Notes on Falling Waters & Cumberland Valley Railroad

Reference in C&O Canal Companion:
Mile 94.4 and 97.3

Added to Mile 97.3 in the Updated Edition:

The newer bridge just beyond the ruins was built as a replacement for this line, owned in succession by the Pennsylvania Railroad and Penn Central, before the cataclysmic bankruptcy that led to the formation of the Conrail system in 1976. In the 1980s, Conrail sold the Hagerstown-Winchester line to the Winchester Western Railroad.


To be added

Mile 94.4:

Falling Waters was identified early in the war as a convenient Potomac crossing, and was used by Union General Robert Patterson on July 2, 1861 for one of his probing maneuvers. There was a brief skirmish a mile inland on the Virginia side at Hoke's Run, which both sides hailed as a stern lesson to the other. The Confederates fell back after that engagement, and several days later the ever-cautious Patterson withdrew again to Maryland. Unionists were sharply critical of Patterson's anemic offensive efforts, which left Jackson free to shuttle his soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley over to the battlefield at Bull Run on July 21.


Portions of Lee's army used a pontoon bridge constructed at Falling Waters to cross the Potomac on their way north. During the battle of Gettysburg, the bridge was partially destroyed by a Union raiding party from Harpers Ferry. In the ensuing week, Lee's engineers were reported to be cannibalizing canal boats and warehouse buildings in Williamsport, and floating the appropriated lumber down to Falling Waters for use in their repair work.


As General Longstreet noted in his understated manner, Lee and his staff were stretched through the night to the end of their patience, and a "family quarrel" seemed imminent. The unfortunate victim in this case was a Lieutenant-Colonel Venable, who came back to headquarters from a trip up to the Williamsport ford, loudly expressing his disgust with the situation upstream. Lee angrily rebuked him for making such demoralizing comments for all to hear. Venable was not mollified when Lee later invited him to join him in his tent for a glass of buttermilk, and spent much of the rest of the night supervising the arduous crossing at the Williamsport ford. After he rode back down to give his report in the early morning hours, he went to sleep on the ground nearby. When he awoke, he found himself draped in Lee's own oil-skin poncho, and was thoroughly disarmed by the commander's thoughtful action.


An odd sort of verbal skirmishing took place after the affair at Falling Waters, conducted second-hand through the newspapers. When Robert E. Lee learned through the Richmond papers of Meade's claim that his men had captured 2,000 Confederates at Falling Waters, he strongly rebutted the allegation. He said that only a few stragglers had been left behind, privately opining to Jefferson Davis that the number might have been 500. Of course, when Lee's riposte reached Meade, there was additional fallout. Meade pointed to the capture of three regimental battle-flags as evidence that his men had taken organized units rather than stragglers. Historians seem more disposed towards Lee's position, estimating only several hundred men left behind, captured not so much by any aggressive maneuver by Meade as by happenstance, along with the two cannon mired in the mud.

The crossings at Falling Waters and Williamsport left other kinds of detritus as a testimony to the difficulties the Confederates had overcome. Three days later and 40 miles downstream, Union General Geary wrote his wife from Pleasant Valley, just below Harper's Ferry, and told her that this rocky stretch of the Potomac was littered with the debris of the Confederate bridges at Williamsport, and the occasional "dead horse, or a dead man."




Extracts from the Official Records

Series 1, Volume 27, Part III (Correspondence),
from Major-General French (Union), Page 538:

5, 1863.
(Received 7 p.m.)

Major?General BUTTERFIELD,
Chief of Staff

GENERAL: I have a brigade occupying the passes, with infantry and artillery. The cavalry detachment which destroyed the pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, 3 miles this side of Wiliiamsport, also captured an ammunition train, which was thrown into the river.
The enemy had commenced a trestle-bridge at the ferry. This has been ordered to be broken up by me.
I have positive information that there is no bridge at Clear Spring.
I have just received positive information that the enemy is fortifying the heights covering the Shepherdstown Ford, and that a bridge is constructed, all ready to swing across from the Virginia side.
Lee is said to be moving to place his right on the river at Williamsport, his left and mass being at Chambersburg. It seems as if he was taking up the Antietam campaign. I sent a dispatch about the smallness of my command, and that it would be throwing away a regiment or two to put them into the cul-de-sac of Maryland [Heights] without ammunition or supplies, there being only a few days? now here.
I can worry their rear through Crampton?s Gap, and delay their passage of the river, which I am told cannot now be forded. I want troops from Washington, and supplies.


[P.S.]?Reliable scouts have been sent out this morning to bring me information as to the movements of Lee?s army from Chambersburg. There was no force at Hagerstown at 4 p. m. yesterday.


Series 1, Volume 27, Part III (Correspondence),
from General Thomas (Union) to Secretary of War, Page 619:

HARRISBURG, PA., July 9, 1863?9 a. m.
(Received 1.45 p. m.)


The following sent by operator at Altoona, as received by him from operator at Loudon (sic) at 9 a.m.:

A sharp Connecticut horse-drover left Hagerstown yesterday morning. He mingled among the rebel officers and soldiers, and says he heard them say their engineers had raised sunken canal-boats at Williamsport and constructed them into pontoon bridges, and were passing their sick and wounded men on Tuesday night, and had begun passing their baggage train early yesterday morning. This is reliable. Meade and Couch had been furnished with the above information.


Series 1, Volume 27, Part I (Reports), Page 929:
Extract from report of Brigadier-General John Buford (Union)

July 14, at 7 a.m., the division was ordered to advance, and at 7.30 o?clock it was discovered that the enemy had evacuated during the night. The few remaining scouts were run into the rear guard of Lee?s army, which was soon seen in front of Kilpatrick, who had advanced from the north. Kilpatrick was engaged. I sent word to him that I would put my whole force in on the enemy?s rear and flank, and get possession of the road and bridge in their rear. The division succeeded in getting the road, and attacked the enemy in flank and rear, doing him great damage, and scattering him in confusion through the woods and ravines. Our spoils on this occasion were one 10-pounder Parrott gun, one caisson, over 500 prisoners, and about 300 muskets. General Merritt came up in time to take the advance before the enemy had entirely crossed, and made many captures. The enemy?s bridge was protected by over a dozen guns in position and sharpshooters on the Virginia side. As our troops neared the bridge, the enemy cut the Maryland side loose, and the bridge swung to the Virginia side.



Confederate General James Longstreet, from his Memoirs:

On the forenoon of the 13th, General Lee sent for me and announced that the river was fordable and the bridge repaired, that the trains would be started at once, and the troops would follow when night could conceal the move .... The route to the bridge was over a new road ; at the ends of the bridge were green willow poles to prevent the wheels cutting through the mud, but the soil underneath was wet and soggy under the long season of rain, and before night rain again began to fall.

General Lee, worn by the strain of the past two weeks asked me to remain at the bridge and look to the work of the night. And such a night is seldom experienced even in the rough life of a soldier. The rain fell in showers, sometimes in blinding sheets, during the entire night ; the wagons cut deep in the mud during the early hours, and began to "stall" going down the hill., and one or two batteries were stalled before they reached the bridge. The best standing points were ankle-deep in mud, and the roads half-way to the knee, puddling and getting worse. We could only keep three or four torches alight, and those were dimmed at times when heavy rains came. Then , to crown our troubles, a load of wounded came down, missed the end of the bridge, and plunged the wagon into the raging torrent. Right at the end of the bridge the water was three feet deep, and the current swift and surging. It did not seem possible that a man could be saved, but every one who could get through the mud and water rushed to their relief, and Providence was there to bring tears of joy to the sufferers. The wagon was righted and on the bridge and rolled off to Virginia's banks. The ground under the poles became so puddled before daylight that they would bend under the wheels and feet of the animals until they could bend no further, and then would occasionally slip to one side far enough to spring up and catch a horse's foot and throw him broadside in the puddled mud. Under the trials and vexations every one was exhausted of patience, the general and staff were ready for a family quarrel as the only relief for their pent-up trouble, when daylight came, and with it General Lee to relieve and give us opportunity for a little repose.


July 21, 1863.

GENERAL: I have seen in the Northern papers what purported to be an official dispatch of General Meade, stating that he had captured a brigade of infantry, two pieces of artillery, two caissons, and a large number of small-arms, as this army retired to the south bank of the Potomac, on the 13th and 14th instant.
... This dispatch has been copied into the Richmond papers, and as its official character may cause it to be believed, I desire to state that it is incorrect. The enemy did not capture any organized body of men on that occasion, but only stragglers and such as were left asleep on the road, exhausted by the fatigue and exposure of one of the most inclement nights I have ever known at this season of the year. It rained without cessation, rendering the road by which our troops marched to the bridge at Falling Waters very difficult to pass, and causing so much delay that the last of the troops did not cross the river at the bridge until 1 p.m. on the 14th. While the column was thus detained on the road, a number of men, worn down with fatigue lay down in barns and by the roadside, and though officers were sent back to arouse them as the troops moved on, the darkness and rain prevented them from finding all, and many were in this way left behind.
... The two guns were left in the road. The horses that drew them became exhausted and the officers went forward to procure others. When they returned, the rear of the column had passed the guns so far that it was deemed unsafe to send back for them, and they were thus lost.
... No arms, cannon, or prisoners were taken by the enemy in battle, but only such as were left behind under the circumstances I have described. The number of stragglers thus lost I am unable to state with accuracy, but it is greatly exaggerated in the dispatch referred to.
I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE, ... ...

General S. COOPER,
... ... ... Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.



August 9, 1863.

GENERAL: My attention has been called to what purports to be an official dispatch of General R. E. Lee, commanding Confederate Army, to General S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General, denying the accuracy of my telegram to you of July 14, announcing the result of the cavalry affair at Falling Waters. I have delayed taking any notice of General Lee?s report until the return of Brigadier-General Kilpatrick (absent on leave), who commanded the cavalry engaged on the occasion referred to, and on whose report from the field my telegram was based.
... I now inclose the official report of Brigadier-General Kilpatrick, made after his attention had been calledt o General Lee?s report. You will see that he reiterates and confirms all that my dispatch averred, and proves most conclusively that General Lee has been deceived by his subordinates, or he would never, in the face of the facts now alleged, have made the assertions his report contains. It appears that I was in error in stating that the body of General Pettigrew was left in our hands, although I would not communicate that fact until an officer from the field reported to me he had seen the body. It is now ascertained from the Richmond papers that General Pettigrew, though mortally wounded in the affair, was taken to Winchester, where he subsequently died.
...The three battle-flags captured on this occasion and sent to Washington belonged to the Fortieth, Forty-seventh, and Fifty-fifth Virginia Regiments (infantry). General Lee will surely acknowledge these were not left in the hands of "stragglers asleep in barns."
...In conclusion, I desire, if it meets with your approval, that this communication, together with General Kilpatrick?s report, may be published, that justice may be done to all parties concerned, and the truth of history vindicated.
Respectfully, yours,

GEO. G. MEADE, ... ... ..
Major-General, Commanding.

Major-General HALLECK,
... ... ... ... ... ... ...General-in-Chief.



Additional Sources:

  • A Politician Goes to War, The Civil War Letters of John White Geary, edited by William Alan Blair, Selections and Introduction by Bell Irvin Wiley, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1995.
  • From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America, General James Longstreet, J.P. Lippincott, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1896. [Available in reprint editions.]
  • Roads from Gettysburg, John W. Schildt, Burd Street Press/White Mane Publishing Company, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, Second Revised Edition 2000. [First published in 1979]
  • Robert E. Lee, A Biography, Volume III, Douglas Southall Freeman, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1935. [Freeman cites the story of Lee's poncho in a footnote on Page 142, referring to Venable as a major and a colonel.]
  • Memoirs of Robert E. Lee, A.L. Long, published by J. M. Stoddart & Company, 1886. [Douglas Southall Freeman's bibliography terms this "diffuse, padded, and inaccurate in many particullars, but containing much material that is still highly valuable." Freeman repeated Long's story of Lee's poncho, which appears on page 301. Long refers to Lieutenant-Colonel Venable.]
  • A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, John Esten Cooke, D. Appleton and Company, 1871. [In his bibliography, Freeman terms this biography to be inaccurate in many particulars, but valuable as an eyewitness account. Cooke relates an interesting anecdote of Stuart handing Lee a cup of coffee as the crossing at Falling Waters was nearly completed, which Lee declared to be the best he had ever had.]
  • The Civil War, A Narrative, Volume II, Shelby Foote. Random House, New York, 1963, pages 591-594.
  • The Gettysburg Campaign is documented in Series 1, Volumes 27, Parts I, II, and III of the Official Records. [The debate regarding the capture of Confederate forces at Falling Waters is found in Volume 27 (Part I) Pages 989ff.]
  • 40th Virginia Infantry, Robert E. L. Krick, The Virginia Regimental Histories Series, H.E. Howard, Inc, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1985.
  • 47th Virginia Infantry, Homer D. Musselman, The Virginia Regimental Histories Series, H.E. Howard, Inc, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1991.
  • The story of the early thrusting and parrying along the Potomac in the Great Valley is told in Series 1, Volume 2 of the Official Records.


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