Battle of Shepherdstown

The Battle of Shepherdstown, fought on September 19 and 20, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861–1865), was the bloodiest battle in what would become West Virginia. Although often overlooked by historians because, as one Union soldier termed it, Shepherdstown "was not much of a battle as modern battles go," it had important consequences. First, it marked the end of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North, which had been effectively repulsed at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17. In addition, the Battle of Shepherdstown, where Lee's army retreated back into Virginia, convinced Union general George B. McClellan that a second invasion was possible, paralyzing the Army of the Potomac in Maryland for the next month and allowing Lee's army time to regroup. Furthermore, it contributed to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's decision to remove McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. MORE...

 

Background

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.

The Battle

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.

Aftermath

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.

Time Line

  • September 19, 1862 - With support from Fitz-John Porter's Fifth Corps, Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton take positions opposite Shepherdstown on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River. Union and Confederate artillery duel throughout the day. That evening, 500 Union troops cross the ford and attack Confederate positions, capturing five cannon.
Further Reading
McGrath, Thomas A. Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19–20, 1862. Lynchburg, Virginia: Schroeder Publications, 2007.
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): 119–142.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Noyalas, J. A. Battle of Shepherdstown. (2012, April 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Shepherdstown_Battle_of.

MLA Citation:
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.