Penning the Civil War's great escape

April 18, 2010|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE
  • Author CW Whitehair, seen here with his dog, Mosby, has released his latest book, "Escape Across the Potomac," which takes place during the Civil War.
By Crystal Schelle,

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- CW Whitehair said when it comes to writing a book based on history, it's kind of like being a detective.

He collects historical information like clues, trying to piece together a picture of what exactly happened in the past.

Whitehair, 60, had to do just that when penning his latest novel, "Escape Across the Potomac" (219 pages, Infinity Publishing, 2009).

This is Whitehair's third novel set during the Civil War.

"Escape Across the Potomac" is based on a moment in Civil War history rarely taught in history class.

On Sept. 14, 1862, just days before the Battle of Antietam, 14,000 Federal soldiers were at Harpers Ferry under the command of Col. Dixon S. Miles. The soldiers were surrounded on three sides by 23,000 Confederate soldiers under Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. This would become known as the Siege of Harpers Ferry.

With Miles' troops were more than 1,500 Federal calvarymen. Whitehair said the men knew if they were captured, all of their equipment and ammunition would be seized as well. Left with little choice, the calvarymen planned their escape.


"Escape Across the Potomac" is told through the eyes of a fictional William Edwards, who enlists with the Union in August of 1861, a month after Bull Run. The story follows Edwards throughout his involvement of the events leading up to the Battle of Antietam.

For his research, Whitehair scoured more than 25 diaries, countless letters and newspaper clippings. An index in the book includes several pages of footnoted sources to show that the author did his research. He has also included maps and period photos throughout the book.

Harpers Ferry has been a common setting in Whitehair's books.

"I grew up in Harpers Ferry and was born in Loudoun County (Va.) or what we call 'between the hills,'" he said with a laugh.

His grandparents lived in what is now the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park bookstore. When Whitehair was young, his parents moved the family to Harpers Ferry.

"Harpers Ferry is so rich in Civil War history that you can't help but to be (influenced) by it," he said.

During Whitehair's research for "Escape Across the Potomac," he read a lot about Col. Benjamin "Grimes" Davis and wondered what exactly was his role in the event.

Faced with a certain defeat, Whitehair said Miles was about to surrender to the Confederates. But Davis, along with Col. Amos Voss, led 1,200 of the calvarymen across the Potomac. Whitehair said they ended up capturing Confederate Maj. Gen. James Longstreet's ammunition train.

Miles and the rest of men stayed behind in Harpers Ferry to be captured a day later by Longstreet. The win not only resulted in the largest capture of Union troops - 12,500 men surrendered - but Whitehair said the Confederates also ended up with a heavy stock of ammunition once they busted into Harpers Ferry.

Whitehair said he really enjoys writing historical novels and plans to write even more. He and his wife, Rhonda-Lee, who shared credit on an earlier book, "Northern Fire," are finishing their next book, "The Bloody Harvest." He said it takes place during the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and is a spy thriller.

Writing, he said, has been rewarding.

"I just have really a lot of fun doing it," he said

If you purchase ...

"Escape Across the Potomac" retails for $14.95 and can be purchased at,, and

For more information about CW Whitehair's other novels, go to

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