Maine soldiers had little time to enjoy historic Williamsport in Maryland

Located on the Potomac River in Maryland’s Washington County, Williamsport was a town well known to some Maine soldiers during the Civil War. Today, visitors can park alongside the Cushwa Basin (above) and walk along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal tow path, which crosses the nearby Conococheague Aqueduct (below), built in the 1830s to carry the canal over a creek by the same name. (Brian F. Swartz Photos)

WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — Located just off traffic-plagued Interstate-81, this historic and lovely town on the Potomac River has multiple Civil War connections with Maine. Just for that reason alone, Williamsport would be worth the visit — and the sites encountered along the C&O Canal Towpath and the downtown shops only add to the experience.

Many people, including some Civil War buffs, have never heard about Williamsport, founded in 1787 at the confluence of the Potomac River and Conococheague Creek by Gen. Otho Holland Williams of Revolutionary War fame. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached Williamsport in 1834, the Western Maryland Railroad after the Civil War.

Its location made Williamsport attractive to Union and Confederate troops during the war. Ambushed and shattered by Confederates at Middletown, Va. on May 24, 1862, survivors of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment retreated toward the Potomac.

Capt. George Brown and his shattered Co. M forded the river at Williamsport on May 26 and rode into a Union camp. After eating dinner, Brown slept three hours, his first lengthy uninterrupted sleep in more than 48 hours.

The 10th Maine Infantry Regiment reached safety at Williamsport after retreating from the Shenandoah Valley. Both regiments regrouped at the town, into which 1st Maine Cavalry refugees trickled for days to come.

Now the site of a National Park Service visitors’ center, the 19th-century Cushwa Warehouse (above) stood alongside the C&O Canal in Williamsport when 1st Maine Cavalry troopers forded the Potomac River at the town in late May 1862. Nearby is a more modern structure, the lift bridge (below) built in 1923 to raise the Western Maryland Railroad tracks when canal boats passed through Williamsport. The bridge spans a “rewatered” section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. (Brian F. Swartz Photos)

That September, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and thousands of Confederate troops left Boonsboro, Md. on a circuitous route to trap the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Confederates forded the Potomac at Williamsport on September 11, six days prior to fighting at Sharpsburg.

In June 1863, Robert E. Lee pushed elements of his Army of Northern Virginia through Williamsport while en route to Gettysburg. Weeks later, Lee’s mangled army withdrew to Williamsport and, with the flooding Potomac slowing the ferrying of soldiers and equipment to the West Virginia shore, dug in to await a Federal assault that came too late to prevent the Confederates from getting away.

Throughout the war and afterwards, the C&O Canal was a major part of life in Williamsport. Today, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park preserves much of the canal; its vestiges and those of the Western Maryland Railroad are the heart of the Williamsport Canal Walking Tour, free to the public and a good introduction to this overlooked Civil War town.

Start the tour by parking at the Cushwa Basin and checking out the visitors’ center in the adjacent brick-built Cushwa Warehouse, dating to the early 19th century. Behind the warehouse is the Trolley Barn Power Station, its windows oddly reminiscent of those incorporated into the generating station at the Bangor Dam.

Walk along the C&O Canal Path to cross the stone-and-masonry Conococheague Aqueduct, built in the 1830s to carry the canal over Conococheague Creek. Confederate troops ripped, snarled, and tore at the aqueduct in August 1863 while attempting to shutter the canal; that effort failed.

The walking tour extends three-quarters of a mile downriver. Pass beneath the rust-colored railroad lift bridge, constructed in 1923 to lift the Western Maryland RR tracks when the canal boats passed through Williamsport. Just past this bridge, the 1879 Bollman Bridge carried a local street over the canal.

The walking tour ends at Lock 44, a rare surviving example of the 74 C&O locks. The lockhouse was where the lockkeeper and his family lived during the canal’s heyday.

Located in rural and scenic Washington County, Williamsport is a short drive via routes 68 and 65 from Antietam National Battlefield Park in downriver Sharpsburg. All the major Antietam Campaign sites are close by; Frederick, where the elderly Barbara Fritchie allegedly defended her American flag against a Confederate officer, is only an hour away via interstates 81 and 70.

Williamsport is accessible via exits 1 and 2 of I-81. Route 68 connects the town with Boonsboro to the east; known as Lappans Road, Route 68 trundles alongside Antietam Creek a few miles west from Boonsboro.

Join Maine at War in Bangor on July 28-30, as the Bangor Historical Society presents Drums on the Penobscot: A Civil War Experience at the UMA-Bangor campus off Maine Avenue. The exciting weekend will feature a military encampment, skirmishes, a parade, quilt historian Pamela Weeks and other guest speakers, the trial and execution of a uniformed deserter, and the opportunity to meet Joshua and Fanny Chamberlain. 

For more details, log onto http://www.bangorhistoricalsociety.org/drums-on-the-penobscot-a-civil-war-experience/

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.