War stories come to life all along the C&O Canal

August 12, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Williamsport -- This Washington County town sits at Mile 100 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the man-made 184.5-mile waterway completed in 1850 to parallel the Potomac River from Washington to Cumberland.

Last Sunday it was Stop No. 2 on a series of walks and talks by National Park Ranger John C. Frye on the Civil War history of the canal, which divided North and South.

The Sunday series began Aug. 1 at Dam 5 on the Potomac, seven miles upstream, and ends Oct. 24 in Georgetown, 100 miles downstream.

Twenty-six people showed up Sunday to hear Mr. Frye talk about history in the place where it happened. Three major invasions of Maryland by the Confederate Army came through Williamsport.

Mike Harsh, 42, of Williamsport, brought his whole family -- wife, three daughters, "even the dog."

"I grew up here and had heard Civil War stories but I didn't know what was true," he says. "John made things come alive. I learned a lot."

Mr. Frye, 59, of Gapland, also works part-time in the Washington County Library history room. His son, Dennis, is chief historian at Harpers Ferry Historical Park.

His walks tie the current wide appeal of the Civil War to the narrower popularity of canal history. "Instead of emphasizing the canal, you emphasize the war. But you're learning about both."

Thomas G. Clemens, a Hagerstown Junior College history professor and authority on the Civil War in Western Maryland, says, "The canal was important to the war. It was a major transportation route . . . to Washington."

This Sunday, the walk will be at Mile 71.5. It focuses on the little-known 1862 Battle of Shepherdstown in which 400 Union troops were killed.

"There were 149 skirmishes in Maryland in addition to the regular battles, about a third in the area of the canal," Mr. Frye says. "Men were killed and wounded with much property damage. The skirmishes didn't get the publicity of the big battles, but men died just the same."

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