Following the Battle of Antietam, which
marked the bloodiest day of the war, Lee decided to pull his wearied Army of Northern
Virginia back across the Potomac River and into Virginia. On the night of September 18, Lee's
forces crossed the river at Boteler's Ford, a mile south of Shepherdstown. Lee
understood that this crossing was his army's only escape route and, since
September 16, had protected it with infantry in support of forty-four cannon, all
under the command of William Nelson Pendleton. The morning after Lee's crossing,
September 19, McClellan sent cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton to reconnoiter.
Directed by McClellan not to cross the Potomac "unless you see a splendid
opportunity to inflict great damage upon the enemy without loss to yourself,"
Pleasonton remained on the Maryland shore; the Confederate position guarding the
ford appeared to be strong.
While Pleasonton remained on the Maryland side of the river, he directed his
artillery to fire at Confederate positions across the Potomac. By late morning,
Union general Fitz-John Porter's Fifth Corps arrived to support Pleasonton with
orders from McClellan to pursue the Confederates. Throughout the day, Union
artillerymen dueled with their Confederate counterparts on the opposite shore, and
at nightfall five hundred soldiers from Porter's command crossed the Potomac and
attacked Pendleton's position. During the fight, Porter's men captured five cannon
and sent Pendleton into a panic.
Late that night Pendleton left his command to find support. Initially, he sought
James Longstreet, but
after failing to locate him, Pendleton searched for Lee. Around one o'clock in the
morning on September 20, Pendleton found Lee and informed him, erroneously, that
Union troops had seized all of his artillery.
Building on his earlier success, Porter sent four brigades across the Potomac into
Virginia on September 20. As his troops
entered Shepherdstown, they met Confederate reinforcements from Thomas J. "Stonewall"
Jackson's command. Porter immediately ordered his men back to the
Maryland shore, but some could not escape before Confederates from A. P. Hill's division opened fire.
Among the regiments pinned down was the 118th Pennsylvania, which had never before
seen combat. Lack of experience coupled with faulty muskets spelled disaster for
this regiment. Union artillery and infantry fire allowed some of the troops to get
to the Potomac's Maryland bank, but many could not escape.
Increased Union artillery support throughout the day, however, forced Confederate
commanders to seek cover for their men. As the day wore on, both sides remained in
position and the Battle of Shepherdstown ended in a tactical stalemate with troops
staring at each other across the Potomac.
After two days of fighting, Union and
Confederate forces suffered a combined total of 677 casualties. Among that number
were 269 casualties from the 118th Pennsylvania. Confederate protection of
Boteler's Ford convinced McClellan that Lee might attempt another invasion of
Maryland. To block any Confederate advance, McClellan kept Porter's entire Fifth
Corps in position along the Potomac River until late October. While the Battle of
Shepherdstown paralyzed McClellan and contributed further to Lincoln's disgust
over McClellan's lack of aggressiveness, it saved the Army of Northern Virginia.
With minimal sacrifice, Lee was able cross his army safely into the northern Shenandoah Valley, where
it could rest to fight another day.
McGrath, Thomas A. Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam
Campaign, September 19–20, 1862. Lynchburg, Virginia: Schroeder
Snell, Mark A. "Baptism of Fire: The 118th Pennsylvania ("Corn Exchange")
Infantry at the Battle of Shepherdstown" in Mark A. Snell, ed. The Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Its Aftermath 6 no. 2 (1998):
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
Noyalas, J. A. Battle of Shepherdstown. (2012, April 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Shepherdstown_Battle_of.
Noyalas, J. A. "Battle of Shepherdstown." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
30 Apr. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 13, 2009 | Last modified: April 30, 2012
Contributed by Jonathan A. Noyalas, assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War
History at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia.