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Pack Horse Ford was once a battle site and a food source for Indians

By Staff | Jul 31, 2015

The quiet that prevails at Pack Horse Ford, a site about one mile downstream on the Potomac from Shepherdstown, wasn’t always the sunny and peaceful spot it now shows any visitor that looks across the river to the other side.

On most days, one can almost hear the echoes of what sounds like cannon fire or the crack of rifles being used by Civil War combatants. Even before the rival armies of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan briefly clashed in September of 1862, there were native Americans using the shallow waters of the river to trap fish and eels for their food supply.

The armies of the Confederacy and the Union couldn’t use the bridge that once spanned the river at Shepherdstown. It had been burned. The closest spot that could readily be crossed even by caissons supporting cannons and wagons carrying hard tack, other food supplies and medical supplies was at what was called Boteler’s Ford and later Pack Horse Ford.

The animals could get across. The infantry could wade to the other side. And the heavy equipment could laboriously be guided across the ankle-high to shin-high waters.

Trees near the water now cast the shadows where for about two days the dominant shadows were cast by soldiers either scrambling away from the Battle of Antietam or those pursuing the boys in butternut and gray from the Union’s small group of cavalry and larger segment of grounded infantry.

Fallen soldiers lay in the river where once only herons, ducks and kingfishers plied their food-catching trade.

Lee’s army was dogged by the Union pursuers in the aftermath of the bloody stalemate in Sharpsburg at the Battle of Antietam.

The Corn Exchange Regiment that was the 118th Pennsylvania Regiment came after the retreating Confederate forces.

When reinforced by other nearby troops from the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederate forces had the superior firepower and McClellan’s men left their unsecured foothold on the Virginia side of the river and waded back across Pack Horse Ford into Maryland– and the fighting was closed near Shepherdstown and over in Sharpsburg.

Years before the military burst that came to the Potomac, there were Indians using the easily navigated waters of “The Ford” to trap fish in their weirs. They constructed V-shaped weirs in the shallow water with the plentiful stones that made up most of the bed on the ambling river with its manageable flow.

Trapped fish could be netted or speared by the industrious hunters/gatherers.

Eels were just as susceptible to being harvested.

The river was a lifeline of food for the pre-Civil War native people of the area. Waterfowl, deer and mammals whose hides and pelts could be used in a number of ways were found in enough abundance.

The rumblings of “modern” warfare with its rifles and cannons and carnage were a long time coming.

Fish weirs, trapping the muskrats and foxes and securing the usually plentiful waterfowl were the daily chores of the 1700’s survivalists.

Pack Horse Ford saw smoke from campfires instead of smoke from artillery and rifles manufactured at the Harpers Ferry armory maintained by the federal government.

It’s quiet now. The stones and remnants of the weirs and pathways of the soldiers and caissons are still visible.

Pack Horse Ford witnessed history . . . and can still tell stories of that history with its shallow waters and vestiges of stone fish traps.