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Town marks 150th anniversary Robert E. Lee's crossing of the Potomac

Fourth annual Retreat Through Williamsport featured a re-enactment and a series of lectures and demonstrations

July 13, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Confederate re-enactors fire at Union re-enactors Saturday morning during The Wagoner's Fight of July 6, 1863, in a field near Milestone Terrace in Williamsport.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — Most people learn in grade school about the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, but probably know little of the larger campaign that began weeks before that clash and lasted days afterward as the Confederates conducted a fighting retreat to the Potomac River.

Today is the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia’s successful crossing of the Potomac and avoiding possible annihilation by pursuing Union forces. The fourth annual Retreat Through Williamsport featured a re-enactment and a series of lectures and demonstrations on Saturday, with more events scheduled for today.

“The biggest thing is, I want people to be educated” while having a good time, said Williamsport Town Councilman Scott Bragunier, coordinator of the event. He was pleased to see dozens of people in the speakers’ tent and others wandering the grounds of the Springfield Farm and Museum to see the encampments, demonstrations and period music concerts.

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The town sponsors the weekend along with the National Park Service, Bragunier said. The Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area provided a $1,200 grant, he said.

The grant and revenue from bus tours and registration fees from re-enactors allows the weekend events to be held for free, he said.

“The war could have ended right here in Williamsport if General (George) Meade’s Union forces were just a bit quicker, or if the Confederates didn’t defend quite so heartily,” said Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Riford noted another attraction in town was the Maryland Little League tournament next to Springfield Farm.

Those attending can get a history lesson from a long list of speakers, including George Franks, who owns the land where the last battle of the campaign was fought.

“The decision was made on July 13, 1863, that it was finally the time to cross the Potomac River,” said Franks, who has written about the Battle of Falling Waters. Flooded by torrential rains, the river finally had receded and a pontoon bridge had been rebuilt for the Confederates to make the crossing, he said.

Gen. Henry Heath, along with four brigades, conducted the rearguard action that allowed Lee’s army to escape and fight another day, Franks said. He will speak about the battle today at 10 a.m.

They also made off with thousands of head of horses, mules, cattle and other livestock, along with other supplies foraged and confiscated in Pennsylvania, according to “Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics and the Pennsylvania Campaign” by Kent Masterson Brown. Franks said how much booty the Confederates made off with largely was unknown until Brown’s 2005 book.

Several Washington County communities saw actions ranging from skirmishes to full-blown battles.

General J.E.B. Stuart was criticized for his actions during the Battle of Gettysburg, but the cavalryman’s leadership saved Lee’s army through a series of delaying actions, including the July 8, 1863, Battle of Boonsboro, said Eric Wittenberg, one of the authors of “One Continuous Fight,” a chronicle of the retreat.

“Stuart and his troops almost single-handedly kept the Union army away from Lee’s army,” Wittenberg said.

J.D. Petruzzi, another author of “One Continuous Fight,” described for guests the Battle of Funkstown on July 10, 1863, no small affair in that it involved 16,000 combatants.

Events begin today with a period church service at the speakers’ tent at 9 a.m. with music by the Shenandoah Valley Minstrels. There will be other lectures and demonstrations until 2 p.m., when a re-enactment will be held in a field near Milestone Terrace.

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