Berlin During The Civil War
A recent short history entitled “Brunswick: Maryland’s Railroad Boomtown” that was published on-line by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) caught my attention. In it, I noticed a contradictory claim that Civil War activities in what was then known as Berlin were relatively minor. These were the words:
“While the town saw no action in the Civil War, the Potomac Bridge was destroyed by Confederate soldiers in 1861.”
The blurb did go on to briefly describe the makeshift pontoon bridges and disruptions to the canal and railroad, but there is much more to the story. The burning of the covered bridge was certainly evidence of action. Berlin was an important outpost on the northern Potomac. Although there was no major battle, there were several skirmishes fought there in 1861 and 1862. The women of Berlin operated field hospitals for the wounded on at least two farms in the area. There were telegraphic dispatches to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and 1863 from Generals McClellan and Meade headed “Berlin”.
According to Brunswick: 100 Years of Memories by the Brunswick History Commission, the Union “picket guards are among the unsung heroes of Berlin’s past.” As the armies of the North were encamped at the pontoon bridges at Berlin, picket guards, which are shown in the October 1862 photo below by famous Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, kept watch for invasions by the Rebels of the key C&O Canal and B&O Railroad locations at the northern edge of the Potomac River.
After the Berlin bridge was burned, both armies crossed back-and-forth over the Potomac on pontoon bridges that were hastily assembled and dismantled for transport across to other battles. Union generals commandeered several farmhouses in town as command posts prior to and after the decisive battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. Naturally, outbreaks of fighting took place along the way.
In this article, we will take a look at what our ancestors experienced during the Civil War in the critical years between 1861 and 1863 that eventually led to the Union victory in 1865.
Early Confederate Incursions into Maryland
Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s original idea of the Maryland Campaign, which didn’t begin in earnest until 1862, was not to occupy the North, but to harass it and convince a fellow slave state to either come over to its side or petition the state government and Washington to sue for a peace that would allow the South to remain a separate government. At first, this strategy involved sensitive diplomacy between the neutral state of Maryland and Virginia, which had seceded shortly after Fort Sumter fell. Maryland’s neutral role was enforced by the federal government to protect the U.S. capital in Washington D.C.
Maryland’s position as a border state was precarious. As a slave state, Maryland was viewed by Virginia as a potential convert to the Confederate cause. Maryland, however, wasn’t unified on slavery because the practice wasn’t nearly as prevalent in Western Maryland as it was concentrated in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
Still, despite its neutrality, the split turned Maryland and Virginia into potential bordering enemies, which made locations along the Potomac River points of contention between the Union and Confederacy throughout the first half of the war. Diplomacy was tricky, especially after April 18, 1861, when the small federal garrison occupying nearby Harpers Ferry set fire to the arsenal and evacuated the town as the Virginians approached. The confederate troops stationed there engaged in a series of aggressive incursions into Maryland, especially those led by Confederate Colonel Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson at Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights that angered Marylanders and threatened to undermine any sympathies between the states. The governors were drawn into the fray and only interstate diplomacy prevented an early disintegration of friendly relations.
In a 2002 article in the Maryland Historical Magazine titled: “Border Strife on the Upper Potomac: Confederate Incursions from Harpers Ferry, April-June 1861”, Timothy R. Snyder wrote:
“Just two days after Virginia occupied Harpers Ferry the first conflict occurred. On April 20, Virginia troops crossed into Maryland and searched for arms which they suspected private citizens had taken from the armory and secreted across the river. On April 22, the sheriff of Washington County, Edward M. Mobley, informed Maryland governor Thomas Holliday Hicks that the state’s borders had been violated.”
Several days later, Virginia troops crossed into Maryland again and had a run-in with my Great-Great Grandfather, who at the time owned and operated a grain and flouring mill on the C&O Canal at Lock 30 that was in business as late as 1962 and was destroyed by fire in 1972. Ironically, I’ve heard the mill was said to have been staffed with slave labor, but I’ve yet to find written evidence of that. According to Snyder:
“Charles F. Wenner, a grain merchant from Berlin (now Brunswick), Maryland, in Frederick County, owned a warehouse and two canal boats that he used to transport grain to Georgetown. At dawn on April 24, he instructed his laborers to load one of his boats with grain. At noon, as he prepared to depart, a body of Virginia cavalry approached and demanded that boat and cargo be turned over to them, under the authority of the commanding officer at Harpers Ferry.
Wenner protested that as a citizen of Maryland he was not subject to the commands of Virginia’s authorities and demanded to inspect the man’s orders. While a soldier was dispatched to the Ferry to obtain the orders, the remaining men, under the command of Colonel William S. H. Baylor, took charge of the boat. Since the water was about to be drawn off that section of the canal for repairs, Baylor transported the boat six miles down the canal to Point of Rocks, Maryland. An exasperated Wenner penned a quick note to Frederick County Sheriff Michael H. Haller. ‘My boat, loaded with grain, bound from Berlin to Georgetown, is detained at this point [Point of Rocks] by order of officers in command at Harper’s Ferry. I demand your protection and will hold the State of Maryland responsible for said detention and for all damages done said cargo.’”
An important player in this diplomacy was well-known Burkittsville-area farmer/merchant Outerbridge Horsey. The legislature agreed to appoint Horsey as commissioner to investigate the matters and negotiate with Virginia to ensure Marylanders’ property was protected; obtain compensation for damages already done; and to come to some agreement with Virginia, subject to the review of the General Assembly, to “preserve harmony between the two states from disturbance by any existing causes whatsoever.” Horsey immediately departed for Richmond and accomplished his mission.
Happily, for the Marylanders, all arms were returned to the citizens of Weverton. C.F. Wenner, who conveniently owned property in both Maryland and Virginia, was also eventually compensated for his losses by Richmond:
“On June 4, 1861, Charles F Wenner received $1,693.75 in compensation for the seizure of 2,000 bushels of oats, 200 bushels of white corn, 600 bushels of yellow corn, and 25 bushels of wheat, which he acknowledged as full satisfaction of his claim against Virginia.”
While the first conflicts on the border were resolved diplomatically, conditions at Harpers Ferry deteriorated beyond the control of the respective state governments.
The Destruction of the Potomac River Bridge at Berlin
Along with nearby bridges at Harpers Ferry and Point of Rocks, Berlin served as one of several key river crossings for the Confederate Army to gain access to the Maryland side. During the summer of 1861, the Confederate Army was intent on destroying all three bridges. They succeeded and went on to ruin the B&O bridge at Harpers Ferry nine times during the war.
Having served as a busy ferry route since the early eighteenth century, Berlin had built a covered wooden toll bridge in 1858 that was the first bridge built to span the Potomac River and connect the village with the Virginia shore. With the addition of the bridge, the town then possessed multiple commercial transportation routes, including the canal and one track of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
On June 9, 1861, Confederate troops destroyed Berlin’s new bridge. On the same day, the bridge at Point of Rocks met a similar fate. Five days later the Potomac River bridge at Harpers Ferry was also destroyed.
Regarding the Berlin bridge, Brunswick: 100 Years of Memories reported that “Before dawn, Sunday June 9th, 1861, Drake’s Cavalry saturated the bridge with kerosene and placed powder at various spots on it. The torch was applied, and flames leaped high, lighting the surrounding hills and village of Berlin. The bridge collapsed into the river, leaving nothing but black and embers and the stone peers.”
Continued military activity in northern Virginia and western Maryland made it necessary for Union forces to build pontoon bridges to travel back and forth across the river. The first two pontoon bridges were used at Berlin by the Army of the Potomac between October 25 and November 12, 1862. The bridge was later moved to the Rappahannock to fight the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
On June 27, 1863, General Joseph Hooker with part of the Army of the Potomac, redeployed pontoon bridges to cross the Potomac at Berlin and joined General George G. Meade, who was preparing to battle with Lee at Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, Meade established his headquarters at Berlin where he authorized two more pontoon bridges that were built to cross the Potomac between July 17-19, 1863.
The Maryland Campaign
Following the success of the Northern Virginia campaign in the spring of 1862, Lee became aggressive again. He moved north with 55,000 men through the Shenandoah Valley starting on September 4, 1862.
Lee’s primary objective was to damage Northern morale in anticipation of the November elections. Along the way, he looked to resupply his army via the fertile farms and communities in Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania, away from the devastated war-torn Virginia. Lee undertook the risky maneuver of splitting his army so that he could continue north into Maryland while simultaneously capturing the Federal garrison and arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
An ensuing Union victory should have been assured when soldiers accidentally found a copy of Lee’s orders to his subordinate commanders wrapped around 3 cigars in Frederick. Armed with this intelligence, General George B. McClellan planned to isolate and defeat the separated portions of Lee’s army, but he infamously held back and fought to a draw at Antietam.
Berlin Homes Used as Union Headquarters
From September 6-10, 1862, prior to the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, McClellan took the C.F.Wenner farmhouse known as “Glenwood” to serve as Union Army headquarters while guarding the town of Berlin and the river crossing. This house has been owned by the Myers family at the edge of Brunswick on Souder Road since 1920.
On September 10, 1862, “Glenwood” became a hospital during a skirmish fought at the intersection of Petersville and Mountain Roads, presently Maryland Routes 17 and 464, or Souder Road in Brunswick. As the Confederate Army advanced towards South Mountain, Berlin women cared for the wounded in the buildings and barn at “Glenwood.” Tents and blankets were stretched in the yard and across the road on the Wenner farm at the present site of PNC Bank.
On October 11-14, 1862, McClellan again occupied “Glenwood” while gathering supplies for Union troops to pursue Lee into Virginia. Following the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Meade camped there for a week. Over the years, neighbors in Rosemont have found many Civil War artifacts on this property.
When following the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces again pursued Lee’s army across the Potomac, the army acquired a portion of the Shorts family residence, as Army headquarters. This was the since-razed American Legion lodge on South Maple Avenue. Major General Alfred Pleasanton, Commander in chief, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac took up command there.
The book Brunswick: 100 Years of Memories told a story of Mary Musgrove Collier Crabill who remembered:
“Confederate prisoners of war were brought to Pleasanton’s headquarters for questioning. A little girl, Indiana shorts, daughter of the owner of the property, feeling sorry for them, offered them food, but was admonished by the Union authorities not to do so.”
The Wenner Farmhouse on North Maple Avenue, which wasn’t acquired by the family until 1868, was also used as a field hospital during the war. The following is a letter from my Aunt Evelyn Wenner (Mrs. C.M.Wenner, Jr.) to Connie Koenig, dated September 26, 1974.
“Berlin was on two occasions, and for periods of a week or more, the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, the first time after Antietam when General George B. McClellan was pursuing General Lee’s forces back into Virginia and the second time after Gettysburg when General Meade was leading his victorious soldiers into regions of the confederacy.
The records gave prominence to Berlin as an invasion frontier for both the North and the South. Berlin’s economic usefulness in the war was paramount and its military involvement was significant and recurrent. These official records have citations of skirmishes in the town on September 18-29, 1861, and apparently more serious conflicts there on September 3-5, 1862. Lieutenant Henry M. Binney, aide to the commander of the ill-fated garrison at Harpers Ferry, has left a diary saying that the fighting in and around Berlin was severe, with many dead and wounded… an elderly woman once a resident of Berlin, on a nostalgic visit to the Wenner farmhouse, told the present owners that she helped in the house when it was a hospital during the Civil War. Cannonballs have been found in the fields around the farmhouse. One of these is now in the Harpers Ferry Museum.”
In fact, I have a cannonball and a Union belt buckle, both pictured below, which were found on family farmland and given to my mother in the 1960s by Buck Connor, who was farming the land at the time.
Post Gettysburg in Berlin
After the final crossing in 1863, the town of Berlin remained comparatively quiet until the end of the war. During that time, commercial activity was interrupted as in all the other canal towns, due to Confederate raids on the railroad and canal, which remained as highly strategic transportation resources for the Union Army throughout the war.
The Civil War history in our town is anything but trivial.