As published in the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 11 Number 2 (2012)
In the four years since I joined the staff of PHS, I have been part of a team that interprets, among other lore, the story of Brigadier General Isaac Peace Rodman of Peace Dale, and his service to the Union Army during the Civil War. I have on many occasions conveyed to visitors the information on hand at the museum – his family’s industrial history, his religious beliefs (He was not a Quaker as has been commonly reported; he was a Baptist. However his father had been a Quaker, and it would seem his was not far from Quaker sensibilities); and the epiphany that led to his sudden determination to join the cause for the preservation of the Union, for which he died heroically at Antietam on September 29, 1862, in Sharpsburg, Maryland, as a result of wounds he suffered during the Battle.
While I can easily read from several accounts in our library, and convey these stories to visitors, what I had lacked, aside of his photographs, a small collection of personal effects, and renderings of the battlefield, was any real connection to this man, his experiences, and the events leading up to his final stand. So, in an effort to better connect to General Rodman, I made a journey to Sharpsburg last summer to trace his movements during the Maryland-Virginia Campaign and his experience at Antietam.
On a hot August morning, I hopped in my Smart car to begin my journey south. (Yes, you can drive a Smart on the highway, and yes, it does go faster than 60 mph.) My initial destination was Leesburg, Virginia, at the center of the Maryland-Virginia Campaign, close to all points key to the theater. Along the way, however, I made a few interesting diversions: New Hope, Pennsylvania; Washington’s Crossing Historic Park on the Delaware River; and, a visit to historic Mount Vernon.
By the second evening I reached Leesburg, where I would anchor the first two nights and prepare the next days’ itineraries.
Along the Way
My three-day exploration of the Campaign involved numerous stops within the tri-state area of Virginia, West Virginia (then part of Virginia), and Maryland, through which Union and Confederate troops moved, camped, and engaged, crossing back and forth over borders marked by the waterways. I began at Harpers Ferry, a picturesque little village overlooking the confluence of the mighty Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, whose economy once centered on the nonextant United States Armory and Arsenal, an extensive munitions factory that dated back to the Revolutionary War. Well-preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service, here one may learn about the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the journey of Lewis and Clark, as well as lessons in historic architecture, industry, and railroads. The Appalachian Trail passes through Harpers Ferry at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was there in October 1859 where abolitionist John Brown launched a raid on the munitions factory, and then barricaded himself and a small group of supporters, including a few freed slaves, in the firehouse now known as “John Brown’s Fort.” Though unsuccessful, Brown’s plight brought the issue of slavery and injustice to the nation, and many argue that his efforts soon led to the country to war. Three years later, on September 13, 1862, Harpers Ferry was the site of an attempted siege by General Stonewall Jackson, ordered there by General Lee, who, with an eye ultimately toward Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, split off with his own troops toward Maryland for their first foray into northern territory.
I departed Harpers Ferry, heading back to Leesburg for White’s Ferry crossing, just downstream on the Potomac of White’s Ford, where Lee and his troops crossed the river. Today visitors may drive a vehicle onto a chain-driven platform ferry, pay five dollars to the ferryman, and within minutes drive off and onto the Maryland shore. A short distance away is the walking trail to the Ford, where a river’s-edge perspective of the crossing by Lee and 2500 troops awaits. On departing the Ford, I took in the village sights, meandering along the same quaint and seemingly untouched hamlets through which Union and Confederate soldiers passed, including among others Poolsville, Beallsville, Barnesville, Comus, and Urbana. Historic waysides and War Department markers provide hour-by-hour movements of the soldiers. Exhausted by the full-day’s exploration, I retired to my hotel and mapped out day two.
Ball’s Bluff and Monocacy
I visited two outside battlefields on my first and second days. Day one it was Ball’s Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery, a small field surrounded by woods on a ridge above the Potomac, through which Confederates drove the Union in 1861, forcing them over the bluff into the river. On day two, en route to Frederick, I visited Monocacy Battlefield – a pristine National Park site that looks today almost exactly as the wayside photos of 150 years before. It consists of three farms seized by the armies. There, in 1864, Union forces stopped the Confederates from advancing to Washington. The farms are a vision of minimalist landscape, with few structures surrounded by acres upon acres of crops. The stories offer a perspective on the toll of war on families and livelihoods – homes and barns taken for field hospitals, headquarters, or sharpshooter posts, as families were driven from their lands, or more immediately, into their basements for refuge. Properties destroyed. Fields bloodied and littered with corpses.
Though Monocacy did not see battle during this campaign, something critical to it occurred there not long before: General Lee’s Order 191, left behind by a Confederate soldier who used it to wrap cigars, was discovered by a Union soldier. Known as the “Lost Order,” it detailed Lee’s plan to divide the army, sending Stonewall Jackson to Harpers Ferry, and Lee into Maryland. This discovery gave General MacLellan a huge advantage over Lee in the days leading to September 16. However, the overly-cautious MacLellan failed to use it to the Union’s full advantage, which could have changed the course of the war, perhaps resulted in a very different outcome for our General Rodman.
Frederick and South Mountain
My second day began in the charming and historic city of Frederick, Maryland, through which MacLellan’s Army of the Potomac forged, and General Rodman rode en route to Antietam. Many key figures in the conflict visited Frederick, as it offered lodging, libation, and secure meeting sites. President Lincoln rode the B&O Railroad to Frederick Station, where he visited with MacLellan’s troops. Lee’s men also took respite in the City.
As Rodman had, I departed Frederick and traveled east to the South Mountain Battlefield Park, which sits between Frederick and Sharpsburg. Known as a bloody prelude to Antietam with 5000 casualties, South Mountain range was the site of numerous skirmishes on September 14 at Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Turner’s Gap, where sloped terrains facilitated surprise attacks. Lee’s men occupied South Mountain for as long as they could that day, to bide time for Stonewall Jackson to complete his mission at Harpers Ferry. High on Crampton’s Gap is Gathland State Park, the former estate of Civil War journalist George Alfred Townsend, where the very prominent War Correspondent’s Arch was erected in 1896.
At the end of the day – another extremely hot one that left me a tired and a bit sun-burned – I regrouped at the historic Jacob Rohrbach Inn (1804) in Sharpsburg, which also had seen its share of action, having been hit with a 3” canon shot during the battle, and later used as a field hospital for wounded soldiers. There I planned out day three, and my exploration of the Antietam Battlefield.
I drove to the visitors’ center in the morning and consulted with Park Ranger Brian Baracz. The battlefield is approximately six square miles of relatively hilly terrain on which six generals were mortally wounded – three Union, and three Confederate. I set out to locate each of their six Mortuary Canon markers, to get a sense of the movements of these opponents, and their proximity during the violence. Brian marked General Rodman’s locations on my map – most importantly, the approximate spot on which he was wounded, and the direction of his brigade in the hour prior.
Antietam is a sacred space that has an intense emotional impact on its visitors. As you move through it, you become connected to the events that took place. It is difficult to describe these feelings, and impossible to escape them. The vast loss of life, the violence and bloodshed, the hand-to-hand combat fought by soldiers standing face-to-face, their arrivals announced by young drummers and fifers, bodies piled one on top of another. The devastation is visible in images exhibited on the wayside markers. Homes and properties seized, some destroyed, some used for sharpshooting, and some converted to field hospitals where limbs were amputated at times without benefit of anesthesia or antibiotics. The closeness of the compounded wartime realities raises awareness not part of the consciousness of those of us from northern states that did not see the same action, or bear the same burdens, as those in the south.
The Northern Trail
My battlefield tour began at the North Woods and Poffenberger Farm, where Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield,” ministered to the wounded. Next, I walked along trails through the East Woods, the West Woods, to Dunker Church, and Mumma Farm, deliberately torched by Confederates to keep Union sharpshooters out. At the northern core is the twenty-four acre “bloody” Cornfield, part of the Miller Farm, which was the site of one of America’s most violent and horrific three-hour battles that left not a stalk of corn upright, and its soils drenched in the blood of thousands of casualties. I traversed the now-quiet battlefield on foot, reaching the Sunken Road, also known as the Bloody Lane, where Confederates held off Union Troops outnumbering them four-fold. The masses of casualties were likened to stacked railroad ties, and the disturbing photographic images depict this. At the end of the Lane, high on the hilltop stands the War Department Observation Tower. I saved my climb to its peak for the end of the day.
It might have been the summer heat, but visitation that day seemed light, allowing me a good deal of alone time, fueling my anxiety and emotion. As I moved closer to the afternoon experience, and read accounts of New England troops on the passing waysides and markers, the intensity increased. Before long the time passed noon. I grabbed some lunch, regrouped, and headed across Route 34 toward the south side. Soon, a street sign came into view. It read “Rodman Avenue.”
Incidentally, the reverence for General Rodman in Sharpsburg is unmistakable. Sadly, in contrast, his memory in Peace Dale is not held to as high a standard. One trip to his burial ground off North Road reinforces this point. Following my visit, I felt an urgency to do something about the latter, and to be sure General Rodman is properly recognized on his sesquicentennial – a role most appropriate for the Petta-quamscutt Historical Society.
The Southern Loop
I proceed down Rodman Avenue, enjoying the gorgeous visual landscape en route to Lower Bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge, named for the famed General from Providence, Rhode Island. Interesting how two generals from our state would work so closely on this fateful day. Burnside Bridge crosses Antietam Creek about three-quarters of a mile upstream of where Rodman crossed at Snavely’s Ford. On the afternoon of September 17, 1862, the Confederates lost control of the Lower Bridge to Burnside’s forces after having held it for several hours that day. General Burnside led his troops on an attack from the south side, taking the bridge and forcing the Confederates to the north toward Sharpsburg. Burnside moved laterally west across the field, but his victory was short-lived. During the Final Attack, A.P. Hill’s Division arrived from Harpers Ferry, and forced Burnside back south toward the Creek.
As they retreated, General Rodman also doubled back and led his troops east of the bridge, and then to the south. He crossed back over the Antietam Creek onto the battlefield at Snavely’s Ford. In keeping with my intent, I made my way along a two-mile trail loop, taking me to the very ground over which General Rodman rode. The solitude of this walk, and the peaceful silence, were surely in stark contrast to the turmoil of 1862. I could hear only birdsong, and the flow of the water along the creek. I tried instead to imagine the sound of horse hoofs beating the terrain, and the rattle of packs and arms held by soldiers as they ran. I wasn’t sure exactly when I would reach Snavely’s Ford, but something odd occurred within feet of doing so. Along the trail, its palette otherwise very green and brown, my gaze was distracted by a spot of vibrant pink. I followed it to a small bouquet of pink flowers emerging from the ground. I hadn’t seen any other vegetation of color anywhere before or after. I collected one petal for pressing, and returned to the trail. Within seconds, a small sign came into view announcing Snavely’s Ford. Just beyond it, a marker commemorating Rodman’s crossing, and indicating his subsequent path. Mesmerized by the sight, and reaching my destination, I stood for a while, and contemplated the moment. I walked downhill to the creek, returned, and followed the marker’s instruction, and continued uphill alongside the 500-yard path on which General Rodman had led Connecticut and New Hampshire regiments toward the site of the Final Attack.
As I marched uphill, I wiped away tears as I reflected on this hero from Peace Dale, and how I had finally reached this point. I thought of his bravery and his character at that moment, and wondered if he had a sense of his impending fate. Did he recognize the beauty in the landscape, or was it to him a stark battleground? Did he fear for himself, for his men, or was he filled only with drive and determination? I wondered how the sound of his charging forces compared to the silence of this warm and sunny afternoon.
The Final Attack
I emerged from the trail and found my way to the site of the Final Attack, the high point of the day’s action, offering sweeping views of the treetops and the descending hills of the watershed. En route to this hilltop, as his company was flanked by Confederates from the southwest, Rodman emerged from Otto's Cornfield and took a minie ball to the chest. On the hilltop aside his mortuary canon, I was able to experience what may have been his perspective on that landscape, but wondered if the haze from artillery fire obscured his view.
I wondered if thoughts of Peace Dale had occurred to him, as he lay on the battlefield soon to be carted off to a nearby field hospital. I paid my respects at his mortuary canon – the last of the six I would encounter that day - and made my way back north of Route 34 for one final stop – my ascent up the War Department Observation Tower.
A second walk along the Sunken Road returned me to the tower. Now about 4 PM, the heat and humidity had subsided, and a refreshing breeze filled the air. The air was clear and the visibility was grand. Atop the tower, I was able to survey the landscape over which I had traveled the past three days. Being the only visitor at that time, I enjoyed once again the solitude and peacefulness of the moment. To the south, I could see the water gap of the rivers’ confluence at Harpers Ferry; to the east, the South Mountain range was visible, and all around me, the Sharpsburg landscape. I thought about General Rodman again, realizing that what I was seeing was perhaps not much different from the landscape he experienced 150 years earlier, with the exception today of the absence of the color of bloodshed.
I capped trip with visits to a few small museums on my way out of town. One-time farmhouses that had been converted to military outposts. The Pry House Field Hospital Museum, where the medical and surgical methods of the day are interpreted in a field hospital exhibit, and the Newcomer House, a surviving private farmhouse on the Antietam Battlefield.
I was unable to ascertain at the time which field hospital tended to General Rodman. It may have been the Otto or Sherrick Farmhouses very close to the Final Attack; or, perhaps it was the present Jacob Rohrbach Inn where I had stayed, also relatively close. Unfortunately this information was not available in the documentation, nor were the rangers aware.
(NOTE: Following the publication of the article, a reader suggested it was the "Rohrbach Farmhouse," used as field hospital, to which General Rodman was transported. On the blogspot of 48th Pennsylvania, an entry suggested he was taken elsewhere, but later moved to "Rohrbach House." I will continue to search for the correct answer. It would be amazing to learn he had actually been taken to the very residence in which I stayed during my trip there last year.)
I left town early that evening. My odometer hit 800 miles as I crossed back over the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania on Route 81 North. I wondered how this experience would affect me, how it would manifest itself in the days ahead, and what it would bring to my own telling of the story of the American hero Brigadier General Isaac Peace Rodman of Peace Dale, Rhode Island. Whatever the answers would be, I certainly looked forward to their discovery.