Preface: Before advancing too far into the discussion of Young’s Island Ford, I would like to express my thanks to Nancy Anwyll, of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, for her assistance with my research. I would still be fighting the underbrush along the Potomac without her advice!
Young’s Island Ford is one of several crossing points of the Potomac River in the vicinity of Leesburg, Virginia. Unfortunately, the placename has long become obsolete and the historical record leaves a less than precise description of the location. The crossing point was used in two major campaigns, and for countless routine crossings. While no major combat activity occurred there, this locality is a candidate for an “on the back roads” article or perhaps even an interpretive marker.
Young’s Island Ford was among those evaluated by General Henry Slocum, commanding the Federal XII Corps, during the Gettysburg Campaign (see Edwards Ferry time lines). In a dispatch to General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, on June 24, 1863, Slocum wrote:
I have all the fords within 10 miles of Edwards Ferry examined. Young’s Island Ford, 3 miles below Edwards Ferry, is the best one, and can be crossed with trains. White’s Ford, 2 miles above Edwards, is next in point of practicability, but is very difficult, and I would not dare to attempt crossing a train at night. The river is quite high. [Note 1]
Slocum’s distance references likely were a bit off. If he were referring to river distances, Edwards Ferry is near mile 31 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, while Whites Ford is near mile 39. So given the deviation offered by Slocum’s figures for White’s Ford, Young’s Island Ford could be anywhere up to 12 miles below Edwards Ferry! Still within some degree of rational estimation, Young’s Island was downstream from Edwards Ferry and must not have been far from the mouth of Broad Run (on the Virginia Side). Despite the passage of Stahel’s Cavalry Division at the ford, no other concrete description of the point is offered during the dispatches of the Gettysburg campaign.
A better description of Young’s Island was made by General Horatio Wright, commanding the Federal VI Corps, in July 1864. In a dispatch to Army Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wright updated the status of his pursuit of Confederate General Jubal Early’s command following the July raid on Washington. Writing from Poolesville, Maryland, he noted:
…I have put the force here in motion for Leesburg, crossing at White’s Ford, and have instructed General Ord to move as rapidly as practicable to the same point, crossing at Young’s Island, about one and a half miles below Edwards Ferry…. [Note 2]
Wright, with the mention of the same three crossing points as Slocum, offered a different location for Young’s Island Ford relative to Edwards Ferry. His movement orders correspond with itineraries from Captain Andrew Cowan’s 1st New York Independent Battery and the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Cowan reports placing his guns to cover a crossing of the Cavalry at the ford on July 15. [Note 3] Major William H. Fry of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry reported:
July 15, crossed the Potomac at Young’s Island Ferry. [emphasis mine] Upon rising the crest of the hill we were saluted with a few shells from a battery near the mouth of Goose Creek. Encamped on Young’s Island. [Note 4]
From these three different 1864 citations are several points to consider. First, the Ford site was closer to Edwards Ferry than described by Slocum. Second, because Cowan did not mention any engagement, it is likely the mouth of Goose Creek at Edwards Ferry was just out of range of his guns. My records show Cowan’s Battery was equipped with 3-inch Ordnance Rifles. Thus the Maryland side of the crossing point was at least a mile from the Virginia side of Edwards Ferry. Lastly, Fry indicates the crossing was a ferry site.
Opting Wright’s location as a better figure, and keeping in mind the crossing point may have operated as a ferry, the next source to consult is contemporary maps. The “McDowell Map” of 1861 does not even indicate the location of Young’s Island, much less a crossing point. Another map from the period is Jedediah Hotchkiss’ map of Loudoun County, created sometime in the 1860s.
Hotchkiss indicates several islands in the river, but no names or crossing point.
In fact, the only contemporary map which even mentions Young’s Island as a place name are Maps #988 and #989 from a set of U.S. Coastal Survey maps in the University of Alabama collection. The two map sheets clearly indicate Young’s Island as the largest, and the first, downstream from Edwards Ferry. Today this island is noted as Selden Island. Map #988 covers the Potomac River from Whites Ferry to Young’s Ford. Below is a section of that map showing Edwards Ferry just left of center, and Young’s Island on the right.
Closer inspection shows a dashed line from the island to the Maryland shore. A stray mark on the map conveniently points to the line in the center of this cut from the map (look hard it is very faint but dead center):
The line somewhat reinforces the idea a ferry operated along that section of the river, as alluded to in Major Fry’s report. Granted, there still could have been two different crossing points (as the case with White’s Ford and White’s Ferry). But at a minimum the Coastal Survey maps lock down the location of Young’s Island. Loudoun historian and map-maker Eugene Scheel indicated a more exact location for the ford on his maps of the area, and it correlates to the Coastal Survey map.
Selden Island today is owned by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (part of the Janelia Farm Campus), but is rented out as a sod farm. In the past it has been the subject of archeological excavations focused on pre-colonial Native American occupations. But while the island itself is posted today, part of the Potomac Heritage Trail skirts the Virginia side of the Potomac through the area, at least offering a glimpse of potential crossing points.
Not indicated on the Coastal Survey map but drawn on Sheel’s map is a road leading off the Leesburg Turnpike (modern Va. Highway 7) to the Island. Today that road is gated, but a pull off allows a view of what may be a wartime lane (located here).
The closest trailhead on the Potomac Heritage Trail is on the other end of this road, closer to the Island. From the Leesburg Turnpike, turn onto Smith Circle (CR 823) and follow that road to Island Avenue and turn left. After a short distance, turn left again onto Potomac Drive. At the end of Potomac Drive, park to the side of the turnabout. At the trail head is an access gate onto the road seen above.
After passing through the gate, the trail turns right and parallels the road. At the north end of the road is a single span bridge to the Island. The distance is just under 100 yards.
The trail passes near the bridge abutments, where what may be an old road bed drops to the river channel.
I cannot say for sure if this is the actual wartime crossing point to the island without more investigations on the far side. Since that is off limits presently, I’ll save that story for another day, perhaps. At some point, to further validate the location of Young’s Island Ford, or Ferry, I will eventually tromp down along the Maryland side looking for old paths or other traces.
- Dispatch from Slocum to Hooker, June 24, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 286.
- Dispatch from Wright to Army HQ, 7 a.m., July 14, 1864. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 70, p. 268. This same dispatch is repeated on Serial 71, p. 350.
- Report of Capt. Andrew Cowan, First New York Battery, of operations July 11-30. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 70, p. 280-1.
- Report of Maj. William H. Fry, Sixteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanding Provisional Cavalry Regiment, of operations July 9-23. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 70, p. 248-250.