“The World Will Little Note, Nor Long Remember”: The Battle of Shepherdstown and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation—Part 2

Part two in a series.

Today we welcome back 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 Battle Guide at Antietam National Battlefield.


Major General Fitz John Porter
Major General Fitz John Porter

The crossing of the Potomac put another defensive barrier between Lee and the enemy, a strategy that he used throughout the campaign to shield the movements of his troops. Lee, knowing the high stakes surrounding the campaign, devised his little-known Williamsport Plan to regain the initiative and claim the invasion into Maryland a Confederate victory. Most of his army would cross the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford below Shepherdstown, then swing west to Martinsburg and thence north to Williamsport. If all went according to plan, by the time much of the Army of Northern Virginia reached Williamsport, Lee’s cavalry and a handful of infantry would have a foothold back in Maryland, allowing Lee to reenter that state and continue his campaign of maneuver.(6)

The movement began as planned and by the morning of September 19, the Army of Northern Virginia had placed the Potomac River between itself and the Army of the Potomac. Later that day, Jeb Stuart secured a foothold in Maryland at Williamsport, an action that Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Lincoln knew about that same day. This action caused some concern in Washington that the Confederate incursion into Maryland might not be over.(7) 

Shepherdstown mapThat very same day, as McClellan reacted to the second Confederate invasion of Maryland at Williamsport, he also sent troops from the Union Fifth Corps towards Boteler’s Ford to probe the rearguard of the enemy, where the two engaged in the first day’s fighting downriver from Shepherdstown, Virginia. Federal cavalry under the command of Alfred Pleasonton arrived on the Maryland bluffs opposite the ford and engaged William Nelson Pendleton’s rearguard at the ford.

Brigadier General William "Granny" Pendleton
Brigadier General William “Granny” Pendleton

Pendleton, a former army officer turned Episcopal minister, protected Lee’s moving columns with approximately 600 infantry and forty-four guns.(8) To say the least, Pendleton’s troops did not favor him. “Pendleton is Lee’s weakness,” wrote one critic. He “is like the elephant, we have him & we don’t know what on earth to do with him, and it costs a devil of a sight to feed him.”(9) The parson general would be in for the fight of his life on September 19.

Following Pleasonton’s cavalry and Horse Artillery came Fitz-John Porter’s Fifth Army Corps. Porter, a West Point graduate and one of McClellan’s most trusted subordinates, determined once he arrived on the scene with his infantry to “clear the fords, and…secure some of the enemy’s artillery.”(10) At dusk, Porter ordered such an attack.

As the fire of the Union artillery increased in intensity, about 400 men from the 4th Michigan Infantry and the 1st United States Sharpshooters plunged into the Potomac. “I made up my mind that that was the last time I should see the sun set,” wrote a member of the 4th Michigan upon hearing the order, “but it was the order, and duty said go.”(11) And go they did, scattering Pendleton’s infantry and artillery and capturing four guns in the attack.(12) Pendleton rode back in a panic to inform Lee of the situation. Upon finding his exhausted chieftain, Pendleton, fully unaware of the entire situation, told Lee he had lost not four guns but all of his guns.(13) Lee had no choice but to delay his second Maryland invasion and turn his weary men back towards Boteler’s Ford.

Meanwhile, Washington on September 19 remained unsure of the situation in western Maryland and Virginia. While in pursuit, McClellan wired two dispatches to Washington. Both shared a similar vein, saying the invasion of Maryland had ended, though McClellan did leave some uncertainty to the situation, originally not knowing if the enemy “is falling back to an interior position or crossing the river.”(14) However, McClellan assured the nation’s officials, “Our victory was complete. The enemy is driven back into Virginia.”(15)

Major General A. P. Hill
Major General A. P. Hill

Even though McClellan seemed near certain that no Confederate forces remained in Maryland, General-in-Chief Halleck wired back at 12:30 pm that Lee’s recrossing of the river was all part of his plan. From there, thought Halleck, Lee would swing to the south and east to strike Washington and place himself between that city and its primary means of defense: the Army of the Potomac.(16) For Halleck and most of the city, the campaign seemed far from over, especially since the artillery duel occurring at Shepherdstown could be heard in the nation’s capital.(17) In reality, Lee was moving in the opposite direction though since Halleck believed this potential threat to be real, Lincoln could not claim a victory in the immediate wake of Antietam. That victory required one more act.
Having his appetite whetted by the previous night’s success, Porter also settled upon a plan of action, deciding to cross even more troops the next morning to discover what Lee and his army were up to. Federal troops jovially began crossing the river early that morning with light work expected ahead of them.(18) Instead, they soon discovered that most of Lee’s columns had turned back to meet the threat as a deadly engagement was about to ensue.

As Federal infantry deployed on the steep, precipitous bluffs on the Virginia side of the river, a line of advancing enemy infantry met their eyes. The hard-hitting veterans of Ambrose Powell Hill’s Light Division, the Confederate division that had forced the surrender of Harpers Ferry five days earlier and saved Lee’s army from utter annihilation three days prior at Sharpsburg, now moved to save the army one more time.
Hill’s division was considered by this point in the war to rank “first in point of efficiency of any Division of this whole Army.”(19) Hill’s six brigades collided with United States Regulars under the command of Charles Swain Lovell, the volunteers of James Barnes, and an impressive array of Union artillery posted on the river’s Maryland bluffs. The Light Division formed two lines and began their advance into the jaws of the Federal rifles and guns awaiting them.

The Confederates began their advance around 9:30 or 10:00 am while the Federal guns “[rained] down perfect torrents of shot & shell” amongst their ranks.(20) As the two sides drew within rifle range, volleys ripped out and tore holes in the ranks of the opposing lines. George Sykes, commander of the Federals on the Virginia side of the Potomac, smartly realized the bad situation his troops on the bluffs might find themselves if the enemy could get between them and the bluffs and river. He wisely ordered a withdrawal back into Maryland. However, through a series of boggled orders, one, green Union regiment—the 118th Pennsylvania—remained.

Colonel Charles Prevost, commanding the recently formed Corn Exchange Regiment, as the 118th was often called. Prevost received his orders to retreat through one of his company commanders who had the orders relayed to him by one of James Barnes’ aides. “I do not receive orders that way,” Prevost exclaimed. Next, a Confederate attack managed to begin to envelop the exposed unit’s right flank. As Prevost moved to check the newest threat, the center began to give way, forcing the colonel to grab the regimental colors to rally his men.(21) This of course presented him as a fine target and Prevost fell with a wound that he would eventually succumb to twenty-five years later.(22)

Colonel Charles Prevost
Colonel Charles Prevost

Prevost was carried down the bluffs while the regiment’s second-in-command took charge. After ordering several charges to rally the unit, James Gwyn finally ordered the regiment’s withdrawal upon receipt of Barnes’ orders.(23) Both flanks had been turned and roughly one-fourth of the soldier’s new Enfield rifles were defective and failed to go off.(24) The green troops scrambled down the steep bluffs and across the river, all the while under fire from the enemy atop the heights. The battle was easily over by noon and between the two days, roughly 700 names had been added to the ever-growing list of casualties.

Throughout the Maryland Campaign, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered terribly from constant straggling, serving to paralyze its fighting prowess and organization. That straggling had continued once Lee returned to Virginia and was furthered by the reverse of his army’s path back towards Shepherdstown. In addition, the officer corps of the army had acted with “confusion and hesitation.” Worse for Lee, the Shepherdstown affair had forced him to turn back much of his army, thus diverting them from Williamsport. This meant, of course, that Lee’s reentry into Maryland would be delayed and might give McClellan more time to rush men to prevent another invasion. Lastly, Stuart himself had lost his foothold in Williamsport. All of these factors weighed heavily on Lee’s mind until he finally determined to move his army farther south and abandon the campaign.(25)

On the other side of the river, George McClellan began to get a serious hold on the situation. He sent troops to Williamsport to shoo Stuart’s horsemen and infantry out of Maryland while determining the location of the rest of the Confederate army. Washington, hungry for details, prodded McClellan to tell all that he knew.(26) Satisfying the thirst for details that Washington expressed, Little Mac wrote on the night of September 20, “The enemy is retiring via Charlestown and Martinsburg on Winchester.”(27) This dispatch, the Battle of Shepherdstown, and September 20 altogether signaled an end to the Maryland Campaign.

Upon recollecting about the issuance of his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln recalled in 1865, “I could not find out till Saturday [September 20] whether we had really won a victory or not.”(28) The next day, Lincoln worked furiously on completing the draft, working more on the draft this day than perhaps any other day since he had first shown it to his Cabinet.(29) Indeed, Lincoln was so busy working on the document he knew was now safe to issue that he did not even have time to speak with visitors to the Executive Mansion.(30) Finally, on September 22, two months to the day of Lincoln first showing the draft of the proclamation to his Cabinet, the president showed it again. Now, the Emancipation Proclamation could be backed by a victory marked by the expulsion of Robert E. Lee and his army from Maryland, an expulsion made final by the two day Battle of Shepherdstown. However, the war would still rage many more days and many lives would be lost to determine the fate of a nation and the fate of a race.

In the wake of the Maryland Campaign, Abraham Lincoln pushed George McClellan to go forward and gain more victories. But McClellan and his army suffered from supply problems and utter exhaustion much the same way that Lee’s legions had. However, none of this seemed clear to Lincoln while in Washington. Less than two weeks after the guns fell silent across the Potomac, Lincoln ventured to western Maryland to visit the saviors of the capital and their general.

Lincoln and McClellan meet near Antietam
Lincoln and McClellan meet near Antietam

On October 3, 1862, Lincoln reviewed the Fifth Corps on the Grove Farm west of Sharpsburg. The Fifth Corps found itself in the thick of the fight at Shepherdstown. While at the Grove Farm, President Lincoln witnessed the cruel effects of war as he gazed upon scores of wounded Federal and Confederate soldiers inside the farmhouse. Then, stepping outside, he posed with Fitz-John Porter, George B. McClellan, and a host of Federal officers that had been involved in the fighting around the ford. This photo, often associated with the fighting at Antietam, put the President’s feet on soil crossed by soldiers of both armies in the lead-up to the fighting at Shepherdstown and during the battle itself. This image has been of the conflict’s most enduring and the story that it tells produced two of the country’s most enduring documents.

The men posed with Lincoln had lost the Battle of Shepherdstown. But in their defeat, they had forced Lee to turn his army back towards Shepherdstown, a march that showed him how far the wheels had been run off of his men. The story of this image also tells the story of one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, for during this visit to the Grove Farm, some historians have speculated that the contents of what would become the Gettysburg Address formulated in Lincoln’s mind. The “new birth of freedom” that he talked about in November 1863 outside of another small American town first became a reality on the Shepherdstown battlefield. It is for this reason that the world should cease to take little note of, nor long remember that tremendous sacrifice and events that occurred there at a time when the fate of two nations hung in the balance.


6. Harsh, Taken at the Flood, 444. For evidence of this plan coming straight from Robert E. Lee, see Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, September 20, 1862, OR 19, 1:142 […the morning of the 19th found us satisfactorily over on the south bank of the Potomac, near Shepherdstown, when the army was immediately put in motion toward Williamsport.], Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, September 25, 1862, OR 19, 2:626 [When I withdrew from Sharpsburg into Virginia, it was my intention to recross the Potomac at Williamsport, and move upon Hagerstown].

7. Herman Haupt to Henry W. Halleck, September 19, 1862, 9:30 pm, OR 19, 2:333.

8. Lee’s Report, OR 19, 1:151.

9. John Hampden Chamberlayne to Martha Burwell Chamberlayne, October 9, 1862, in John Hampden Chamberlayne, Ham Chamberlayne-Virginian: Letters and Papers of an Artillery Officer in the War for Southern Independence 1861-1865 (Richmond, VA: Press of the Dietz Printing Co., 1932), 134.

10. Porter’s Report, OR 19, 1:339.

11. Henry Magee Letter, 4th Michigan Infantry Regiment File, Antietam National Battlefield (hereafter cited as ANB).

13. Curt Johnson and Richard C. Anderson Jr., Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 107-8.
Emily V. Mason, Popular Life of Gen. Robert Edward Lee, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1874), 151.

14. George B. McClellan to Henry W. Halleck, September 19, 1862, 8:30 am, OR 19, 2:330.

15. George B. McClellan to Henry W. Halleck, September 19, 1862, 10:30 am, ibid.

16. Henry W. Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 19, 1862, 12:30 pm, OR 19, 2:330.

17. Lucius L. Shattuck to Mortimer Shattuck, September 16-17, 1862, in Lucius L. Shattuck Letters 1862-1863, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

18. Porter’s Report, OR 19, 1:340; Robert Goldthwaite Carter, Four Brothers in Blue (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978), 119.

19. William Dorsey Pender to Fanny Pender, September 22, 1862, in One of Lee’s Best Men: The Civil War Letters of General William Dorsey Pender, ed. William Woods Hassler, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 176.

20. Andrew B. Wardlaw diary, September 20, 1862, transcription in 1st South Carolina Provisional Army File, ANB.

21. Survivors’ Association, History of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers Corn Exchange Regiment from Their First Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox (Philadelphia: J.L. Smith, 1905), 61-63.

22. Mark A. Snell, “Baptism of Fire: The 118th (”Corn Exchange“) Pennsylvania Infantry at the Battle of Shepherdstown,” in Civil War Regiments: A Journal of the American Civil War, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and its Aftermath 2 (Campbell, CA: 1998, Regimental Studies, Inc.), 6:136.

23. Gwyn’s Report, OR 19, 1:349-50.

24. Survivors’ Association, History, 62.

25. Harsh, Taken at the Flood, 466.

26. See Henry W. Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 20, 1862, 2:00 pm, OR 19, 1:68.

27. George B. McClellan to Henry W. Halleck, September 20, 1862, 8:00 pm, ibid.

28. George S. Boutwell to Josiah G. Holland, June 10, 1865, J.G. Holland Papers, New York Public Library, quoted in Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 63.

29. John Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, ed. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), 40.

30. Chase, diary, September 21, 1862, 87.

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