Tag Archives: Potomac River

On Anniversaries, Apparitions, and Abnormal Weather

April 12th marks the 258th anniversary of the start of the British expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. The junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers was strategically important for the fur trade and westward expansion. The British were determined to secure this important site from the French, who had dominated the region. To that end, they sent one of their most experienced military leaders, Major General Edward Braddock, and well trained British troops.

This must have been a very alien land for the British, unused to the harsh reality of a country that was still very wild. In order to reach their destination, his troops would have to build the road they were to travel from Cumberland to present-day Pittsburgh. Braddock’s adviser on the expedition was a young George Washington, who had become very familiar with the country because of his own travels, who commanded a company of Virginia militia. The group split with half traveling through Virginia and half traveling through Maryland, with the intention of meeting at Cumberland. The Maryland contingent crossed from Alexandria to the Mouth of Rock Creek, landing on April 12. They then traveled north following roads that today encompass parts of River Road,Old Georgetown Road, and Route 355 (Wisconsin Avenue, Rockville Pike, Hungerford Road, and Frederick Road).

Dowden's Ordinary

Dowden’s Ordinary, ca.1900. From the collections of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

The weather in early April, 1755 was warm and sultry; probably similar to what we have been experiencing the past few days. You can only feel a little sorry for those British redcoats, traveling in their heavy wool uniforms on rough roads and uphill almost all the way. By the 15th, the weather had changed from hot and sultry to cold and rainy. By the time they camped that night at Dowden’s Ordinary in present-day Clarksburg, things had turned to snow and travel was treacherous.

They woke the next morning to what sound like blizzard conditions with “the snow being so violent we were oblig’d to beat it off the tents several times for fear it would Breck the tent Poles,” as one soldier reported. They couldn’t move until the 17th, when the weather cleared.

Was such bizarre spring weather a portent of what was to come? Shades of global warming? If only Braddock had headed the signs…

When they finally reached Cumberland in May, they were faced with a dreary sight – not enough food, guns, ammunition, horses, or wagons, to properly continue the expedition. Undeterred, Braddock left half his force to await supplies and forged on. It was rough going. His men had to build a road that could handle the traffic created by a marching army.  It wasn’t until July that they approached their destination where they were at a clear disadvantage. British troops were used to battlefield combat, using orderly fighting methods. The French had quickly adopted the fighting style of the Native Americans to whom they were allied and which worked better in the heavily wooded country.

Braddock and his men were ambushed. They were trapped on the road they had been building, surrounded on all sides by the enemy, it was a massacre. By the time the British could retreat, General Braddock had received a mortal wound.

And so today, in the low lying areas along the River Road and the Great Road, residents have said they can hear the sounds of an army marching…eternally marching to their death.

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Today the site of Dowden’s Ordinary is an archaeological park for M-NCPPC. A skeletal structure has been created to show the size of Dowden’s.

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Also in the park is the marker placed by the DAR to commemorate the event.

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Filed under Bethesda, Potomac

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff and More on Baker – The Life of a Death

Death of Baker at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Library of Congress.

Full-length portrait of Baker in uniform from the Library of Congress.

I hope you will excuse this longish post, but once started, I realized it needed to be a bit more than originally written. After my post on Col. Baker when I was in San Francisco, I began to wonder if there was a photographic record of his original gravestone. The current stone in the Military Cemetery at the Presidio was placed there in 1940, but he wasn’t originally buried there.  I was also intrigued with all the places where he has been memorialized. As often happens during a war, heroes emerge whose story is significant at the time, but eventually becomes an historical footnote. Their memory lives on mostly because of all the places that were named after them while their story was still fresh. (Montgomery County is one of many counties named after Richard Montgomery, a Revolutionary War hero, who is remembered mostly for all the places that were named for him after his death in 1775.) BUT then I realized that today, October 21, is the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and so I had to say more.

Dorothy had the thankless task of writing the stories for Annington, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and the C & O Canal. These stories trip all over each other, and separating them into three distinct tales was a challenge. You see, while Baker died at Ball’s Bluff, he haunts Annington. The ghosts that were created out of the tragedy that was the Battle of Ball’s Bluff spilled over into the C & O Canal.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield – stone marks where Baker died.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was a debacle. Ball’s Bluff is a steep cliff rising above the Potomac River in Loudon County, VA. The Confederates had the high ground. Baker should have called for a retreat, and was advised to do so by his subordinates. Perhaps it was being back on the battlefield after so many years, or hoping to take a decisive stand early in the war, but Baker pushed forward. It was a rout, with the Union wounded and dead clogging the Potomac. Baker, too, died, and was temporarily laid to rest at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.. Then, after some negotiations, it was decided that California would get him even though he was a senator from Oregon. (He had been a lawyer in San Francisco before moving to Oregon.) After a lengthy train ride to San Francisco, with many stops for mourners to view him along the way, he reached Lone Mountain Cemetery (later renamed Laurel Hill Cemetery) in San Francisco. This was an appropriate place as Baker had given the dedication speech for the cemetery when it opened in 1854.

Baker Monument, Laurel Hill Cemetery. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In 1940, after it was decided to close Lone Mountain/Laurel Hill, Baker was moved to the Presidio, where his grave can be found at plot site OSD 488.

Meanwhile, how is Baker remembered? There are three forts named for him – a Fort Baker can be found in Washington, D.C., Nevada, and San Francisco.  In addition, San Francisco has Baker Beach and Baker Street. Also in California, Gray Eagle Creek was named for Baker – the “gray eagle of republicanism.” In Oregon, where Baker was senator, there is Baker County, Baker City, and Edward D. Baker Day (February 24). His likeness can be found in the U.S. Capitol and the Illinois State House, where he had practiced law.

With so many possible places to haunt, is it any wonder that Baker seems to have chosen Annington, the site of his last peaceful meal?

(A special thank you to Lorna Kirwan at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley who actually located the image for me.)

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Filed under Civil War, Poolesville