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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Gathland State Park

Gathland State Park lies nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Burkittsville, MD. This small, yet significant, park tells the story of one man's revolutionary methods of investigative journalism and provides the details for the precursor to the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

The Year is 1862. General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia stunned the Union army at Second Manassas and have crossed the Potomac, inching their way further into Northern soil. Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson and his forces to take over the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry. Simultaneously, he ordered General Lafayette McLaws to head northeast towards Crampton's Gap. This created a two-pronged offensive in which the Confederates cover more ground and seize more Union assets. However, the northeast column was the weaker force, making it vulnerable to a larger Union army's attack. That just so happened on September 14, 1862, at the Battle of South Mountain.

War Correspondents Memorial Arch

The Confederate artillery were positioned here along Mountain Church Road in a defensive position. Union General William B. Franklin, who controlled the high ground late in the day, ordered his 12,000-man army to attack the Confederate defensive line. The overwhelming Federal force caused the line to disintegrate rather quickly. The Confederates retreated down the mountain while members of the Troup Light Artillery and Cobb's Georgia Legion stayed to fend off the Union advance. About 1300 Confederate soldiers in all defended the mountain pass, but outnumbered 6-to-1, they were quickly decimated. In an effort to check the retreat, Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb and the 24th GA formed a line behind a stone wall and rallied against the pursuing Federal army. For a moment, the tactic worked; however, members of the New Jersey Infantry soon flanked the right side of the Confederate line, causing immense damage and thus effectively ending the stand. Cobb's Legion of 248 soldiers reportedly suffered 72% casualties. The Battle of South Mountain was a Union victory, and the fight at Crampton's Gap was no exception. The Confederates returned to their defensive positions around Harper's Ferry to resupply and recuperate. They would need their strength, as they would re-encounter the Union army at ill-fated Antietam Creek just a few days later.

Building Ruins

Gathland State Park is more significant than the events that took place here during the Battle for Crampton Gap. The park itself is named after a man who owned the property shortly after the war and whose literary career pioneered new styles of journalistic writing: George A. Townsend. Townsend started off as a war correspondent in 1861. At age 19, he was the youngest correspondent of the Civil War. His writing style (which utilized interviews, described feelings and emotions but still remained objective) earned him quite a following by 1865. His writing career flourished after the assassination of President Lincoln. Townsend articulated the facts of the case as the days and months progressed, but treated each new article like a chapter in a book, dramatizing the events and evoking emotion in the reader to keep them coming back for more. In fact, his articles were published in book form later that year as The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth. Townsend settled down where the park is today in the 1880s and named his homestead Gathland after his pen name 'GATH.' He went on to have a very successful career as a journalist and author, writing a multitude of books, speeches, and articles, most of which were written at Gathland.

Gathland, in its heyday, had over a dozen buildings on the property. Its "crown jewel," the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, still stands today. Townsend erected this monument in 1896 to celebrate his colleagues, both North and South, for their bravery and diligence during the war. Two other houses, named Gath and Bess, still stand as well. Everything else fell into disrepair at the turn of the century. During that time, Townsend's wife passed away. He fell into a deep depression and became a recluse. He ended up moving away from the home in 1911, never to come back. He died in New York in 1914 and is buried in Philadelphia.

Eerily, one other structure still stands today...his mausoleum. Yes, that's right. In 1895, Townsend dedicated a burial plot in the rear of his property and built a mausoleum for himself to be placed in after his death. Never too early to plan ahead, right?

Arched entrance to the empty burial grounds

Besides exploring the ruins of the various buildings scattered across the grounds, there is also a museum in the main house. However, it is closed November through March, so I didn't get a chance to check it out. Also, Gathland is situated along the Appalachian Trail. It is roughly 7 miles from Weverton Cliff and about 10 miles from Washington Monument State Park near Boonsboro, MD.

Gathland State Park is a nice little area to explore. The ruins are cool to explore and there is a lot to be learned here. Visiting this site shouldn't take you more than 30-45 minutes, so it'd make a great addition to a day trip out this way!


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