Prelude to the Battle of Shepherdstown
Lee Leaves Maryland After the Battle of Antietam
Following the bloodbath at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew the Army of Northern Virginia from Maryland. On September 18, Lee’s army began crossing the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford (also known as Blackford, Packhorse, or Shepherdstown Ford). By the morning of September 19, the Confederates were safely across. As his army moved south, Lee left behind Brigadier General William N. Pendleton commanding Lewis Armistead’s and Alexander Lawton’s infantry brigades, comprising about 600 soldiers, plus forty-five guns, to serve as a rearguard and hold the ford.
September 19 – 20, 1862: Clash at Shepherdstown
September 19: Pleasonton Pursues Lee
Later that day, Union General George B. McClellan sent Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton south to harass the retreating Confederates and report on Lee’s activities. McClellan directed Pleasonton not to cross the Potomac “unless you see a splendid opportunity to inflict great damage upon the enemy without loss to yourself,” Pleasonton heeded McClellan’s advice and remained on the Maryland side of the river until Major General Fitz John Porter’s 5th Corps arrived later in the day.
Yankees Cross the Potomac River
During the afternoon, the Yankees placed about seventy artillery pieces on the north side of the river and began bombarding the Confederates on the other side. The Confederate artillery batteries offered token resistance, but the Federals had them outgunned. At about 5:30 that evening, Porter ordered roughly 2,000 Bluecoats across the ford and forced the Confederates away from the river. During the fight, Pendleton panicked and rode off alone in search of help.
Lee Redeploys Jackson and Hill
Pendleton found Lee around midnight and erroneously reported that the Yankees had overrun his command and captured all of his artillery. In fact, the Federals had advanced only as far as the second tree line beyond the river and captured only four Confederate cannons. Alarmed by Pendleton’s report, Lee ordered Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, along with Brigadier General A. P. Hill’s Light Division, to return north and halt the Union advance.
September 20: Federals Retreat
The next morning, September 20, Porter sent four brigades across the Potomac in pursuit of the Confederate rearguard. At around 10 a.m., the Yankees encountered Jackson’s troops returning from the south. The two forces engaged for about two hours before Porter determined that the Confederates outnumbered him and he ordered his troops to retreat.
Confederates Decimate Pennsylvanians
As most of the Bluecoats scurried back across the river, Colonel Charles Prevost, commanding the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, refused to comply with the order because he did not believe that it came through proper channels. By the time Provost verified the order, he was wounded and Hill’s division was subjecting his division to withering fire. To add to their problems, many of Provost’s men, who had never been in combat, discovered that their new English-made muskets were defective and would not fire. The results were predictable. Of the 737 Pennsylvanians who crossed the river, three officers and sixty soldiers were killed, 101 were wounded, and 105 were reported missing.
Jackson and Hill Choose Not to Pursue
The fighting ended at about 2:30 p.m. when the last of the Yankees had crossed the river, back into Maryland. Faced with superior artillery fire on the north side of the Potomac, Jackson, and Hill chose not to pursue.
Battle of Shepherdstown Outcome
In a battle that involved roughly 9,000 soldiers from both sides, the Union suffered over 360 casualties, most of them from the 118th Pennsylvania. The Confederacy lost nearly 300 soldiers, including 30 dead. The combined total of over 600 casualties was enough to make the Battle of Shepherdstown the largest engagement of the Civil War fought in what would become the State of West Virginia.
After the battle, Lee abandoned any plans he may have had to resume his invasion of Maryland. Instead, he withdrew farther south to Winchester, Virginia.
The Battle of Shepherdstown not only ended the Maryland Campaign, but it also led to the end of McClellan’s army career. Apparently satisfied with driving Lee out of Maryland, McClellan did not pursue the retreating Confederate army. His latest show of inertia proved to be his undoing. On November 5, President Abraham Lincoln relieved McClellan of command because of his failure to strike Lee’s retreating army.