Just a simple reading through even basic Civil War references bears out the importance of several key crossing points on the Potomac River. While not as frequently traversed or contested as those crossings on the Rappahannock and Rapidan, the Potomac River saw its fair share of important crossings. Many of these sites are “in my backyard” so to speak, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend the time on the back roads or walking the trails along the Potomac to visit these sites.
White’s Ford saw the passing of armies on several occasions. Demonstrations where held around the ford during the Battle of Balls Bluff. During the Antietam Campaign, the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia crossed at the ford (thanks to Lige White). J.E.B. Stuart used it as his escape route after the Chambersburg Raid. Jubal Early also used the ford to effect a return to Virginia, following his “raid on Washington.” And that is just the short list of activity.
Access to the site on the Maryland side appears easy, but requires a little trailblazing. A hard surface road to a parking area within the Dickerson Conservation Park is an easy drive. Off Dickerson (or Darnestown) Road, MD 28, take Martinsburg Road out to the park. A Civil War Trails marker stands in the parking area and details some of the history of the ford. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath trail runs adjacent to the parking area. The first point of note is about two tenths of a mile south from the parking lot on the towpath trail.
The lock and lockmaster’s house foundations are still in place. Much of the Army of Northern Virginia passed by here during September 4-7, 1862, on their way upstream toward Monocacy Aqueduct and eventually a place called Sharpsburg, Maryland. One wonders if the Oak tree beside the lock is old enough to be a “witness tree.” Just over a month later, on October 12, 1862, Major John Pelham placed one of his guns nearby to defend the ford while Stuart’s command made good their escape after the Chambersburg Raid.
From the lock, the site of the ford is about a half mile further downstream. A National Park Service marker stands about half that distance south, and discusses the actions pertaining to Stuart’s raid in detail. At this point along the towpath, the river is about 100 to 150 yards to the west. The ground is flood wash with snags, undergrowth, and soft ground. The safe spot to get a look at the general area of the ford is just past mile post 39. A worn foot trail leads out to the northern tip of Masons Island, described as the location of White’s Ford.
Another view, from just upstream, offers a better view of the Virginia side.
The Potomac looks calm and restrained at this reach of the river, quite unlike the crashing current falling over the rocks at Harpers Ferry or Great Falls. The river bottom is sandy compared to other sections.
But what of the Virginia side? The opposite shore is on private land to the east of U.S. 15 north of Leesburg. After a couple of miles on the backroads, the public roads dead end near the Potomac. The closest I could get to the Virginia shore was a peak across the fields.
Not hard to imagine troops assembled, to wait their turn to cross the river in 1862. Or some of the same troops stomping off the river mud and getting re-assembled in 1864.
According to several tour guides, the John Pelham Association placed a monument on the Maryland side near the spot where the Major defended the ford. After a full half hour of traversing side paths and searching underbrush for the monument, I had to admit defeat. If anyone knows the location or can even verify the monument is indeed standing, I’d appreciate a note.