Battle of Shepherdstown
19th & 20th Sept. 1862
The day after the Battle of Antietam on the night of the 18th Sept. Lee had withdrawn his army southwestward to the Potomac. At Botelers Ford a mile or so down river from Shepherdstown his army crossed the Potomac back into Virginia. The regimental band of the 18th Mississippi struck up the familiar tune Maryland My Maryland, the soldiers shouted it down, they wanted to hear Carry Me Back to Old Virginny. Near dawn on Friday 19th most of Lee's army had crossed to the Virginian side of the Potomac.
On the morning of the 19th McClellan had sent his Cavalry forward followed by Porters V Corps to seek out Lee. The Cavalry reached Botelers Ford at 8 a.m. Just in time to glimpse the grey clad columns vanishing in the distance on the Virginian side of the river, but the Confederate rear guard were close at hand, deployed on the steep bluffs overlooking the Potomac on the south bank, and in the fields beyond were 44 pieces of artillery supported by two brigades of infantry. Lee had left them there to guard the ford at least until sundown, while his army moved towards Martinsburg.
The Federal Cavalry brought up 18 guns from their horse artillery and for two hours the opposing batteries engaged in a spirited duel. Then Porter approached with the V Corps. And about noon deployed the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters in the dry bed of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which paralleled the north bank of the river. From the cover of this convenient trench, the Federal marksmen started picking off the Confederate cannoneers.
The Confederate rear guard was commanded by Lee's Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, he had never commanded infantry and soon lost control. Not having bothered to count his troops (the two brigades had been thinned to a total of 600 men), he kept ordering forward numbers that did not exist. Towards dusk, as the Confederates began to fall back taking their guns with them, a federal raiding party of 500 volunteers crossed the ford and captured four of the cannons. Pendleton alone in the dark at his command post feared that his losses were much worse. Panic stricken he rode back a few miles to the rear, found Lee asleep under an apple tree, Pendleton blurted out a fearsome but absurd story of how federals had stormed the heights and seized all his 44 guns "All" exclaimed Lee. "Yes General, I fear all," but Lee received it with his customary composure. Knowing nothing could be done until daylight.
Stonewall Jackson was disgusted with Pendleton, took matters into his own hands and alerted A.P. Hill to be ready to march at dawn with his divisions. Jackson's move was timely. Though the Federals had withdrawn back across the Potomac in the night McClellan had decided to dispatch a much larger reconnaissance force of three brigades. The lead brigade, crack regulars from Brigadier General George Sykes's division, crossed Botelers Ford at 7a.m. On the 20th. A mile or so beyond the river Sykes's skirmishers collided with A.P. Hill's advancing Confederates. Outnumbered Sykes's men pulled back to the bluffs by the river and then, on orders from Porter, withdrew across the Potomac. With his brigade and another that had been sent over.
Earlier the third brigade, under Colonel James Barnes, had crossed the ford into Virginia. Unaware of Sykes's situation, Barnes turned right along the river passed an abandoned cement mill and dam a few hundred yards west of the ford, sent his most inexperienced regiment, the 118th Pennsylvania, up a ravine to the top of a sheer 80ft high cliff.
The 118th Pennsylvania was known as the Corn Exchange Regiment because each of the recruits had received a $200 enlistment bonus from the Philadelphia Exchange.
The Philadelphian's, who had seen no action at Antietam, were forming their line of battle across the top of the cliffs when less than a mile to the south appeared A.P. Hill's division 5,000 strong. The confederates were advancing on a front a front three Brigades wide, easily out flanking the 118th Pennsylvania on both sides.
There was still time for the 118th to pull out. In fact Colonel Barnes was at that moment Ordering the other regiments in the Brigade to retreat. From the river road one of Barne's Lieutenants frantically shouted up the ravine, to colonel Charles E Prevost Commander of the 118th, urging him to withdraw his regiment. Prevost stood on ceremony "I do not receive orders in that way" he announced. "If Colonel Barnes has any orders to give me, let his aide come to me".
The Confederates bore down on Prevost untried troops, alone on the cliff. A well place barrage from the Federal guns on the Maryland shore showered Hill's veterans, but they continued to advance across the open ground, firing on the Philadelphians. The men of the 118th gamely returned, or tried to.
Their weapons were British Enfield's, ordinarily dependable. Yet half of the men discovered that their rifles would not fire. On many of these Enfield's the mainspring was too weak to explode the percussion cap. In their excitement, several men failed to notice this defect, and they kept ramming new cartridges down the barrel on top of the unexploded one's. Castaway rifles and dead or wounded quickly littered the ground. Some of the men snatched up weapons from their fallen comrades until they found one that would work. Others picked up stones and pounded frantically on the rifle until the bullet fired.
Enemy troops were now only 50 yards away. One Confederate regiment worked its way over to the federals right flank. When the Philadelphians there changed front to meet this threat, their comrades in the centre, mistook the manoeuvre for a withdrawal and started to break. Colonel Prevost managed to restore his line by grabbing the regimental flag and waving it wildly. He was still flourishing it minutes later when a bullet smashed into his shoulder, putting him out of action. Lieutenant Colonel James Gwyn assumed command, and for 30 minutes or more 118th held. But when an aide finally reached Gwyn with the order from Colonel Barnes to withdraw, all thoughts of gallantry gave way.
"The scene that followed almost beggars descriptions," admitted the regimental historians. "The brave men who had contended so manfully against these frightful odds broke in wild confusion for the river".
Some Federals were killed or maimed in the tumbling descent from the cliff. Most of the regiment funneled into the ravine, while the Confederates poured fire from the heights. A fallen tree blocked the federals path. Attempting to climb over I, several Philadelphians became hopelessly entangled and were shot, their bodies dangling over the branches. When the survivors reached the foot of the cliff near the river, they found the escape rout to the ford cut off by Confederate marksmen, who were firing from the old cement mill. A small group of Federals sought shelter in the archways of some old lime burning kilns dug into the base of the cliff, but there they soon came under fire from a friendly battery across the river, whose crews had set their shell fuses too short. Some men jumped into the river and began swimming. The Confederates took aim on them and lifeless bodies were soon bobbing in the current. Lieutenant J Rudhall White survived the 200 yards swim to the Maryland shore, crying as he climbed out of the water "Thank God! I am over at last." At that moment a bullet ploughed through his stomach, fatally wounding him. Other Federals tried to scramble across the old mill dam, a partially submerged rock structure covered with rotting wood planks.
William Madison took five bullets as he negotiated the slippery length of the dam. When the fifth bullet passed through his jaw, he let out a howl of pain, then turned and fired a final shot. Terrible wounded Madison never the less pulled through.
By 2p.m. Most of the Federal survivors had reached the Maryland shore and Porters sharpshooters, firing from the dry canal bed, forced the Confederates to withdraw.
Hill, exuberant at having literally driven the enemy off the cliff into the Potomac bragged that it was "The most terrible slaughter that this war has yet witnessed. The broad surface of the Potomac was blue with floating bodies of our foe". The lopsided battle had cost the 118th Pennsylvania Regiment 269 of its 750 men. With his rear guard safe, Lee pulled back from the Potomac that night.
McClellan let him go, any bold thoughts of pursuit had dissolved with the set back at Bolelers Ford. It reminded McCellan of a similar disaster at Balls Bluff 11 months earlier. There as well, his men had been driven off a cliff and into the Potomac.
The Botelers Ford fiasco is known as the Battle of Sheperdstown.
Capt. Alan (Yorkie) Hansom, Provost Guard, 118th Pennsylvania
The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 2003