ECW is pleased to welcome guest author Kevin Pawlak, author of Shepherdstown in the Civil War. Congress is currently considering a proposal to change the boundaries of Antietam National Battlefield to include Shepherdstown. Pawlak has been deeply involved in the battlefield’s preservation.
Thirty-one years after the conclusion of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, former Confederate surgeon John Francis Shaffner stood in front of a group of Southern veterans and recalled the harrowing end to the battle of Shepherdstown—and the Maryland Campaign—on September 20. Thinking back to the chaotic scene of the hasty Federal retreat from the Virginia bluffs south of the Potomac River and their plunge into the water as Confederates shot down on the panicked men, Shaffner recollected the “gruesome” and “distressing…spectacle.” Using a bit of hyperbole, the former surgeon believed the surface of the Potomac was blue with the dead Federals. Despite this artistic license, the memory of that view clearly troubled Shaffner. “I shudder even now, in recalling it,” he said before moving onto the next topic.
In Philadelphia in the postwar years, survivors of the battle of Shepherdstown organized Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 21 and named it in honor of the 118th Pennsylvania’s Capt. Courtland Saunders, just one of the nearly 700 casualties to fall in the two-day battle of Shepherdstown. Philadelphia was especially touched by the battle, where one of its most recent sendoffs to the Union war effort—the 118th—lost approximately 37% of its men in its baptism of fire. For both Northerners and Southerners, even the small battle of Shepherdstown was a sharp fight that those who participated in it could never forget.
These unforgettable and harrowing scenes took place at the end of one of America’s most crucial and watershed military campaigns. Following the bloody battle of Antietam, Robert E. Lee determined to withdraw his army back across the Potomac using Boteler’s Ford, one mile downstream from Shepherdstown. Once in Virginia, Lee planned to resume his campaign of maneuver under the optimistic hope that his army could move fast enough and return to Maryland via another river ford near Williamsport before the Federal army could react to block that point of entry.
Lee’s legions left the Antietam battlefield on the night of September 18 and, by sunrise the next day, the entire army was miraculously back in Virginia. Quickly, Lee pushed his men towards Williamsport while a small rearguard at Boteler’s Ford watched the Federal movements. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, reacted to Lee vacating the field and sent cavalry and artillery to pursue the Southerners and learn their intentions and locations. The blue-clad horsemen found the enemy. Soon, both sides commenced shelling each other across the Potomac in a daylong affair on September 19.
Hoping to exploit the situation if success seemed likely, McClellan dispatched the Fifth Corps to the riverbank. Sensing a chance for victory, a storming party of about 400 Unionists plunged into the waist-deep river and scattered the Confederate rearguard on the south shore; several guns, a battle flag, and prisoners were also taken as the sun slid below the horizon on the 19th.
The morning of September 20, 1862 dawned “bright and clear.” Fitz John Porter, commanding the Fifth Corps, ordered a reconnaissance across the river to discover where the southern army was located. A brigade of United States Regulars moved more than one mile south of the river before they discovered a large enemy force in their front. With steep bluffs and a river to their back, the Federals determined this was no place to fight a battle and began pulling back towards the ford. However, the two sides collided atop the Potomac bluffs while the cacophony of 55 supporting Federal guns rang in their ears and as the shells from those guns rained upon friend and foe alike.
Most of the Union regiments managed to make it back to Maryland with minimal casualties, but the recently recruited 118th Pennsylvania Infantry mistakenly maintained its position. Three entire Confederate brigades from A.P. Hill’s crack Light Division swarmed in for the kill.
Hill’s Southerners began pressing both ends of the Pennsylvanians’ line. The commander of the 118th, Charles Prevost, fell with a wound that plagued him for the rest of his life (eventually killng him 25 years later!). Finally, the Keystone Staters broke and began running and tumbling down the steep hillside. Confederates crowned the bluffs and shot down on the fleeing Federals as they attempted to escape across the Potomac.
This was the maddening scene that made John Francis Shaffner tremble 31 years after the fact.
Today, despite increased threats and a few modern intrusions, the Shepherdstown battlefield remains preserved. However, the threats grow every day. In an effort to protect this overlooked battle where nearly 700 of the 10,000 men engaged fell, local citizens formed the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association (SBPA) to save the battlefield and preserve it for future students of the Civil War.
In the last several years, the National Park Service has taken an interest in the site. Currently, the battlefield remains tenuously protected by the SBPA, but we need your help—and all it takes is 60 seconds.
We need Congress to support the expansion of Antietam National Battlefield’s boundary so that it can someday include the Shepherdstown battlefield. Particularly, we need our Senator, Joe Manchin, to support this measure. Join the nearly 400 supporters and sign our petition to urge Senator Manchin to support legislation backing the incorporation of the battlefield into Antietam’s park boundary.
Though the battle of Shepherdstown pales in size in comparison to Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Chickamuga, it is a field where men of the North and South shed their blood fighting for the future of their respective nations. It deserves the respect and preservation that has blessed many other Civil War battlefields, and it needs your help now.