By summer's end in 1862, there had been little rain to refresh the farms on both sides of the Potomac River, and the water level had dropped to a few feet at several fords northeast of Leesburg. Beginning Sept. 4, the Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee waded across the river to Maryland, just west of Poolesville, bringing the war to the North for the first time.
Lee was ready to play the role of the aggressor after his recent triumph in the Second Battle of Manassas, and about 30,000 soldiers with their horses, mules, wagons and cannons slogged across the brown river. At White's Ford, the water rose to the men's chests as they zigzagged from the Virginia shore to the sandy tip of Masons Island and then through the shallow water to the Maryland side.
Late last month, a happy crowd of about 50 reenacted the crossing, following the same route, with three dogs splashing along with them. A lunch of pulled pork barbecue, roasted corn and sweetened iced tea awaited them.
For the original crossers, Union soldiers were there to chase them away and there was no prepared picnic. But the Confederate bands repeatedly played "Maryland, My Maryland," and the troops cheered as they came ashore. Lee and others had believed they would be greeted warmly by Marylanders and that recruits would rush to join them.
Although some enthusiastic crowds welcomed them, that region of Maryland felt more allegiance to Pennsylvania and the Union than to Virginia and the Confederacy. Even a memorable speech by Lee at Frederick, inviting residents to again "enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech," did little to attract new soldiers.
Within days, Lee's troops would fight the Union at Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, and then Lee would again cross the river, seeking the safety of Virginia.
The 2004 crossing into Maryland was made by descendants of Southern soldiers -- members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from the Col. William Norris Camp and the Military Order of Stars and Bars from the Capt. Charles F. Linthicum Chapter, both based in Darnestown.
They got to walk through the river twice because they parked their vehicles on the Maryland side and had to cross to Virginia to begin the reenactment. They trooped the half-mile back to Maryland, raising an assortment of flags, the dogs barking excitedly.
A few wore the butternut-colored uniforms of the South, but most chose jean cutoffs, old T-shirts and shoes, including designer pool slippers, colored flip-flops and aged sneakers. They squeezed the water from their clothes and exclaimed about the slippery river bed and the warmth of the water.
That wasn't the case for the soldiers of 1862, according to accounts of the day. The footing was treacherous then, but the pleasant water gave some soldiers an excuse to shed their ragged, dirt-encrusted pants and kick off shoes whose soles were mended with newspapers.
"Never did I behold so many naked legs in my life," a member of the 49th Georgia wrote in his diary.
On the Maryland side, a New York Tribune correspondent noted: "The clothing of the men lay in piles, and it appears they have worn it for months without washing. . . . Some of the misguided fellows of [Gen. Thomas "Stonewall"] Jackson must have at one time been sorely in want of garments to cover their nakedness, as we observed pantaloons and clothing made of U.S. tents."
New uniforms were waiting for the men, secretly delivered by pro-secessionist boatmen who worked on the nearby C & O Canal. There weren't enough outfits for everyone, so some soldiers bought whatever was available, dressing in non-military colors of green and red.
Last month, David King, a U.S. Army major from Bethesda, slogged out of the river, his butternut wool uniform giving off the same distinctive odor of the two wet retrievers, Auggie and Duke, that had walked and paddled across with him.
"Doing this is important because of heritage," he said as water squirted from his square-toed boots. "The kids in school only hear the federal side of the war. It got launched forth with a heroic effort by the South. Now the Confederate flag is belittled and misunderstood. The flag is not about hatred; it's about history and culture."
The dogs' owner, economist Dave Redden of Poolesville, made the crossing with his son Larry, a carpenter, who said he intends to join the Sons organization.
Larry Redden echoed King.
"We must keep our heritage alive," he said. "The more events we do like this, the more people will understand. We have to tell it like it is and spread the word."
The soggy modern-day troops walked back to the parking lot of Dickerson Conservation Park, crossing the C & O Canal along the way, to enjoy a picnic.
Alister Anderson, a priest in the Eastern Orthodox church, gave a blessing. At 80, he has been a member of the Sons for most of his life, he said.
"We are here to remember the sacrifices made by those who fought for Southern history and culture," he said quietly. "We honor the sacrifices the soldiers made, and we honor the descendants who have followed them. We pray for freedom, for states' rights, for limited government and for our religious and cultural tradition."
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.