As the tumultuous spring of 1861 lurched toward summer, the small farming village of Sharpsburg, Maryland came to grips with the real meaning of what it would be to live in a divided country. Sharpsburg lies in Washington County, and the county’s southern border, the Potomac River, snakes along for nearly 80 miles. In those days the river was the southern border of the Union and divided Maryland from the secessionist territory of Virginia. Shepherdstown, Virginia, was just three miles west of Sharpsburg across and on the shores of the Potomac River. With the outbreak of war in April, 1861, the Union sought to defend the river crossing, and combination of local militias and federal troops moved in to Washington County to protect the numerous fords and occasional bridge used to cross the river. One of those bridges crossed the river at Shepherdstown. It was torched in late April, 1861, making a river crossing much more difficult.
Because local sentiments for war, or for preservation of the Union, menaced and enraged people on either side of the issue, choices about which army to join were now life and death decisions and could bring harm before ever enlisting. In addition, the choice to join the Confederate Army meant that young men of Sharpsburg must cross the Potomac to enlist at the recruiting station in Shepherdstown. At least two such attempts were fatal.
Under the heading A Painful Occurrence, the following article appeared in a Hagerstown, Maryland newspaper:
J. Gabby Duckett, eldest son of Dr. T. B. Duckett, of (Sharpsburg) left his home, without the knowledge or consent of his father, and proceeded to the Potomac river, a few miles above Sharpsburg, for the purpose of passing over to join the Confederate Army in Virginia. He was last seen alive walking on the tow-path of the Canal near Grove’s ware-house in the direction of a fish dam on which it was supposed he intended to cross. On Wednesday last, a dead body washed ashore at Shepherdstown and a careful examination proved it to be that of young Duckett. A ring was found upon one of his fingers with the initials of his name upon it, and a pair of stockings upon his feet contained those of his father’s name. The supposition at first was that he had been drowned in crossing the river, but a small bullet hole being found in his chest, as if made with a pistol, left no doubt of his having been shot and thrown into the river either before or after he had crossed it. One dollar and fifty-eight cents in coin were found in his pocket-, but he was known to have had a much larger sum with him, together with several suits of clothing. He was in the 20th year of his age, and his death, under the painful circumstances which surrounded it, has very deeply afflicted his aged and devoted father, who is a firm friend of the Union cause. His remains were brought to this town (Hagerstown), and interred on Friday last.
The circumstances here, although not fully known, do not suggest robbery. Something more sinister than a crime of personal enrichment seems to be at the heart of the demise of J. Gabby Duckett.
DeWitt Clinton Rench was another young man of the Sharpsburg area who tried and failed to reach the recruiting station in Shepherdstown in June 1861. Rench was a close friend of Henry Kyd Douglas, another young man of Sharpsburg. They were roommates together at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but Douglas had completed his legal education and moved to St. Louis in December, 1860. When South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, Douglas quickly headed home and enlisted at Shepherdstown. From a nearby camp, he wrote to his friend Dewitt Clinton Rench and encouraged him to find a safe way to cross the river to enlist at Shepherdstown so they could be together in the same company.
Rench was apparently a brash young man, and had a reputation as an ardent and vocal secessionist in the area. He was aware that he would not be able to cross the river directly at Shepherdstown, and instead planned to cross at Williamsport, a river town just upriver from Shepherdstown. When he discussed his enlistment plan with his father, the father approved and asked him to settle a small debt while passing through the Williamsport.
Dewitt rode into Williamsport and was accosted by a Union mob. Words flew back and forth between Rench and the crowd and eventually someone grab the reins of his horse while others hurled stones at him. Rench drew a pistol and fired several warning shots, then someone in the crowed fired at Dewitt and he was struck in the chest. Rench died there, in the dusty streets of Williamsport, while the crowd dispersed.
Dewitt’s father received a note from the town constable that he could come to town to retrieve his son’s body “provided he say nothing about it.” Henry Kyd Douglas was enraged: “He was shot dead and left upon the ground,” and “No attempt was made to arrest the murders.” Douglas recalled that his regiment received word of the killing and “were wild for revenge. Had it not been for the vigilance of officers, the gun and torch would have visited the town of Williamsport to demand the murderers or wreak a cruel vengeance.” One of Rench’s female cousins wrote that she was forever scarred by the event and could not imagine maintaining her relationships with those she knew who supported the Union: “Oh my I did not know I had so much gall in my nature until this war question was brought up and when one of these Union shirkers murdered our dear cousin. Dear sister, I shudder now at my feelings then. I hated my most intimate friends because they were in favor of the Union, right or wrong.”
For love of this land of freedom, young men of Sharpsburg dreamed of fighting for the Confederate Army, and died for their desires.
The men of Sharpsburg, including Henry Kyd Douglas, who reached the Shepherdstown recruiting station became part of 2nd Virginia Infantry, which was under the command of General Thomas J. Jackson of the famous Stonewall Brigade. Henry Kyd Douglas served in the unit and rose from private to colonel. He fought at first Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and was among the last men of Lee’s Army to stack arms and surrender at Appomattox. His memoir I Rode with Stonewall is among the most fascinating Civil War records of individual experiences.
-By M.P. Brugh