Two important Civil War battles in the Chesapeake region mark their 150th anniversaries this fall. While nothing replaces an unhurried visit to the battle grounds and visitor centers, one of the most unusual ways to experience these famous landscapes is to pick up a paddle.
For both the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg, Chesapeake tributaries served as dividing lines for the armies and as backdrops for some of the battles' most dramatic events. Immersing yourself in the human experience of these battles means not only walking the landscape, but viewing the scene from its waters.
The Battle of Antietam erupted on Maryland farm fields in Sept. 17, 1862, the culmination of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's first advance into northern territory, and took its name from the local creek.
Antietam Creek forms from Pennsylvania headwaters and flows across the Maryland border near Hagerstown. It passes Sharpsburg, where the battle took place, right before joining the Potomac River.
Antietam Creek lay at the heart of the battle, separating the Union and Confederate armies. To attack, they had to cross it. The spot where the creek flows under Burnside Bridge has become one of the war's most famous scenes.
The hefty, gray stone of this old bridge still stands today, arcing over a relatively small and peaceful stretch of the creek. But this photogenic nook was the scene of desperate fighting.
"The creek is a logistical hurdle that Federal troops have to overcome to attack the flank of Lee's army," said ranger Dan Vermilya of Antietam National Battlefield. "The objective isn't just to take the bridge, but to get over the creek."
Paddlers can take a trip along the Antietam that carries them under Burnside Bridge, although take-outs at this historic spot aren't allowed. From the water or the shoreline, this section of the creek looks pretty friendly, but Vermilya said the creek was a significant obstacle.
"There aren't many fordable places along the creek," Vermilya said." If they were going to wade they'd need a good entry, a good exit, and good solid bottom for the wagons and their gear. Plus, their gunpowder was in their hip pockets. If that gets wet, it's not firing any time soon."
As 12,000 Union troops led by Gen. Ambrose Burnside attempted to control the bridge, more than 400 Confederate sharpshooters held them off from a protected position on a rocky bluff. Eventually, the Confederates ran low on ammunition and had to fall back.
The men who died at Burnside Bridge were among the 23,000 soldiers lost during this one-day battle, many of whom fell before noon. As the day ended, both armies continued to hold their ground. The next day was spent gathering the wounded and burying the dead, and that evening Lee led his forces back toward Virginia.
Antietam Creek runs north to south, but most of the Chesapeake's larger rivers run west to east. According to National Park Service historian Frank O'Reilly, this simple fact impacted the Civil War military experience throughout the Chesapeake region.
In the western states, larger rivers mostly run north to south, and that helped troops to travel great distances and take more territory.
"Soldiers didn't fathom what a difference it made to fight here, where rivers mostly run west to east and every one is a major roadblock," O'Reilly said. "It might seem ludicrous to have only 100 miles between two capital cities at war with each other, but back then they were worlds apart."
Confederates planned to use rivers as the bulwark of their defense. "Any army coming to Richmond would have to cross a river. That would slow them down and make a bottleneck. The Confederate strategy was to eventually back them up against a river," O'Reilly said.
Their first chance to test the plan was at Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg, founded as a colonial port town, is located on the Rappahannock River. The clash took place four months after Antietam, ravaging the town from Dec. 11–15, 1862.
The Union army was trying to use speed and surprise to seize the city and access the main road south to Richmond. They knew the Rappahannock was an obstacle and arranged for pieces of a pontoon bridge to be constructed and delivered to the site. But when the Union army got there, the bridges hadn't arrived.
"When the Union soldiers got there, there probably weren't more than 100 Confederates anywhere near the city," O'Reilly said. "But when the bridges showed up about 10 days later, there were also 78,000 Confederate soldiers waiting on the other side."
The standoff held for about a month, as citizens fled the city. The Union command seized Chatham Manor for their headquarters, a southern manor house with a commanding view of the town from heights across the river.
Then the bridge-building began. Union men struggled to assemble a string of pontoons across the river, topped with planks for crossing. They worked at three sites, one directly across from the town and two a short distance south.
A full scale reproduction of one pontoon section, created for the 2003 movie, "Gods and Generals," is on display at Chatham Manor.
Confederates turned riverfront houses into sharpshooters' nests and fired on the men as they worked. The Union troops were stymied to such a degree that work was halted while their cannon bombarded the town. Meanwhile, a small group of soldiers crossed the river to secure a bridgehead and dislodge the sharpshooters.
When the Union army began crossing the river and looting the town, it encountered furious opposition.
"They met with disastrous setbacks," O'Reilly said. "And now they have to get out of the trap without having the Confederates pin them up against the river."
They escaped the same way they attacked — across the pontoon bridges — but this time during a tremendous nor'easter. "They used adept maneuvers and stealth to get away without being caught," O'Reilly said. "They got everybody back under the cover of darkness in one night, about 110,000 men, many coming back wounded."
About 9,000 men died at Fredericksburg, but only 1,000 were Confederate and 8,000 were Union. "It was a truly sobering encounter," O'Reilly said, "the most lopsided victory Lee ever had."
Today, paddling the river is almost as easy as crossing it. River trips run above, below, and past the city, crossing the pontoon bridge sites and passing under high modern bridges that carry cars and trains. Spring flows can be strong, but summer and fall bring a lower river level and slower currents that make it the most family-friendly time to visit.
As you paddle or float down the river, let your mind drift back and perhaps you can imagine the way that soldiers on its opposite banks saw the river in 1862. Beautiful, but daunting.
Fredericksburg & the Rappahannock River
Events and programs commemorating the Battle of Fredericksburg take place Dec. 8–9, including tours, evening programs, children's programs and a range of talks. There will be a re-enactment of the river crossing on Dec. 8.
Park staff will lead a public procession on Dec. 9 through the streets of Fredericksburg, beginning with fireworks to simulate the 100 shells a minute that bombarded the town. Visitors will follow the path of Union soldiers as church bells toll in honor of those who died. The walk ends with music, readings, living history and reflections on the battle.
Programs on Dec. 11-15 take place on the actual dates and times when the events occurred 150 years earlier. Except for the bus tours, which cost $20, all activities are free.
For information, visit www.nps.gov/frsp/sesquicentennial.htm.
Several local outfitters offer guided and unguided trips by canoe, kayak or float tube on the Rappahannock and in and around Fredericksburg, There are a variety of trip lengths and skill levels, and some shuttle services. Most are offered through October.
- Rappahannock River Campground: 800-784-7235. www.canoecamp.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Virginia Outdoor Center: 540-371-5085. www.playva.com. email@example.com.
- Clore Bros. Outfitters: 540-786-7749. www.clorebros.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Friends of the Rappahannock Tours: 540-373-3448. www.riverfriends.org. River turs include an annual Civil War float and web-based guides to the Rappahannock River Water Trail, www.riverfriends.orgwatertrail/Map.aspx.
Antietam Creek & National Battlefield
Exhibits, re-enactments, lectures, concerts and living history demonstrations related to the Maryland Campaign take place this fall at sites including Antietam, Harpers Ferry and South Mountain. Visit www.heartofthecivilwar.org.
Antietam Anniversary: Events are scheduled Sept. 15–17, including tours and hikes, living history programs and speakers. The names of soldiers killed or mortally wounded in the battle will be read during a remembrance ceremony Sept. 17. Visit www.nps.gov/ancm/.
To paddle the creek in and around the battlefield, see what a local outfitter has to offer in the way of canoes, kayaks, float tubes and shuttle services. Most trips are offered through October. Paddling under Burnside Bridge is allowed; landings are not.
- River & Trail Outfitters: www.rivertrail.com.
- Antietam Civil War Kayak & Brunch: Sept. 23. Begin with brunch at the historic Newcomer House at Antietam National Battlefield, then walk to the nearby put-in and enjoy a paddle that travels under Burnside Bridge. Beginners are welcome. To reserve a space call 301-695-5177 or 888.i.go.play.
- Antietam Creek Canoe: 240-447-0444. www.antietamcreek.com. or email@example.com.