Trying like 400 miles of unhealthy highway, I sit at a desk outdoors the Candy Store Bakery in Shepherdstown, exhausted and achy however wanting to stroll the West Virginia city’s Civil Battle battlefield. On a Nashville-to-Philadelphia spherical journey, I’ve already visited a jail the place Al Capone was incarcerated; a tavern on the location of a lethal Civil Battle munitions manufacturing facility explosion; a tough neighborhood the place the extra adventuresome might study the pinnacle of George Meade’s favourite horse; and world-famous Pat’s King of Steaks, the place I ordered a candy pepper-covered, heartburn-inducing steak sandwich.
Then a helmet-clad man on a whirring, buzzing Segway rolls up, trying like he means enterprise.
“Are you John Banks?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, visions of Paul Blart in Mall Cop swirling in my head.
“I’m Steve Alemar.”
He’s simply the person I wish to see.
Alemar, the part-time parking enforcement officer in Shepherdstown (pop. about 1,800), is president of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Affiliation. He has secured permission for me to go to privately owned battleground on the bluffs above the Potomac River. My goal: Stroll within the footsteps of 118th Pennsylvania Lieutenant Lemuel Crocker, whose heroics on September 20, 1862, within the remaining Maryland Marketing campaign battle must be legendary.
Alemar, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and former nationwide park ranger, rapidly earns a spot on my “Compelling/Attention-grabbing Characters From Civil Battle Journeys” checklist—a prolonged roll name that additionally contains an ex-CIA station chief whose ancestor fought at Antietam; a former Marine/FBI agent who helped save a battlefield; a person who left a job in regulation enforcement to mow hallowed floor; a girl who has a framed Oreo cookie with frosting formed just like the profile of Abraham Lincoln hanging in her Civil Battle-era house; and a descendant of Accomplice troopers who appears obsessive about “snake-handling church buildings.”
In six years on his parking enforcement gig, Alemar has seen slightly little bit of all the things on this quaint, school city alongside the Potomac River—flashers, drunks, bottle throwers, and different belligerents. A pores and skin most cancers survivor (“508 stitches in my face”), he makes use of the Segway on the job as a result of he has a coronary heart situation and a proper knee substitute. I’m tempted to ask for a spin on the factor, however there’s a battlefield to see. We agree to fulfill in 90 minutes on River Street, at battlefield markers close to the ruins of a cement mill constructing that predates the warfare.
However first I order one other cup of Joe within the Candy Store Bakery, asking the girl behind the counter if she’s creeped out as a result of the constructing was used as a Accomplice hospital in 1862 within the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, the warfare’s bloodiest single day. “My very own home is haunted,” she tells me, “so it doesn’t actually hassle me.”
After which I’m off…
I’ve superior on Shepherdstown from all instructions over the a long time—by automotive from my one-time house in Martinsburg, W.Va., to cowl soccer video games at Shepherd College as a newspaperman way back; by bike from the close by Antietam battlefield in Maryland; and by wading the Potomac, an exhilarating expertise if one is aware of tips on how to swim and might maintain an iPhone from plunging into the river. Within the early Eighties, a newspaper pal and I used an inexpensive metallic detector to scour a Shepherdstown hillside for battle relics. Our haul of pull tabs from beer cans was stellar.
Like John Buford at Gettysburg, I scout the bottom alongside River Street, roughly 15 yards from the Potomac. Oh my, what a treacherous place this was for the rookie 118th Pennsylvania, the “Corn Trade” regiment from Philadelphia. Atop the bluffs, the Pennsylvanians fought with faulty 1853 sample Enfields, which proved ineffective. Then “crushed, dismayed, wild with fright,” Crocker and others unexpectedly retreated beneath fireplace throughout a mill dam to the Maryland facet of the Potomac.
Within the distance behind me, barely in view between a stand of bushes, are stays of that dam, stretching throughout the river; to my entrance are steep, craggy bluffs from which some 118th Pennsylvania troopers plunged to their deaths as they unexpectedly retreated. Others huddled alongside the river by Boteler’s Cement Mill kilns, the place some have been killed by pleasant artillery fireplace from the Maryland facet of the Potomac. You possibly can see these ruins, too, in case you’re mentally ready for the copperheads.
Think about the fright of these troopers as they lay close to the riverside, their very own cannon booming within the distance and enemy troops close by. “A cry of horror went up from our males, heard throughout the river,” 118th Pennsylvania Captain Frank Donaldson wrote concerning the terrible results of Union artillery fireplace on their very own troops.
In one of many gutsiest strikes of the warfare, Lemuel Crocker rescued wounded comrades and retrieved our bodies of a number of the unit’s useless, disobeying orders. Within the military lower than a month, the 118th Pennsylvania lieutenant, “completely coated with blood and grime,” was carrying a soldier to the riverbank when he was approached by an aide for fifth Corps commander Fitz John Porter. Cease, he advised Crocker, or a battery will open fireplace to influence you. “Shell and be damned,” replied Crocker, who continued his noble work on the Virginia facet of the river. (Bear in mind: This didn’t change into West Virginia till June 1863.)
When confronted by a Accomplice normal and his employees, Crocker—a big, muscular man with a thick beard—advised them “humanity and decency demanded” that Union useless and wounded be cared for correctly. And so this Civil Battle unhealthy ass proceeded along with his rescue and restoration mission.
Two days after the battle, Crocker—whose solely punishment for disobeying orders was a reprimand—described his harrowing battle expertise in a letter to his dad and mom. “As we bought to the river-facet we needed to go close to a half a mile to a dam over which our males have been making an attempt to cross; and to make this dam many a person misplaced his life, because the rebels have been stationed on the bluff taking deliberate goal throughout the entire combat,” the 33-year-old soldier wrote.
“I used to be cool and picked up throughout my journey by the riverside,” he continued, “however once I attain this dam, I feel my cheek blanched, for it appeared to me sure demise to cross it, because the rebels had bought into a big brick constructing beneath the dam, and the primary physique above on the bluff, selecting off our poor fellows.” Ravaged by time, nature, and graffiti, that brick constructing utilized by Insurgent troopers nonetheless stands.
After Crocker’s demise in Buffalo in 1885, apparently from a stroke, no point out appeared in native newspapers of his long-ago heroism. A revered businessman, “he was famous for his liberality, public spirit and kindheartedness,” an obituary famous. “He had many heat associates by whom his sudden taking off shall be tremendously deplored.” Crocker, buried in Buffalo’s Forest Garden Cemetery, didn’t obtain a Medal of Honor for his Shepherdstown valor—an egregious oversight somebody should rectify.
“The daring of this man,” Donaldson wrote about Crocker’s Shepherdstown heroism, “is with out precedent.”
On this muggy afternoon, I’m wanting to commune with the spirit of the person, to the touch his soul, to conjure visions of this courageous soldier. I’m additionally wanting to keep away from the bears, coyotes, and snakes which can be mentioned to lurk within the woods on my path to the highest of the bluff. “Simply use your widespread sense,” Alemar advised me in a pre-visit telephone name, clearly not realizing whom he was talking with.
Minutes after inspecting a sliver of floor alongside the river saved by the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Affiliation, Alemar arrives on River Street in his black truck. Only some vehicles cross by us on this comparatively distant stretch of highway. Within the distance, a deer bounds via the woods. “I used to like to come back right here,” he says. “It’s so peaceable.”
Alemar tells me about stays of Accomplice artillery emplacements within the woods. We focus on non-Civil Battle subjects, too—his mother was a secretary for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover; his dad was employed by the Workplace of Strategic Providers, the precursor to the CIA. Alemar, a former U.S. Postal Service worker, additionally served as a ranger for 2 years within the Eighties on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, an particularly shifting expertise for a veteran.
Alemar additionally recounts his personal life-altering warfare expertise.
On October 1, 1972, he was an 18-year-old sailor aboard the USS Newport Information off the coast of South Vietnam. About 1 a.m., the 21,000-ton heavy cruiser was firing on enemy targets when an eight-inch shell within the heart gun of Turret 2 prematurely exploded, killing 20 and injuring 36 aboard. The battleship grew to become a horror present of fireplace, thick, inexperienced smoke, and burning flesh. “I don’t bear in mind how lengthy I used to be in there,” a sailor recalled a long time later concerning the scene at Turret 2, “however I’m guessing 15–20 minutes after which I used to be relieved. I [spent] 34 years within the fireplace division, and I don’t recall ever being as scared.”
“We have been younger that night time,” one other remembered years later, “however we aged quick.”
Alemar, who was above Turret 2 when the catastrophe occurred, suffered a crushed ankle and from smoke inhalation. The battered Newport Information—“The Grey Ghost of the East Coast”—lastly made it again to its Norfolk, Va., base on Christmas Eve. The reminiscence of that terrible day nonetheless day cuts deeply for Alemar: “These issues by no means go away,” he says.
Armed with a Tennessee strolling stick, a brand new iPhone, and curiosity, I eye my route via the woods to the bluffs above the Potomac. Alemar, who stays behind, provides directions and bug repellent. There are ticks up there, too.
And so I start my climb seeking a hero… whereas leaving one other one behind. ✯
For the report, John Banks has by no means ridden a Segway. Shortly after scripting this column, Alemar crashed whereas aboard his, struggling a number of accidents and ending his brief regulation enforcement profession. He’s nonetheless recovering.