will bring the soldier's remains to the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery for interment with full military honors set for 10 a.m. September 17. The soldier will become the first unknown soldier buried in that cemetery.

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.