In the midwinter of 1862 heavy pieces of field artillery were dragged up the slopes of a remote village in western Washington County. Fear had struck the people of Hancock, for in nearby Virginia, high above both the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Potomac River, were the troops of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
The rebels were spotted probing deep into the western highlands. And then suddenly they began a barrage of Hancock from the Virginia side of the river.
Citizens of the village hurried their artillery in place: Union batteries that opposed the military terror of the Shenandoah Valley. The defenders' field pieces were placed high on a ridge on the grounds of St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the town's cemetery, where burials had been going on since the town's earliest days. Casualties were treated in the church, converted for the time into a hospital.
Even then, nearly 130 years ago, the peaceful graveyard could be ranked as ancient: It bore remains of people who had pioneered in Western Maryland's earliest days.
John Protzman, who was born in 1717 and died in 1801, was already buried there, along with John Johnson Esq., of Annapolis (1770-1821). "Chancellor of his native state," it says on his imposing funeral slab.
The Bridgeses and Gingrichs, the Orricks and Bealls, the Davises, Bowlers and Blackwells and Sagles were all there, too, under the stones that reveal much more about family health and lifestyle than a graveyard would tell today.
A superbly healthy rose of Sharon has all but taken over the grave of Josephus and Mehetable Beall. They lost three children and share their gravestone with them.
Nearby, up the hill, the long-lived Stottlemeyers are buried in a workmanlike row near the cemetery's only access road. One lived to be 75. Three were 80 or more when death came and two made it to 90 or beyond.
The Bridgeses were big landowners in this part of the state. There must have been a lot of money, for Henry Bridges raised an elaborate monument at the grave of Henry Heller. The inscription says that Heller has gone to a land "where love ennobles all."
Also large and elegant is the family monument of the Gregorys, a high pylon of stone carved with laurel leaves and topped by a funerary urn.
Sophia Davis, who must have seen the Civil War troubles, died in 1872. They chiseled on her stone the couplet "Jesus she on earth did love and now she dwells with him above."
After 1862's cannonade, Hancock would be left largely alone, while for more than two years the awesome Civil War ranged around it: at Antietam, Cumberland, Winchester, Va., etc. Then, there was a second alarm. At the end of July 1864, Union Gen. William Woods Averill hurried to head off the troops of the Chambersburg raid: rebel riders with Gen. John McCausland, who had ransomed the Pennsylvania town for $100,000 -- in gold. There was a skirmish near the Hancock crossing of the Potomac, but as often happened, the Yankees were too late. McCausland led the raiders across the Potomac to safety.
Many years later the mountain town endured its greatest ordeal: the great Potomac River flood of 1936. The C&O Canal all but disappeared then, with water 18 feet deep above flood stage. (Mother Nature staged a virtual repeat of the flood in 1985).
But today, high above both river and canal, the Hancock graveyard is still peaceful, green and growing.