Retreat from Gettysburg

Williamsport relives the Confederates' 'wagon train of woe' under rainy skies

Williamsport relives the Confederates' 'wagon train of woe' under rainy skies

October 09, 2005|By ANDREW SCHOTZ


Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden's retreat from Gettysburg, Pa., to Williamsport in 1863 is said to have included about 13,000 Confederate soldiers, 2,000 drivers, 2,000 cavalrymen, 200 doctors and 10,000 horses and cattle.

When Stanley F. Imboden of Lititz, Pa., traced his great-great-uncle's 42-mile path on Saturday, the caravan included about five motor vehicles and one horse team.

More than 4 inches of rain - heavier Friday, but still steady on Saturday - might have kept the event tiny, but the few who took part were satisfied.


"On a personal level, it helps me to appreciate my family," said Stanley Imboden, a retired Episcopal priest who has served in Waynesboro, Pa., and Mont Alto, Pa.

"When we celebrate things like this, it creates conversation and spreads into the community," he said.

Advance word of the retreat re-enactment - known as a "vast procession of misery" and a "wagon train of woe" - reached Ralph Bennett on the Italian island of Sardinia through the Internet. Four of his ancestors were part of that retreat.

Bennett, who grew up in Massachusetts and West Virginia, was planning to return to the United States for three weeks of genealogy research, so he made the re-enactment part of his itinerary.

He said he was honored to be part of the caravan, happy to get a spiritual taste of what his ancestors encountered.

"I'm sure the 19th-century mind was a lot tougher," said Bennett, a one-time historian who became a pilot, then a psychotherapist for the U.S. Navy. "They had no concept what was over the next hill."

Neither did the small town of Williamsport know that it would become a large hospital after the Battle of Gettysburg.

On Salisbury Street on Saturday, sidewalk re-enactors in period attire showed what might have happened when the wounded arrived.

John Lowery of Boonsboro lay still on a makeshift operating table on sawhorses. Tucked into his sleeve, he had a latex rubber hand designed to look like a shell fragment had broken a finger.

Maj. Matthew Ebersole of Hagerstown and Maj. Larry C. Denny of New Orleans bandaged the mock wound.

Denny narrated. If the wound were worse, he said, they might have used a tenaculum, or hooked instrument, to tie off a bleeding artery. If the finger needed to be amputated, they had a detachable metacarpal saw ready.

Forest Glen Commonwealth, a Kensington, Md., nonprofit history group, organized the two-day event, which it called "Grace Under Fire."

"B/G John Imboden's medical evacuation wagon train was of mammoth proportions by anyone's standards," a driving tour program says, "then or now, a legendary humanitarian effort that is important to remember.

"How is this relevant today? As we enter the 21st Century, everyone has been touched by the Attack on America of 9-11-01 and most recently by the devastation caused by back-to-back hurricanes on America's Gulf Coast.

"Each of us has a responsibility to plan our own and our family's best responses to emergencies and to cope better if an emergency does befall us. The more we can help ourselves, the more we will enable skilled first responders to do their jobs better. Remembering lessons from the past will help us, our families and our neighbors if we are without electricity, cell phones or other conveniences for an extended period of time."

The rainy weather gave Richard Lank, an event organizer, a tough choice, but he decided to carry on.

"No one ever said, 'Let's pull the plug,'" Lank said.

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