September 19—20, 1862
Fought on September 19—20, the Battle of Shepherdstown was the last engagement of the Maryland Campaign and the largest engagement of the Civil War fought in what would become the State of West Virginia.
Following the bloodbath at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided to withdraw 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, consisting of about 600 soldiers, plus 45 guns, to serve as a rearguard and hold the ford.
Later that day, Union General George B. McClellan sent Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton south to harass the retreating Rebels 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 chose to remain on the Maryland side of the river until Major General Fitz John Porter’s 5th Corps arrived later in the day. During the afternoon, the Yankees placed about 70 artillery pieces on the north side of the river and began bombarding the Confederates on the other side. The Rebel artillerists offered token resistance, but they were greatly 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.
Pendleton found Lee around midnight and erroneously reported that the Federals 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 Federal advance.
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 he was greatly outnumbered and ordered his troops to retreat.
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 the order was verified, Provost was wounded and his regiment was being subjected to withering fire from Hill’s division. 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, 3 officers and 60 soldiers were killed, 101 were wounded, and 105 were reported missing.
The fighting ended at about 2:30 p.m. when the last of the Yankees had crossed the river, back into Maryland. In the face of superior artillery fire on the north side of the Potomac, Jackson and Hill chose not to pursue. 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 chose to abandon 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, it also led to the end of McClellan’s army career. Apparently satisfied with driving Lee out of Maryland, McClellan chose not to pursue the retreating Rebel 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, which enabled the Confederate general to rejuvenate his forces and prolong the war in the East.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Shepherdstown