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Visiting Williamsport Station, Maryland: Remembering the Retreat From Gettysburg and the Flooding of the Potomac

Updated on March 20, 2018
State flag of Maryland
State flag of Maryland | Source
View southeast down the Potomac River from Interstate 81 on the border of Williamsport Station, Washington County, Maryland
View southeast down the Potomac River from Interstate 81 on the border of Williamsport Station, Washington County, Maryland | Source

A natural barrier silently screams historical allusions

So this article is clearly about an event of the American Civil War. Antietam, perhaps? Well, no; although the Antietam battle site lies only approx 12 miles (18 kilometres) from Williamsport Station. The events in question occurred in 1863, following the Battle of Gettysburg, during the retreat from the Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, itself about 40 miles (65 kilometres) from Williamsport Station.

So at the Battle of Williamsport, near Hagerstown, Washington County, Maryland, as it is known (1), who inflicted a defeat upon whom? Union or Confederate forces?

Well, strangely enough, neither, strictly speaking.

Put simply, it was the forces of nature that intervened.

But had military leaders read history, the difficulties encountered could have been avoided. (More of this, later.)

The Confederate forces had indeed suffered a defeat at Gettysburg; and General Robert E. Lee and his army were in hasty retreat from the Unionist Army of the Potomac led by General George G. Meade. General Lee and his forces were already south of the famed Mason-Dixon Line, forming the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Then the banks of the Potomac flooded.

An already existing natural boundary more physically significant that the Mason-Dixon Line was the Potomac River, which then formed the border in that region between Maryland and Virginia (2) near the city of Hagerstown.

There then followed a standoff and series of skirmishes which lasted from July 6 until July 16, 1863.

A total of 1,760 casualties occurred during this period; but this figure fell short of the aim of General Meade to move in and destroy General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, stranded on the northern bank of the Potomac at a height of the river which is relatively unnavigable by large boats.

This outcome came about because on July 13 the Potomac began to recede, and the Confederates — mainly at night — were able to begin to cross the river to the relative safety of the southern, Virginia bank. An improvised bridge was built as the gap between the two river banks gradually narrowed.

So, Confederates snatching a dubious victory from the jaws of defeat? Unionists failing to destroy the remnants of the already defeated Confederates?

However one looks at these skirmishes, the forces of nature played a decisive part, despite the best plans of Unionist and Confederate tacticians alike.

The war was thus to drag on until the fateful events at Appomattox in 1865.

Today, as travellers cross the Potomac on Interstate 81 at this pulsatingly historic part of American territory, and with the wider area redolent of various events relating to the Civil War, it may be hard to imagine how what is such an easy crossing today proved to be so pivotal and costly in 1863.

Interestingly, none other than George Washington himself considered Williamsport as a possible site for the nation's capital, but he decided against it. In a manner of speaking, George Washington took counsel of nature, and followed nature's wisdom.

The reason for Washington's decision? The relative lack of navigability of the Potomac at Wiliamsport...(3).

March 20, 2018

Notes

(1) Sometimes also known as the Battle of Hagerstown or the Battle of Falling Waters.

(2) Now West Virginia.

(3) See also: https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/williamsportvisitorcenter.htm


View north along Interstate 81 just before crossing the Potomac River to Williamsport Station, Washington County, Maryland
View north along Interstate 81 just before crossing the Potomac River to Williamsport Station, Washington County, Maryland | Source
General George Meade, between 1855 and 1865 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.01199. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4430
General George Meade, between 1855 and 1865 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.01199. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4430 | Source
General Robert E. Lee, 1863 File from The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Two, Two Years of Grim War. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 240.
General Robert E. Lee, 1863 File from The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Two, Two Years of Grim War. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 240. | Source
George Washington (The Constable-Hamilton Portrait), 1797 Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
George Washington (The Constable-Hamilton Portrait), 1797 Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art | Source

Also worth seeing

In Williamsport, Maryland, itself, visitor attractions include the Cushwa Basin and Visitor Center and the Williamsport Historic District.

Antietam National Battle Site, Maryland (distance: approx. 11.7 miles / 19.1 kilometres), solemn site of one of the Civil War's most sanguinary battles in 1862.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (distance: approx. 29.4 miles / 47.3 kilometres); memorable site of John Brown's raid in 1859.

Hagerstown, Maryland (distance: approx. 8.3 miles / 12.9 kilometres); visitor attractions include: Burnside's Bridge, scene of heavy fighting during the Battle of Antietam; the Hager House and Museum recalling city founder Jonathan Hager.

...

How to get there: Air connections with Allegiant Air and Southern Airways Express are available to a variety of destinations via from Hagerstown Regional Airport, where car hire is available (distance from Hagerstown Regional Airport to Williamsport Station: approx. 10 miles / kilometres) .Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Washington County, Maryland Public domain map courtesy of The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin, modified to show counties.
Washington County, Maryland Public domain map courtesy of The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin, modified to show counties. | Source

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