Black Rock, More than a Scenic Overlook

Since I decided to write about Black Rock, I wanted to see the site for myself and to do the proper field research that was needed for both work and for this blog posting. I had one major question that needed to be answered. Why did the Union command want to establish a lookout on Black Rock and not on Annapolis Rock? So I parked at the Appalachian Trail parking area off of Route 40 by Greenbrier State Park and began my journey ascending up South Mountain and hiking the three miles to Black Rock where I began my research.

Black Rock is located a few miles south off of the old Black Rock Road. Surveying the trees in the area, you can see that there are several decades worth of growth, giving evidence that this area was at one time clear or thinly forested. From Black Rock, you can see far north toward Waynesboro,almost to Chambersburg, and as far south as Cedar Creek with three top mountain in the distance. The view is amazing!

I then decided to hike back one mile to Annapolis Rock and see that area. The differences between Black Rock and Annapolis Rock became clear and my number one question was answered very quickly. The view from Annapolis Rock is very limited. Annapolis Rock sits back on a curve in the South Mountain range which limits the view from the right. Then you have smaller hills on your left that limits your view looking toward Boonsboro. Hagerstown was dead center of the vista at Black Rock and was not visible at all from Annapolis Rock. Now don’t get me wrong, the view is pretty from Annapolis Rock, but Black Rock is worth the extra mile to hike.

South Mountain during the Civil War was very important for several reasons. The first and foremost reason is that it is the main barrier that separated Eastern and Western Maryland, and it would be the first major obstacle in a raiding attempt on Washington or Baltimore, providing that the opposing force forded the Potomac River between Shepherdstown and Clear Spring. Another reason is that the mountain range intersected with the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry at Sandy Hook. In the event of a Confederate raid, the garrison of Harper’s Ferry or the Middle Department would be the first responders. Last but not least, there are several overlooks upon South Mountain that are mentioned by name in “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” that were vital to the Union Army during the days after the Battle of Gettysburg. Northward near the Mason and Dixon Line is High Rock, then near Smithsburg you had Raven Rock. Near Wolfsville you have Black Rock, closer to Route 40 there is Annapolis Rock, and finally the Washington Monument.

Black Rock, a bare area on the mountain features a wonderful overlook. During the time of the American Civil War a road called Black Rock Road ran through the area that connected Wolfsville to Beaver Creek. Today on both sides of the South Mountain you can follow the blacktop to where it ends and to this day you can still see traces of the old road going into the mountain.

So what about the Civil War history of Black Rock? After the Union Army, under the command of Major General George Meade cleared the Catoctin Mountain and entered the Middletown Valley, a series of communication posts were constructed. On July 7th, a party of signal officers under the charge of Captain William J. L. Nicodemus, arrived from Washington for the purpose of working in conjunction with the signal corps of the Union Army. Using the mountain passes of Turner’s and Crampton’s Gaps, a string of signal and observation posts were established. On July 8th, Washington Monument joined the series of communication networks established on South Mountain, Middletown, Catoctin Mountain, and Sugar Loaf Mountain. On the western side of South Mountain, signal stations were built upon Elk Ridge and Boonsboro and they communicated with the southern end of the Cumberland Valley.

On July 11th, Captain William G. McCreary of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers was ordered to proceed to Black Rock for the purpose of observation. In his report Captain McCreary wrote: “On the 11th instant, I was requested by you to proceed to Black Rock, an elevated and naked rock on South Mountain Range, but on to see anything, and returned to the valley. On the 12th, again went to Black Rock, and on that day and the 13th endeavored to get communication, but in vain. On the evening of the 13th, left and went to Funkstown.”

While the Confederate Army began to concentrate at Williamsport, the Union Army marched on. By July 14th, the Confederate Army was put into motion crossing the Potomac River. During the Confederate march into Virginia, all signal and communications were ordered to cease upon South Mountain.

A year later, during the Confederate Raid on Washington and General Jubal Early’s march over South Mountain, Black Rock was once again occupied by a small portion of the Confederate Army in what was classified as a “chain of pickets.” On July 10th, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Lawrence, Assistant Adjutant General for the Middle Department (8th Army Corps) received a dispatch stating: “It is reported that a cavalry of the enemy are moving from Boonsborough through Westminster on Baltimore. This command is accompanied by a section of artillery. The general commanding wishes you to consult with General Morris upon the subject and send on the Westminster pike, and along the road leading to Black Rock Bridge, mounted men with instructions to develop the designs of the enemy and report to you.”

Many hikers along the Appalachian Trail enjoy the beautiful vistas that South Mountain has to offer such as the view of the Cumberland Valley. Numerous high peaks and open areas provide many a breath taking view today, but were vital during the Pennsylvania Invasion of 1863 and General Jubal Early’s Confederate Raid on Washington in 1864. When talking to park visitors here at Washington Monument State Park, they don’t realize that these overlooks provided very important military intelligence during the days following the Battle of Gettysburg.