Retreat From Gettysburg

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Retreat From Gettysburg CoverColor-Enhanced

The first two novels I had published were both set during the American Civil War. After they came out, a number of people suggested that I write a story about Gettysburg. It’s certainly one of the most famous battles of the Civil War. I was hesitant, though. Many wonderful novels had already been set against that battle.

Then a reader from Williamsport stopped at my book table during a signing in Sharpsburg. “You should learn more about what happened in Williamsport after the Battle of Gettysburg,” she said. “It would make a good novel.”

Readers often give me suggestions for future books. Usually I explain that I have more ideas of my own than I will ever have time to explore!

But this time, I was curious enough to do some research. I learned that after the battle, flood waters trapped the retreating Confederate Army in the little border Maryland town. The Civil War almost ended, right there.

Rear of the column LC

A Confederate column retreating from Gettysburg.  (Library of Congress)

I grew up in Maryland. How come I’d never heard about this? When I tried to imagine what the Williamsport civilians experienced during those tense days. I knew what my next book was going to explore.

Williamsport sits on the banks of the Potomac River, within sight of the Virginia shore.

LC Williamsport print

Union troops trying to defend a dam on the Potomac near Williamsport against attack by Confederate forces. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January, 1862/Library of Congress.)

After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the defeated Confederates knew that if they could reach Virginia, they’d be safe on their own soil again.  When they arrived in Williamsport, however, there was no way to get across.

LC Signal officers Williamsport

A Union signal officer in the attic of a farm house near Williamsport, watching the Confederate Army approach, July, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Everyone knew the Northern army couldn’t be far behind.  Civilians lived in an agony of suspense, wondering whether another horrific battle might start in the streets of their town.

The Confederate Army overwhelmed the village. Some civilians were turned out of their homes. In other cases, soldiers took control of only part of the house, allowing the family to use other rooms.

The main character in Retreat From Gettysburg is Chigger O’Malley, a young boy of Irish descent living with his mother in Williamsport.  Chigger’s older brothers and father have all died while fighting for the Union. When the Confederate Army arrives, a wounded Southern soldier is placed in the O’Malley cabin. Chigger struggles to decide how he, as the only O’Malley man left, should respond.

The C & O Canal was, and remains, an important part of Williamsport’s identity.  The photograph below shows an amazing feat of engineering, an aqueduct.

NPS Conococheague Aqueduct

An aqueduct allows one body of water to pass over another—in this case, the Conococheague Creek, near Williamsport. (National Park Service)

By 1900, canal traffic was so heavy that a basin had been created to allow for loading and unloading.

LC Potomac at Williamsport

A canal boat is being loaded with cargo to the right.  The Potomac River is visible in the upper left.  (Library of Congress)

Williamsport is a great place to learn more about the C & O Canal National Historic Park Visitors’ Center, located in the old Cushwa Warehouse.  Within half a mile you can see Lock 44, a lockhouse, a re-watered stretch of the canal, and the Conococheague Aqueduct.

In Retreat From Gettysburg, Chigger had some hard choices to make.  If you have the chance to visit Williamsport, take a stroll and imagine yourself back in his world.  What would you have done?

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5 Responses to “Retreat From Gettysburg”

  1. Sue Says:

    Another one to add to our family reading list!

  2. Binah Says:

    Please enter me! I’m sure we would enjoy this one, too.

  3. Rose Milligan Says:

    I love your posts; they are so interesting. Thanks for having the giveaway.

    harnessrose(at)yahoo(dot)com

  4. Heather S Says:

    My kiddos and myself would la la LOVE this!

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