Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat through Williamsport re-enacted

  • Wounded Union soldiers leave the battlefield in front of a line of Confederates Saturday during a re-enactment of the retreat of Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces through Williamsport.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT -- It was early July 1863.

The Confederate effort of the Civil War led by Gen. Robert E. Lee had been thwarted at Gettysburg by the forces of Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. Low on supplies and encumbered with wounded soldiers, Lee was desperate to return to his northern Virginia base as quickly as possible.

"Williamsport was critical to that route," said ranger Curt Gaul of the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Williamsport. "A lot of people don't realize how many (Civil War) stories overlap on the canal and in the town of Williamsport."

Gaul said that's why the canal and the town teamed up to sponsor the three-day Retreat through Williamsport: Civil War Weekend.

"It's important to have events like this so people realize the significance," he said.

When Lee's forces arrived in Williamsport, the Potomac River had flooded, and they were confined in the town for about 10 days. Meanwhile, the Union Army began to encircle them.


Saturday morning on the fields near Springfield Farm Barn, re-enactors portrayed the resulting Union and Confederate skirmish.

"There was a major culmination here in Williamsport until finally, during the night of July 13 and the morning of July 14, Lee's forces were able to cross the river," Gaul said.

Debbie Shumate, 53, and her daughter, Wendy Knox, 34, both of Biglerville, Pa., watched their husbands participate in the portrayal. It was the first time each of the men had participated in a re-enactment. Shumate said watching the re-enactment was "watching a piece of history."

"When I listen to the (gunfire), I can imagine when the battles were going on how noisy it would be. I can't imagine some didn't lose their hearing from it," Debbie Shumate said. "It really makes me think about the time and how hard it would have been, especially to be in battle. Even just loading guns, knowing somebody was shooting at you."

Re-enactor Jacob Spiese, 32, of Chambersburg, Pa., teaches history at Springfield Middle School. Though the school rests on the area where the soldiers trod and fought, Spiese said "only a handful of students even seem to know anything happened here."

Spiese said he encourages students to get involved with re-enactment as a way of learning and experiencing history.

"I tell them, you can learn from a book, but until you put the wool on, put 60 pounds of gear on your back, carry a rifle and have explosions going on around you, you really don't know what it was like," Spiese said.

Re-enactment will continue Sunday with a portrayal of Lee's forces crossing the river. Participants will march about five miles from the river bottom at Cushwa Basin to Falling Waters, W.Va., along the towpath of the canal.

Re-enactor Patrick Fetta of Richmond, Va., said the retreat is especially significant to him because his relative, Thomas D. Crouch, was captured at Falling Waters during the event.

"It's gonna be neat," Fetta said. "It's like living history to me."

Williamsport Town Councilwoman Joan Knode said the Retreat through Williamsport was inaugurated this year in an effort to build momentum for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War retreat in 2013.

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