Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Confederate General A. P. Hill...and Ultrarunning

This past weekend I lured a running buddy to accompany me on my second annual General A. P. Hill Run. Friday, 17 Sept, was the 148th anniversary of the battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. The battle is considered the single bloodiest day in American history, in which some 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. The battle is regarded as a tactical draw in that both sides remained on the field, but as a strategic Confederate loss since General Lee then abandoned his first invasion of the North and withdrew his army back to Virginia...and the war dragged on for another two and a half years (good battle summary here).

During the battle, the outnumbered Confederates were on the brink of disaster at various points during the day. The final Union attack came when Union General Ambrose Burnside finally was able to put his corps across the bridge that bears his name, and threatened to collapse the Confederate right flank. Just in the nick of time, Confederate reinforcements in the form of General A. P. Hill's Light Division completed their forced march from Harper's Ferry (where they had received the surrender of the Union garrison) and fell upon the exposed left flank of Burnside's advance, crushing it and saving the day (again) for the Confederates.

The Ultrarunning part: I wanted to retrace the route of A. P. Hill's division from Harper's Ferry to Antietam, complete with fording the Potomac River at historic Boteler's Ford. Hill's forced march, arriving just in the nick of time, is legendary in Civil War lore, wherein some 3000 men from his division marched 17 miles in 8 hours, to arrive at the battlefield just in time.

We parked along the C + O Canal just downstream of the Rt 34 bridge at Shepherdstown and ran downstream approx 11 miles to Harper's Ferry. The stretch of the C&O Canal represents roughly miles 18 thru 29 of the JFK 50 Miler route, only run in the opposite (downstream) direction.

The downstream leg along the C&O Canal towpath, in the cool of the morning, was awesome as it usually is for me. Many JFK runners complain about the so-called flat, boring canal section, and I always think, "Are you nuts? Sure, it's flat, but you're running in the woods, you have the river right beside you, you're passing all this historic archeology in the form of canal locks, lock keeper houses, and engineering feats, seeing deer, great blue herons, etc...."

At Harper's Ferry, we crossed the river on the combination Appalachian Trail/railroad bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge, you bear right along Potomac Street, parallel to the railroad tracks, to pick up the A. P. Hill route.  This now was a run along rolling secondary roads approx 12 miles up to Boteler's Ford.

Here is where we actually forded the Potomac River (this is a mile downstream of Shepherdstown). There was a house immediately opposite the actual ford, complete with at least 2 big, noisy dogs (fenced), and the river bank was heavily posted with No Trespassing signs. We didn't want to trespass, especially with these noisy dogs calling attention to the runners on the road, so we kept going upstream a couple hundred yards until there was a non-posted path some 100' to the riverbank at the site of an old cement mill from the canal era.

We got walking sticks for balance, waded into the water, and headed back downstream to the actual ford. We were far enough away from the dogs that they, perhaps regarding us as fishermen, paid no attention. Plus legally (per my understanding) we were not now trespassing, this being a navigable river and we were out in it.

So we headed across the river via the ford. It was generally knee deep or less (thigh deep at the most) and was not the slightest bit risky or threatening. Just being there was exhilarating for me as a semi-serious student of American Civil war history. The bottom was rock outcrop, with a few loose rocks, no mud. The water was clear, aquatic grasses abounded, with many clamshells--all evidence of a healthy river. The ford was perhaps 150 yards wide and the water was not cold. I know, because I managed to fall twice on the slippery bottom, both time emerging laughing.

Once across to the MD side, we returned the remaining mile to the car, electing not to continue on to Antietam battlefield proper (as I had done in 2009). All in all, it was some 24 miles.

A great day of running, of history, and I guess of spirituality.


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