Thursday, May 20, 2010

The 1861 Battle of Falling Waters

 (Engraving from The Illustrated London News, image credit here)

Henry Kyd Douglas, from I Rode With Stonewall:

It was only a little "affair at Falling Waters," as General Johnston called it, and few were hurt. To me it was of memorable importance; for there for the first time I heard the whiz of a musket ball and the shriek of a cannon shot....Nothing came of it, but the war had made a beginning.

This post will pull together some American Civil war history, some Chesapeake and Ohio Canal history, some of course some ultrarunning. Please read on....

One of my favorite places to run long is the C + O Canal, which now is a National Park along the Potomac River in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

In the 1830s, in an idea that dated back to George Washington, since the Potomac River was not navigable, why not dig a canal immediately beside it, control the water levels thru a brilliantly engineered series of dams and locks, and use it to float boats for heavy hauling? So eventually it was done, accomplished over several decades...but ultimately doomed in the 1920s by the increasing dominance of the railroad.

What remains today is a 185 mile long woody corridor right along the Potomac, complete with historical locks, dams, and structures, preserved via the National Park designation. While the canal bed itself is largely overgrown with trees, there are a couple of sections that have been rewatered to show the canal as it once was 150+ years ago.

The main draw for a runner, though, is the so-called "towpath," the dirt road beside the canal bed where the mules once walked to pull canal barges. It's a perfect running surface, a double-track dirt or fine gravel road, and with enough trees in the summer to provide 99% shade and in the winter to provide a decent windbreak. The JFK 50 Miler uses some 26 miles of the canal towpath as part of its route.

I love running along the C + O Canal and always look forward eagerly to logging some miles. One of my favorite routes is to run downstream of Williamsport (the closest access point for me by car, only 30 minutes from my home). About 5 miles downstream is a locale called Falling Waters, after the stream on the West Virginia side that empties into the Potomac. 

So, to keep the geography straight, I'm running on the north, or Maryland, side, where the C + O Canal is, and the 1861 action in question--called the Battle of Falling Waters--took place across the river on the West Virginia side.  Of course, in 1861, it was all Virginia--Unionist western Virginia had not yet been peeled off into the state of West Virginia.  It is this 1861 battle that I wish to focus on.  It actually took place some 5 miles or so south of the river.

(NOTE:  don't get this Battle of Falling Waters (West Virginia in 1861) confused with the 1863 Battle of Falling Waters Road (on the Maryland side of the river), which is better known due to its connection to the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg.  I will post something on that 1863 action tomorrow).

Back to 1861 and what happened.  From the Civil War News website:

Falling Waters was the first Civil War engagement in the Shenandoah Valley, fought on July 2, 1861, approximately five miles south of the Potomac River in what is now West Virginia. The majority of the fighting was around the Porterfield House, a large log structure built by the grandfather of the Alamo's Davy Crockett.

This battle, actually little more than a skirmish by later standards, was quickly overshadowed by the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) less than three weeks later.

Although generally known, both now and during the war, as Falling Waters, this little battle was given a number of names, which has helped to keep it obscure. Of course the use of different conventions by the North and South to name battles is a lot of the issue.

For example the Confederate rank and file frequently called the battle "Hainesville" after the last village they passed through as they marched toward the engagement. The Harper's Weekly correspondent called it "Hoke's Run," referring to the first water Federal troops encountered after the fight as they pursued the withdrawing Confederates.

Falling Waters, a tiny hamlet not far north of the site and containing a small waterfall, conveniently met both naming criteria.

This winter, with the leaves off the trees, I finally got a real good look across the river from MD to WV and was able to see this tributary stream, and just smiled to myself, thinking, "So that's why this place is called Falling Waters!"

Also this winter I was re-reading Henry Kyd Douglas' I Rode With Stonewall. Douglas was a Confederate officer on General Stonewall Jackson's staff, whose memoirs remained undiscovered until the 1940s, when their publication created quite a stir among Civil War historians.  Let me repeat my lead-in to this post.  Writing in his first chapter of the "Affair at Falling Waters," here's what Douglas says about the 1861 action, and I've highlighted what piqued my interest:

It was only a little "affair at Falling Waters," as General Johnston called it, and few were hurt. To me it was of memorable importance; for there for the first time I heard the whiz of a musket ball and the shriek of a cannon shot....Nothing came of it, but the war had made a beginning.
I guess I'm struck by the fact that while Douglas (understandably) referred to the numbers as "few," if you were one of the few, the life changing effect of being shot (if you survived) would certainly give you quite a different perspective.

So I surfed the net eagerly, looking for what was meant by "few were hurt." I found limited and inconsistent data, but in the course of my research I had the wonderful good fortune to connect with Gary Gimbel, a local historian, one of whose passions is the 1861 Battle of Falling Waters (the Falling Waters Battlefield Association info is here).

In a marvelous coincidence, Gary G wrote back to say: "It is ironic that one of my current projects is trying to determine not just the exact number of casualties, but actually the names of the soldiers on both sides who were killed, wounded, captured or missing." He was unhesitatingly willing to share his data with a fellow researcher, and went on to provide the following information:

I don't (yet) have a polished, footnoted document to send you listing the July 2, 1861 casualties. However I will give you a summary of what I know at this time. It is quite different than what you find on the internet and in the claims by both sides at the time. I have documentation on these figures and in most cases even the soldiers' names.

   Killed 3
   Wounded 18 (one of these mortally, dying at the end of August)
   Captured 49

   Killed 2
   Wounded 14
   Captured/Missing 9

It is very likely that some (1 to 3 possibly) of the missing Confederates were left on the field dead (even Jackson admitted that in a letter to his wife). Some were definitely captured and I would guess there were some desertions at that point too. The grand total of all Confederate casualties is 25 and is confirmed in a number of sources.

Please note that frequently [Confederate cavalry leader J. E. B.] Stuart gets credit for all 49 Union soldiers captured and that they were all from the 15th Pennsylvania. That is not the case. One of the biggest problems I have in putting this list together are aging veterans (both north and south) claiming in newspaper articles that they received a wound at Falling Waters that wasn't reported at the time.
So, some 149 years ago, on that summer day back in 1861, when the American Civil War was new, exciting, and still a grand adventure, some 37 or more men were shot by musket ball or artillery. 37 human beings (the so-called "few" who were hurt) underwent a life changing experience. War surely did not seem so glorious when you were on the receiving end of a projectile tearing through your flesh at high speed.

Historians, and those who read histories, sometimes tend to think of history in terms of the grand overview of events.  However, to me real history is comprised of those personal events that were actually lived by the participants.  I always try to remember that the people written of in histories were as real as you and me.

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