Today we welcome guest author Kevin Pawlak. Kevin is a recent graduate of Shepherd University with a degree in history and works as a Park Ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He is also a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Antietam National Battlefield.
There is no smaller battle that had such a large impact on the course of a war and the course of a nation’s history than the one fought outside of Shepherdstown, (West) Virginia from September 19-20, 1862.1 Yet 150 and more years after the battle ended, it has only received passing notices (if any at all) in some of the notable histories of both the Maryland Campaign and the Emancipation Proclamation.2 The battle has often taken a back seat to the larger, more destructive fight outside of Sharpsburg on September 17. However, the Battle of Shepherdstown cemented a United States victory in the Maryland Campaign—a campaign that proved crucial to the war’s outcome, changed the United States forever, and most importantly, a campaign whose outcome hung in the balance until after the Battle of Shepherdstown. Ironically, this Union defeat paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to announce to the country the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Around the time when the Army of Northern Virginia reached Frederick, Maryland on September 6, 1862, Abraham Lincoln became desperate for a victory in the war’s Eastern Theater following several months of Federal defeats there. Now, Lincoln made a promise to God that as soon as the Confederate army “should be driven out of Maryland,” he would follow it with the announcement of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document he had been waiting to announce for some time.3 Thus, as the Army of the Potomac—really an amalgamation of troops from the Army of the Potomac, Army of Virginia, new recruits, and troops from the Carolinas and western Virginia—advanced from behind the defenses of Washington to meet the enemy in Maryland, they set forth to simply drive Lee from Maryland, not to annihilate his army, a fact that has often been misconstrued.
But as the army left the nation’s capital, a cloud of uncertainty, confusion, and rumor hung over the city like a pall, preventing those close to Lincoln and even the president himself from fully understanding the situation on the front lines.4 Lincoln and the rest of the capital city closely monitored the campaign then progressing in the Old Line State amidst the rumors and confusion in the city.
In Washington City, on the morning of September 15, word arrived of George McClellan’s and the Army of the Potomac’s victory at the Battle of South Mountain the previous day. McClellan, the army’s commanding general, told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and others in Washington that his sources informed him of the enemy’s withdrawal towards the Potomac River and Virginia.5 But the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee did not retreat; rather, they made a stand at Sharpsburg on September 17, where it was again defeated.
At Antietam, Lee’s army lost one of every four of its men while McClellan’s Army of the Potomac made some gains and lost only one of every five men involved in the fight. Most importantly, Lee’s defensive barrier—Antietam Creek—no longer served its purpose; McClellan’s troops were across it and could still dangerously strike Lee’s forces the next day. It was not to be so and on the evening of September 18, Lee began his withdrawal into Virginia. However, this was not a retreat, only a change of strategy. As Lee’s legions wound their way towards Shepherdstown, Virginia on the night of September 18, the Maryland Campaign was far from over.
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1. When the author writes “no smaller battle,” the size of the battle is relative to the period in which it was fought. For example, approximately 9,000 soldiers participated in the Battle of Shepherdstown, making it a small battle by Civil War standards. However, the Battle of Bunker Hill consisted of about 5,000-6,000 troops, an average figure for a Revolutionary War battle.
2. For examples of the brief or non-existent coverage of the Battle of Shepherdstown in some of the best-known campaign histories, see Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983), 307, Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 330-31, and James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862(Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1999), 452-65 gives the most detail regarding the Battle of Shepherdstown in any of the campaign histories, though its correlation with the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is never discussed. For works that omit the Battle of Shepherdstown from the discussion of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, see McPherson, Crossroads, Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), Richard Slotkin, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012). Thomas A. McGrath, Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862 (Lynchburg, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2007), is the only full treatment of the battle though McGrath does not connect the Emancipation Proclamation to the Battle of Shepherdstown and does not mention hardly anything of Lee’s Williamsport Plan.
3. Salmon P. Chase, diary, September 22, 1862, Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1902, vol. 2, Sixth Report of Historical Manuscripts Commission: With Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), 88.
4. See Gideon Welles, diary, September 3, 1862, Diary of Gideon Welles: Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1911), 1:106-07.
5. George B. McClellan to Henry W. Halleck, September 15, 1862, 8:00 am, U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1901), ser. 1, vol. 19, part 2, 294 (hereafter cited as OR; citations are to series 1 unless otherwise stated).