Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rambling in Maryland: On the trail of U.S. Grant to Antietam

In the fall of 1869, President Grant visited the Antietam battlefield. 
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On the morning of Oct. 15, 1869, President Ulysses Grant and his party traveled in carriages from Frederick, Md., to Sharpsburg to visit the Antietam battlefield. For the former Union commander, this would be his first publicly-known visit to the place where seven years earlier George McClellan had defeated Robert E. Lee, Grant’s fierce war-time rival.

The president's close friend, 49-year-old William Sherman, was along for the ride, as was Jacob Cox, Grant's Secretary of Interior. The former Union general had great military knowledge of the area, having led troops at South Mountain and Antietam in 1862. Grant's group -- which included "several ladies" and state politicians, according to an account -- had been in Frederick for the county agricultural fair and political events.

The 20-mile trip through the beautiful western Maryland countryside was eventful.

Correspondent George Townsend's story on
President Grant's journey through western Maryland
to Sharpsburg was published in
Chicago Tribune on Oct. 23, 1869.
“On the way Secretary Cox and Colonel Vernon pointed out the various scenes of the conflict in which they both were engaged,” the New York Times reported the next day, with “South Mountain possessing peculiar interest of President Grant and General Sherman.” Known to friends as "Cump," Sherman bounded about that old battleground on foot to “better understand the events and the movements of that day.”

In those days, presidential security was not nearly as tight as it is today, so Grant's constituents had little trouble getting an up-close look at their leader.

“At Middletown large crowds surrounded the open carriage of the President, greeting the visitors with cheers,” the Times reported. “Handkerchiefs and miniature flags were waved by the ladies, and the bells of the village rung.” Grant received an “equally enthusiastic” reception in Boonsboro and then in Keedysville, just a few miles from Sharpsburg. The 47-year-old president's caravan arrived at its destination about 2:30 p.m..

Cheered by a large crowd and swarmed by "a number of ladies and children," Grant and Sherman, according to another account, "engaged in handshaking, which evidently afforded them much pleasure." Clearly, the men who were instrumental in vanquishing the Confederacy were popular figures in Sharpsburg. Short on time, the president made a few brief remarks before he caught a 3:30 p.m. train from Keedysville back to Washington. The Times report made no mention whether the president visited such notable Antietam sites as Burnside Bridge or Bloody Lane.

Tagging behind Grant's party en route to battlefield was intrepid newspaper reporter George Albert Townsend, then employed by the Chicago Tribune. During the war, Townsend was a stellar correspondent for Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Herald. In April 1865, he covered President Lincoln's assassination for the New York World.

Unfortunately, Townsend -- who wrote under the pen name "Gath" -- lagged behind Grant's group and never caught up with the president in Sharpsburg. But he did file to the Tribune a lengthy, and often rambling, report about his trip to the battlefield and visit to Antietam. Let's join the 28-year-old newspaperman for his long-ago trip through western Maryland:

George Townsend, a newspaper correspondent during
the Civil War, followed President Grant's caravan
to Antietam in 1869.
(From Our Own Correspondent)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 --Thanks to Mrs. Stowe, while I was reading again the preface to Childs Harold, on Friday, I saw the words: "Travel, except ambition the most powerful of all excitements;" and this made me remember that General Grant had gone up to Frederick City. I took the first train that presented a chance, and was speedily in the midst of the most graceful sceneries and thickest clustering recollections of the midlands of the Atlantic slope. I was on the former city of the frontier, in the heart of the "Little West.":


Here, fifty miles west of Baltimore, was a capital of the Great West one hundred years ago. What are now stations of Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, then drew the attention of capital and industry to Utica, Winchester, and Frederick. West of Frederick, not many miles, stands an old fort, which was one of the last defences toward the Mississippi. In 1796 Frederick had 700 houses, and four thousand people, while Winchester, its rival, was half as large. The National Road, which Mrs. Trollope called "the Simplon of America," drew off the frontiersmen to Hagerstown, Cumberland, and Wheeling.

But I am sure that one hundred years hence Chicago will not look half so old as Frederick now. They built here in the proportions of humility, and the houses went up old, because the people were oldish, the manners quaint, and the time demure. The founders of the town were German Palatines, precisely the same people who settled the Mohawk Valley and the valleys of East Pennsylvania. Frederick City is now about 160 years old, and it contains ten thousand people. It is one of the most exquisite country towns to be found in any nation, and is also remarkable for the beauty of its women, and the thrift and fertility of the neighboring country. Very many of its people are directly descended from Hessian prisoners who were confined near by this place during the Revolutionary war, as are numerous Winchestrians from the English and Germans captured at Yorktown and elsewhere.

The country between and adjoining to Frederick and Winchester is the Belguim, the cockpit of America. At Winchester the rebel army of the Flank made its rendezvous for every new campaign; at Frederick, the corresponding Union army. It was to look at some of the battle-fields by Frederick that General Grant, with a part of his cabinet, came up to the agricultural fair on Friday, and on Saturday he took a noble carriage drive across the Catoctin and South Mountains to Antietam, returning thence by a new railroad which descends by the valley of the Antietam to the railway for Baltimore and Washington.

              GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Market Street in Frederick, Md., perhaps much as
        President Grant and correspondent George Townsend may have seen it in 1869.

The fair at Frederick, like every agricultural fair of the East in our days, was less a collection of huge and curious products of the soil and the stock-yards than a place of advertisement and exhibition for the numerous machineries which have stripped husbandry of its picturesqueness, while they have added to its comfort. I was much more interested in going through the agreeable streets of the place, reading the signs of old inns, peeping into stable yards, looking at the numerous priests, and at their large convent and seminary. Some of the residences are large and imposing; the streets are lined with shade-trees, and Barbara Freitchie's old house is torn down. These were the chief matters of the moment. President Grant was received with manifest respect, and by the folks of German descent particularly, while the traditional hospitality of Maryland was not evaded or grudged by the political opponents of Republicanism.

The Republican party of Maryland is divided into two bitter factions -- one led by Creswell and Fulton, and the other by Judge Bond. The former section is represented by the leading daily paper of Baltimore, and by a seat in the Cabinet, so that Bond's party may be said to be in disfavor at present. Yet one section is ostensibly as radical as the other; the Bond folks claim Creswell was an original rebel who was cozzened to loyalty by Winter Davis with the gift of Senatorship; the Creswell people have read Bond out of the party as a malcontent. I guess they both are right, and both politicians. Bond is the best talker I ever listened to, and he has the reddest nose, while Creswell quotes Latin elegantly, and is getting round in the belly.

I do not suppose that Grant cares anything about this feud of the caucuses, After the Fifteenth Amendment is passes, both these parties will find that merely blind Radicalism and the indiscriminate federalization of every issue and interest will be losing stakes. Not what they were, but what they know, and what judgment they show will be indices of their political standing. Both of them are progressive and talented men who would probably be in accord if it were not for tattlers and hangers-on who keep the flame of discord alive and prejudice the cause of toleration and charity in the important State of the city of Baltimore.


George McClellan and Ulysses Grant: "Him and Micklillin is great boys," an Irishman who served
under them said of the generals during Grant's 1869 journey to Antietam.
So many events of battle and biography have been crowded upon my attention in the past eight years that it took a strong effort to summon any enthusiasm at following Grant over the route of McClellan's last important campaign. I had small hopes of overtaking him, provided as he was with a fleet span, and as I had determined to remain over Sunday in the region, I drove quietly, stopping often to examine a map or to ask a question. The entire ride was over a most noble country, the streams tilted out of their destined channels by a pair of mountain ranges, so that instead of flowing eastward to the Chesapeake they ran southward to the Potomac.

The first stream of this region, the Monocacy, separating Frederick and the Baltimore plains, had interposed in 1864 between Jubal Early and Washington, so that, as it is alleged, the battle of Monocacy, fought a little south of Frederick, saved the capital. On the Pennsylvania headwaters of the Monacacy the battle of Gettysburg had been fought the previous year. Nearly opposite the mouth of the Monacacy the battle of Ball's Buff occurred, in 1861. And in 1862 the struggles of South Mountain and Antietam formed another group of great actions in this historic district. It has been so long since these battles happened that any mere reproduction of them would weary your readers. At the present time they are interesting only as they lead to some comparative remarks upon McClellan and Grant, the idol of the early part of the war and the hero of its termination, one of who is now visiting the best contested battle-field of the other.

Former Union General Jacob Cox traveled with
President Grant from Frederick, Md., to Antietam.
He was Grant's Secretary of Interior.
The roads in this part of the country are as admirable as the sceneries. Before us rose the long arcs of the wooded Catoctin Mountains, broken through at the gaps, and plain views were afforded, at a little distance from Frederick, of both Turner's and Crampton's Gaps; where Reno died, the present Secretary Cox fought with admirable persistence and success, and Joe Hooker won another Battle of the Clouds. The German-looking farmhouses and barns by the way were light patches of white and vermilion in the midst of long declivities of shocked corn, plentiful stacks of golden straw, and green fields of grass, freshened by rills and springs of bright water. We heard of Grant ahead at every few rods, and the answers were always given with a mixture of heartiness and interest which made us feel that the office of President was still considered far remote from party.

“What do you think of him?” said my companion to an Irishman.

“Will! He just looks like a murthern’ little feller. But he don’t say much, while he look at you mighty hard.”

“You think he’s game, don’t you?”

“Yes! Him and Micklillin is great boys. I fought wid ‘em both.”

Here is the old superstition of McClellan again, and we left the Irishman in the road protesting that the “government wouldn’t give Mack troops because, gorrah! They were afraid of him.”

The Germans, interrogated in a like manner, always roused a little from their stolidity, and pointed after the Magistrate’s carriage. “He’s there. He spoke to me and other men. You’re bout d right.”

Not only were there cheerful indications of that undertone of personal loyalty which shows the citizen beneath the partisan, but in this part of Maryland the bulk of well-to-do partisanship seemed to be Republican. Wherever Saxon blood grows the purest the principle of liberty is most universal; it is more conspicuous in the Swede and German than in the Englishman, and with these, besides, it is idealized by some fine show of confidence in the ruler. I had talked at Frederick with a group of Germans who stoutly protested that Barbara Freitchie did shake the American flag in Stonewall Jackson’s face, notwithstanding the decisive evidence that this alleged incident was merely an exaggerated form of another episode in which the old lady figured; the German faith was based upon the German wish.

I also noted along the way, and even at Sharpsburg, the acrimonious remembrances of the war are nearly exaggerated. The eternal hate of which poets and town orators tell is soon overgrown like the graves all round about. It would serve a politician’s purpose to keep one set of the people from father to great-grandson at dagger’s points, but war, being one, is a practical issue in America and can survive as a handle to office-getting no longer than the question undetermined by it. The Maryland rebels who hid their faces at the time of danger are much bitterer at this safe distance than the poor devil of a Virginia rebel who looked to them for comfort in vain.

During Grant's trip to Sharpsburg,  Joseph Hooker's
name was "mentioned with sad respect," 
George Townsend wrote.  
It is also a mistake to suppose that the ravages of war endue heavily upon the surface of nature. They continue to exist most onerously upon the body of society, and are felt more keenly a thousand miles distant upon the spot of conflict. I defy any man to come from a long distance blindfolded and detect this region between the Monocacy and the Potomac as having been marched over, encamped upon, and fought upon, at one time or another, by four hundred thousand men. The traces of battle are microscopic at this day. Of several hundred strong block houses put up along the Baltimore & Ohio Road, not five now exist, and even they have been transformed into corn cribs or cattle sheds. The rankest and most ardent vegetation of nature has entered into contract to cover the rifle-pits and fortifications of five years ago. Of graves of slain soldiers, except in decent graveyards, there are positively none that can be found without a guide. I was shown the place of interment of about thirty rebel dead by the Dunker Church, on the field of Antietam, and it was a serene duck paddle, with swimming muscovites quacking and mating over the handful of bones, well covered, below.

Human nature does wisely to imitate nature in aversion for keeping conspicuous the souvenirs of slaughter. The rebellion was the culmination of the crime of generations of a bloody blunder by the last generation, and its penalties reached from cotton mills of Manchester to Mexico, and to Nova Scotia, even more terribly than to the actual battle-fields. Maximilian died at Queretaro by the rebellion; Canada lost profitable reciprocity by the rebellion; and England acquired the Alabama debt by the rebellion. But whoever drives through Turner’s Gap to see the havoc of war will have little for his pains. In this gap, lifted sixteen hundred feet in the air, with cones of mountain rising four hundred feet higher on either side, with my horse’s head in a pleasant tavern water-bucket, and the landlord, well-pleased at having spoken a President of the United States, chattering at the wheel. I felt that there was no dead man so inconsistent as to get up from his grave to disturb this way-side scene. The dead are nuisances as the living in crying “Hate! hate!” You may put your ear to any soldier’s grave and hear nothing harsher than the blowing of the grass.

At this gap, Secretary Cox, a modest scholar and hero of South Mountain, entered into some description of the fight for Grant’s edification, Creswell listening. Joe Hooker’s name was mentioned with sad respect, for he was a beaked eagle here as elsewhere. I asked the landlord if anything was said about McClellan. Nothing had been expressed as to him; but I believe that Grant invariably mentions him respectfully, and says that he is an accomplished engineer.


                GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Townsend's trip to Antietam took him through 
       Keedysville, Md. Many buildings on the main street there date to the Civil War era.

In little better than an hour more we were in Keedysville, having beheld exquisite pictures of valley country on the descent. As we drove into the village a whistle sounded; it was Grant departing in a special train, and our only satisfaction was to hear the talk of the people assembled, none of whom expressed other than warm gratification at having looked at leisure upon the conqueror of Lee. The frequent remark was:

“Well! I’ve seen him, anywho!”

“What do you think of him, Squire?”

“Spry little fellow! He’ll do!”

Fifty years hence this recollection of Grant’s visit will be a thrilling reminiscence through all this country, fully as vivid as any stories of the battle, and much more cheerful. It is the best privilege of eminence that by its mere appearance it can commemorate places and rejoice society. I heard a woman say:

“Wel’, Hannah! I’ve heard my mother say that she expected she would die without seeing any President. I’ve seen one!”

        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: George Townsend's route to Sharpsburg took him over
       Antietam Creek. The war-time bridge long ago was replaced by this modern span.

As an instance of the march of improvement in this country, observe that over the field of Antietam passes a railway, entirely built since the warfare. The stone bridge over the Antietam Creek, by which insufficient portions of our forces moved while the great battle raged on our extreme right wing, gave me passage to the Soldiers’ Cemetery, which stands on a ridge where Lee in person is said to have taken position, almost within the limits of the clean village of Sharpsburg. The Southerners call this battle after the village; we name it, more picturesquely, in honor of the valley and stream.

An early post-war view of Antietam National Cemetery, probably
 much as it looked to George Townsend during his 1869 visit.
(Library of Congress)
The cemetery is the worthiest of the whole series of battle graveyards that I have seen, albeit it contains no monument like Gettysburg; a plain and stable grandeur of site and elaboration mark it; a strong stone wall set round, surmounted by a stately iron paling, while the enclosure is sloped like the cross-section of a huge dome, columns of white boards – and under every board a martyr – rising to the chord of the dome, and in the concentric arcs above are the unknown dead and those from States feebly represented in the fight. Here are buried, also, the dead of South Mountain, of Shepherdstown, and of innumerable skirmishes all round about. The farmers in many cases refused to indicate the site of graves, because their growing crops would be disturbed in the disinterment. While I was in the cemetery, a man of surly countenance said to me:

“The State of Maryland will put Southern dead in here yet.”

If he wanted to get an angry answer he was disappointed,

“I hope they will be put here,” I replied, “if there’s room for them.”

This would be better than at Winchester where the rebel dead lie in a separate cemetery, near by ours, and the two cemeteries make as much contention in the community as a homeopathic and aliopathic doctor pitched side by side. The one is always covered with flowers, and the other scarcely with grass.

"There is an old but juicy look about the region, pastoral and precipitous together," Townsend wrote 
about the Sharpsburg, Md., area. Here is a view of the 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.
I used to imagine Antietam to be a creek in the Wilderness; but the scene from this cemetery is one of the most delightful stretches of fertile landscape in the world, and, to my experience, the noblest battle-field in America, not excepting the Plains of Abraham or the field of Brandywine. On the crest of the hills across the Antietam is McClellan’s signal station, marked by a bare spot amongst the timber. At the foot of these hills the green and golden undulations of vegetation roll for several miles, and ample timber patches standing straight and dark, and cosy farms and orchards thick together, and cattle plentiful.

There is an old but juicy look about the region, pastoral and precipitous together, and here the North and South struck their alternate flanks together, with centres immovable, like a couple of magnetic eels till one withdrew and the other was unwilling to follow. Here expired Mansfield; but here died McClellan and his little group of personal Generals. Mansfield was an old soldier of duty, who went down at his work. This battle put Burnside at the head of the army, disastrously, though Sprague does say the same thing. Quietly looked into after this interval, it is manifest that Burnside at Antietam was ineffective and dispirited, and no such prompt soldier as Joe Hooker, who opened the battle on the tick of time, prompt as the sun. If McClellan had advanced his centre that day, with Fitz-John Porter in command, and Porter had died on the field, it would have been better for his memory, because lying idle in this action the old due of Chantilly had to be settled by court-martial, to his disgrace.

George Townsend was no fan of George McClellan, seen here in
a cropped enlargement of his post-Antietam meeting
with President Lincoln.  (Library of Congress)
In this, his last campaign, McClellan showed that he had no heart, that his errors were chronic. Possessed of Lee’s plans by a lucky miracle, he permitted that fine Captain to practically disband an army in his face, and to send separate corps on several errands, while he was too indecisive to mass upon any one of them. Lee showed practically contempt for McClellan at Antietam, and late official developments of Confederate forces have shown that McClellan was never aware of the strength of his enemy; that he was never cheerful, much less sanguine, in the presence of battle, and that he was the very feeblest commander ever brought into prominence by any considerable nation of men. The gigantic error of his existence at the head of our army will provoke wonder of history; and that he should have presumed to add to his military imbecility political advice to Abraham Lincoln will ever be a monument to the forebearance of that first of politicians and best of Americans.

Among the souvenirs of the battle-field of Antietam is an inscription, written in lead pencil by a visitor, upon one of the head-boards:


Here, where you boys shall come
On the tree trunks your names to indite,
I, one of “The Boys” at sound of the drum,

Carved my life into the fight,
I lost my name in the shout
That we litted into the rout
Of the rebs, as we beat ‘em;
My birthplace I lost in my death;
Into my fame leaped my breath;
Call the one and the other “Antietam!”


-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Chicago Tribune, Oct. 23, 1869.
-- Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, Oct. 16, 1869.
-- The New York Times, Oct. 16, 1869.


  1. Thanks John. And thank God for US Grant. He knew how to win.

  2. Anonymous3:40 PM

    Grant had more men. Plain and simple.

  3. Excellent piece, I have shared it far and wide. Many thanks for bringing this obscure piece of journalism to us.