Tragedy on the Potomac River

Tom Elmore

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Military personnel have always faced dangers beyond the battlefield. In the Civil War, lightning strikes and drownings, as an example, took some lives. On the march to Gettysburg, a few water obstacles had to be negotiated, including the Hazel, Rapidan, Shenandoah, Monocacy and Potomac rivers. Even in waist deep water, a swift current could take soldiers off their feet. But the Potomac was wide and often deep (except for a few fords at low water), making a ferry boat or pontoon bridge essential.

On the night of June 23, 1863, more than 400 men of the 22nd Georgia Infantry passed through Shepherdstown, (West) Virginia and arrived at the Potomac, waiting to cross in relays in the available ferry boat, located just below the railroad bridge. The boat could safely carry 50 men at a time, but perhaps to save time, it was overloaded. William B. Judkins of Company G was in the second group over, and he noticed the boat was leaking badly then. About 150 men boarded the boat for the third trip and started over, when it began to sink. Had they remained with the boat, which took on three feet of water, and held on to the rope line, all would have been saved. But panic set in, and many of the men went into the water, weighed down by their arms and equipment. Those that could swim faced the most danger, since the non-swimmers clung to them and dragged them under. At least 11, and as many as 13, men drowned, and not all the bodies were recovered. One soldier of Company A swam ashore with his knapsack on his back and his gun strapped to his shoulder, and never got his head wet - he said he had spent many hours in the Savannah river as a boy. Lieutenant Charles McAfee (of Company I) cramped up badly in the water, but he was grabbed and pulled to shore, where his comrades worked a long time to relieve his cramped muscles. [source: Memoirs of William Brock Judkins.] Nine days later, McAfee was killed at Gettysburg.

A roster of the regiment [mainly Lillian Henderson's Roster of Georgia Soldiers, and the Service Records] identified some of the drowned men:
- Private James David Bradford, Company A
- Private Wiley F. Stewart, Company A
- Sergeant John W. Cox, Company F
- Private Alpheus Armstrong, Company H
- Private Jesse Gunn, Company H
- Private Columbus Norris, Company H
- James S. Norris, Company H
- Jeremiah Norris, Company H

The relationship of the latter three men with the Norris surname is unknown. If they were brothers or otherwise related (as was often the case), it would have been particularly tragic for their extended family.
 
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