The middle of September proved to be a great time to head east for a visit to some historically important towns in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, and just north across the Potomac River in Maryland.
My wife Jennifer and I hopped on I-68 and exited on US-522 to Berkeley Springs, where we turned east again on the scenic WV-9, and headed to our first destination, Martinsburg, W.Va., as the Martinsburg Roundhouse Center, a historic industrial district, beckoned because of its Civil War railroad history.
The Center includes 13 acres with three B&O Railroad shop buildings. The main attraction is the completely enclosed 1866 cast iron frame roundhouse, yet other buildings will be developed as funds become available. The Mission of the Berkeley County Roundhouse Authority is “the preservation and rehabilitation of the Martinsburg Roundhouse Center for adaptive re-use as an historic attraction of National significance and community center for public events.”
“It is significant both for its railroading architecture by Albert Fink and John Rudolph Niernsee and for its role in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. It consists of three contributing buildings. The presence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in Martinsburg dates back to the late 1840s, when the first engine and machine shops were erected for the expanding company. The shops were designated a National Historic Landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was founded on February 28, 1827. On May 21, 1842, the first steam locomotive arrived in Martinsburg and, later that same year, November 10, the first passenger train. The first roundhouse complex was constructed from 1848-1850. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the region’s social and government institutions were thrown in turmoil. The Civil War decimated both the region and Martinsburg, specifically because of the railroad yards. On May 22, 1861, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops stopped all trains going East at Martinsburg and Point of Rocks during the Great Train Raid of 1861. Once he determined that all of the trains that could be caught were in his trap, he blew up the bridges to the West and blew down the rocks on the tracks to the East, and pirating of the B&O equipment began. In total, 42 locomotives and 386 cars were stolen and destroyed. 36-½ miles of track, 17 bridges, 102 miles of telegraph wire, the “Colonnade” Bridge and the B&O roundhouse and machine shops were destroyed.” — from Wikipedia
We decided to have lunch in Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia — first settled in 1730 — ten miles east on WV-45. My wife Jennifer and I had visited here, and the Antietam National Battlefield once before back in the 1990’s, and we’ll likely return for more visits in the future.
Our first impression was that the town seemed much more vibrant. After enjoying Maria’s outstanding ‘Chimi’s at Maria’s Taqueria, walking up and down German Street with a stop at the Historic Shepherdstown Museum, and grabbing some delicious caffeinated beverages at Lost Dog Coffee, that impression was confirmed.
We talked with a very nice retired couple, who are volunteers at the museum, and they told us if you only read one thing, make sure you read the letter from Henrietta Bedinger Lee to Union General David Hunter (which I’ve copied below). After asking about other historic Civil War sites in town, they suggested we take a drive down River Road to Pack Horse Ford, about one mile downstream on the Potomac River. It was here that early settlers crossed the river, and where Robert E. Lee and A.P. Hill crossed into Maryland on the march to the Battle of Antietam (little more than seven miles north), and where after the battle Lee’s Army retreated with the Corn Exchange Regiment and other Federals in hot pursuit.
Jennifer and I enjoyed a short hike through the relics at Pack Horse Ford along the Potomac, and then we headed north to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862.
Jefferson County, July 20, 1864.
Yesterday your underling, Captain Martindale, of the First New York cavalry, executed your infamous order and burned my house. You have had the satisfaction ere this of receiving from him the information that your orders were fulfilled to the letter; the dwelling and every out-building, seven in number, with their contents, being burned. I, therefore, a helpless woman whom you have cruelly wronged, address you, a Major-General of the United States army, and demand why this was done? What was my offence? My husband was absent, an exile. He had never been a politician or in any way engaged in the struggle now going on, his age preventing. This fact your Chief-of-Staff, David Strother, could have told you. The house was built by my father, a Revolutionary soldier, who served the whole seven years for your independence. There was I born; there the sacred dead repose. It was my house and my home, and there has your niece (Miss Griffith) who has tarried among us all this horrid war up to the present time, met with all kindness and hospitality at my hands. Was it for this that you turned me, my young daughter and little son out upon the world without a shelter? Or was it because my husband is the grandson of the Revolutionary patriot and “rebel,” Richard Henry Lee, and the near kinsman of the noblest of Christian warriors, the greatest of Generals, Robert E. Lee? Heaven’s blessing be upon his head forever. You and your Government have failed to conquer, subdue or match him; and disappointment, rage and malice find vent on the helpless and inoffensive.
Hyena like, you have torn my heart to pieces! for all hallowed memories clustered around that homestead, and, demon-like, you have done it without even the pretext of revenge, for I never saw or harmed you. Your office is not to lead, like a brave man and soldier, your men to fight in the ranks of war, but your work has  been to separate yourself from all danger, and with your incendiary band steal unawares upon helpless women and children, to insult and destroy. Two fair homes did you yesterday ruthlessly lay in ashes, giving not a moment’s warning to the startled inmates of your wicked purpose; turning mothers and children out of doors, you are execrated by your own men for the cruel work you give them to do.
In the case of Colonel A. R. Boteler, both father and mother were far away. Any heart but that of Captain Martindale (and yours) would have been touched by that little circle, comprising a widowed daughter just risen from her bed of illness, her three fatherless babies — the oldest not five years old — and her heroic sister. I repeat, any man would have been touched at that sight but Captain Martindale. One might as well hope to find mercy and feeling in the heart of a wolf bent on his prey of young lambs, as to search for such qualities in his bosom. You have chosen well your agent for such deeds, and doubtless will promote him!
A colonel of the Federal army has stated that you deprived forty of your officers of their commands because they refused to carry on your malignant mischief. All honor to their names for this at least! They are men — they have human hearts and blush for such a commander!
I ask who that does not wish infamy and disgrace attached to him forever would serve under you? Your name will stand on history’s page as the Hunter of weak women and innocent children; the Hunter to destroy defenceless villages and refined and beautiful homes — to torture afresh the agonized hearts of widows; the Hunter of Africa’s poor sons and daughters to lure them on to ruin and death of soul and body; the Hunter with the relentless heart of a wild beast, the face of a fiend and the form of a man. Oh, Earth, behold the monster! Can I say, “God forgive you” ? No prayer can be offered for you! Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back again, and demons claim their own. The curses of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright and the hatred of the true and honorable, will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name infamy! Infamy!
Again, I demand why you have burned my home? Answer as you must answer before the Searcher of all hearts, why have you added this cruel, wicked deed to your many crimes?
—Henrietta B. Lee
The 155th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam would be honored the following day, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing. Field musicians representing 14th Tennessee Company B were performing in front of Dunkirk Chuch as the golden hour arrived and their tunes struck deep. It was quite humid, and I said to Jennifer, just imagine how the boys and men felt as they fought the battle all day long in their woolen uniforms with all their equipment.
Twilight at the Antietam National Cemetery, where National Park Rangers were giving an interpretative talk, brought an end to our day.
As you walk through the gate, it does not seem like there could be 5,000 souls buried here, yet sadly this is true.