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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Note: the wading of the Potomac River from Maryland to Shepherdstown, West Virginia is an annual event sponsored by the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association.

A single calendar page shy of the 20th, and though 147 years had intervened, this day in September 2009 bore similarities to that one in 1862. The day of the week was the same, the blue of the skies matched, the clouds spaced in the same intermittent patterns, and the numbers on the thermometers were almost unchanged.

A day shy of September 20th, I stood with a group of twenty-two people eying the Maryland shoreline, the greenish tint of the Potomac, and the not so distant West Virginia side of the river, with its 60 foot cliffs looming in the background, listening to the instructions of our tour leader Tom McGrath, much in the same way that my third great-grandfather, then a Corporal in Co. I of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, would have listened to instructions from his commanding officer 1st Lt. Horatio Dallas, the same Dallas who would be promoted to lead Co. H when Joseph Collingwood fell at Fredericksburg eleven weeks later.

I wondered how close my feet were to the actual footprints left in the Maryland mud by George Washington Thompson, a native of Oxford County, Maine who had also left his straw working tools on a Massachusetts factory bench, his wife and his five children, to fight for the preservation of the Union, his brother Leander and nephew James B. Snow beside him in the ranks. There was a familial precedent in leaving a wife, children, and work to engage in war. George's grandfather had toted a musket against the British and his great-grandfather before him against Philip's revengful Wampanoags.

The time of day was different though. The 18th Massachusetts and the rest of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Fifth Corps had begun removing their shoes and socks sometime between seven and nine a.m. When the socks came off and when their feet first stepped into the river depends on whose account you read. I wasn't looking at a watch either, but estimated it was close to four in the afternoon when I exchanged Timberland boots for a pair of hip high dark green waders.

Accounts of the river crossing say the water was mid-shin to waist deep in spots and there was a sporting and light-hearted attitude among the men as they slogged their way across. Stepping into the water and moving only a few feet from shore, I was surprised by its clarity, as rocks of varying sizes and gently waving grass were clearly visible on the bottom. The slipperiness of those rocks was equally surprising. It was little wonder then that men from the 1st Brigade lost their footing and took a sudden bath, their ears subjected to their comrades' laughter when they righted themselves again. Most surprising was the current, which grew in strength, pushing hard like invisible hands against the legs as I neared the middle of the river.

Over 1700 men from the 1st Brigade made the crossing that morning. It's unknown how long it took them. Our little group completed it's own hundred and fifty yard crossing, with me trailing in the rear in order to keep an eye on one straggler, in about twenty minutes. Like that of the 1st Brigade, ours was not uneventful either, as one of our group took an unexpected bath. None in the group laughed, particularly not me. It was a warning to hold onto my camera that much tighter and to hope like hell it was waterproof if worse came to worse. I wondered, too, if Corporal Thompson would have barked at me for taking so long to arrive in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I wondered, too, if not for bare feet how many 1st Brigade brogans would have been sucked up by the mud that greeted our group as we emerged from the water. That mud nearly wrestled the right wader from my leg when I planted my first step on seemingly dry land.

The wading of the Potomac River was in many respects singularly the most personal experience I've ever had in regard in visiting a Civil War site. The rush of the current, water lapping over the top of the waders, the very real possibility of stepping on a rock or rocks that George Washington Thompson himself might have stepped on, in combination, made it very real and very personal. What waited for us next was the same exact steep and winding path the 18th Mass. followed to the top of the bluffs overlooking the Potomac. On this, my third trip onto privately held land which comprises the Shepherdstown battlefield I stood, for the very first time where the Regiment stood in battle line, listening to Tom McGrath quote from letters written by Captain Joseph Collingwood, Corporal Thomas Mann, and Sergeant Solomon Beals, with a lump in my throat and a sense of real pride, not only in George Washington Thompson, but in those shoemakers, farmers, seamen, clerks, carpenters, iron moulders, straw workers, organ makers, and mechanics who comprised the 18th Massachusetts and stood their ground for an hour against the best A.P. Hill had to throw against them.


Note: the next post will take a look at the only treatment devoted exclusively to the September 20th, 1862 battle of Shepherdstown, Tom McGrath's aptly titled "Shepherdstown: The Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign."


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