Crossing the Potomac

Both Union and Confederate armies used the narrower stretches of the Potomac to facilitate getting from Virginia to Maryland (and back). A few weeks ago, I was on the Northern Neck of Virginia (where the Potomac is much wider), contemplating the crossing of John Wilkes Booth. Today, though, I was above Washington and Great Falls, on the Maryland side. The crossing almost looks swimmable from here.

I drove first to Edwards Ferry, where 50,ooo Union troops camped in 1861 and from where Thaddeus Lowe launched his reconnaissance balloon.

Across the way was Ball's Bluff. As always, I like to see if Julia mentioned this place or others nearby. Yes--

She wrote in early November 1861:

Our troops have been defeated at Edwards Ferry & many of them wounded & killed. Someone is terribly to blame, for it was a rash, & ill advised affair on our part. Col. Baker was killed. [Baker was a member of Congress from Oregon and a friend of President Lincoln. Noble intentions, but not cut out for military strategy.]

A year later, as she prepared to come to Washington, she learned her brother-in-law Joseph Von Buskirk was camped there. She was hoping he was closer to Washington, but

"he thinks perhaps I can come there with the mail boy, who belongs to their co." [This did not happen.]

In late 1863, Gen. Hooker led 70,000 troops across the river from Virginia and on to Gettysburg at Edwards Ferry, using two pontoon bridges constructed for the purpose.

From there, I went up to Whites Ferry, about 5 miles west along a gravel road with an occasional farm alongside it--very "back to the past" in Montgomery County. A ferry began in 1817; after the Civil War, a Confederate officer named Elijah White bought the business. He named his boat in honor of his officer, Gen. Jubal Early. It's still called White's Ferry, it's still called the Jubal A. Early, and the business still occasionally runs afoul of the U.S. Coast Guard. I supposed that would warm Elijah White's heart.

Lee and McClellan both used the narrow crossing near White's Ferry, as this sign explains when Lee crossed to try to rally support in Maryland en route to Antietam. The sign noted that one resident called the troops "the dirtiest, filthiest, piractical-looking, cut throat men I ever saw....Yet there was a dash about them that the Northern men lacked." While plenty of Confederate sympathizers no doubt lived in and near White's Ferry, apparently not enough saw the "dash" as enough to side with the South as Lee and his men marched through.

Whites Ferry sign
Whites Ferry sign

Julia visited this area in 1866 as part of an expedition up the C&O Canal to Harpers Ferry (the subject of a future post).

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Across the Potomac

Just spent a few days on the Northern Neck of Virginia, staring across the Potomac at Maryland. Where we stayed at Westmoreland State Park near Montross, the river is perhaps 5 miles across, much wider than between Alexandria and Washington. As we looked across, we realized about 150 years ago almost to the day, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Herold tried to row across.

Potomac River
Potomac River

It would have been a formidable trip, especially at night. In fact, their first attempt ended with them mistakenly doubling back and returning to the Maryland side.

Here was their route from Washington, through Southern Maryland, to eventual shooting (Booth)/capture (Herold) in Virginia, thanks to the Surratt House Museum, which runs tours of the route.


Here's what Julia Wilbur had to say in her diary on April 15, 1865:

There is a report that Boothe [sic] has been taken; that his horse threw him on 7th st. & he was taken into a house.—

There is no doubt that it was intended to murder the President, the Vice Pres. all the members of the cabinet and Gen. Grant. & that the managers of the theater knew of it.

On April 20, 1865:

Numbers of persons have been arrested. but Booth has not been taken yet. Ford & others of the Theater have been arrested. The Theater is guarded or it would be torn down. If Booth is found & taken I think he will be torn to pieces. The feeling of vengeance is deep & settled.

Finally, on April 26, 1865:

Report that Booth is taken. 

Then, more detail the next day, April 27, 1865:

Booth was taken yesterday morning at 3 oclock, 3 miles from Port Royal on the Rappac., in a barn, by 25 of 16th. N.Y. Cav. & a few detectives. He was armed with 2 revolvers & 2 bowie knives & a carbine 7 shooter, all loaded. Harrold, an accomplice was with him. Neither wd. surrender until the barn was fired. Then Harrold gave himself up. & when Booth was about to fire at some of the party, he was shot in the head by Sargt. B. Corbett, & lived 2 ½ hrs. afterwards.

He was sewed up in a blanket & brought up from Belle Plain to Navy Yd. in a boat this A.M. One of the capturers, Paredy, was here this P.M. & told us all about it.—

(I believe this to be Emery Parady, one of the soldiers who shared in the reward. Because he was from an upstate New York regiment, perhaps this is how he would have recounted his experience to Julia.)

In June, she watched some of the trial of the assassins and included a sketches of the courtroom in her dirary, realizing, as she often did, that she was witnessing history in the making.

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