Elevating a Battle Site From a Historical Footnote

A rendering of soldiers along the banks of the Potomac during the Battle of Shepherdstown, published in the Oct. 11, 1862, edition of Harper's Weekly.
A rendering of soldiers along the banks of the Potomac during the Battle of Shepherdstown, published in the Oct. 11, 1862, edition of Harper's Weekly. (Library Of Congress)
By Linda Wheeler
Sunday, October 14, 2007

When discussing the Battle of Shepherdstown, Edward and Carol Dunleavy would often get the same response: "The battle of what?"

But after three years of lectures, rallies and fundraisers to help preserve the West Virginia battlefield, the Dunleavys say they believe the 1862 skirmish, known as the last battle of Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign, might finally be getting its place in history.

Edward Dunleavy, president of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association, and Carol Dunleavy, its secretary and webmaster, said their group originally formed to stop proposed residential development of the battlefield because it would be inconsistent with the rural character of that part of Jefferson County.

But the association's mission soon grew to include getting recognition and protection for the battlefield, which is about 1.5 miles southeast of Shepherdstown and includes a 200-year-old brick house, high bluffs overlooking the Potomac River and the remains of an 1850s cement factory on the shoreline.

The association's efforts got the attention of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who introduced legislation last month to request a study by the National Park Service to determine the suitability and feasibility of including the battlefield in the national Civil War battlefield system.

"There are 300 acres in the core battlefield, and we've already saved 84 acres through easements," Edward Dunleavy said. "We intend for the site to be preserved as a park."

The Shepherdstown battle, which played out Sept. 19 and 20 in 1862, has never received much attention because it occurred after the cataclysmic Battle of Antietam on the 17th. The Shepherdstown battle is sometimes called the Battle of Boteler's Ford or Pack Horse Ford, referring to the place where the armies crossed the Potomac.

The Army of Northern Virginia was in retreat from Antietam and headed toward the perceived safety of Virginia. At the time, Shepherdstown was in Virginia, a state that had seceded from the Union. In less than a year, Sheperdstown would be part of the new state of West Virginia, a Union stronghold.

Lee sat on horseback in the middle of the river, watching the last of his exhausted troops cross into Virginia at dawn Sept. 19. At that moment, he might not have expected the ever-cautious Gen. George B. McClellan to pursue him, but the Army of the Potomac caught up with the Army of Northern Virginia about three hours later.

Brig. Gen. William Nelson Pendleton had the artillery cover of 33 cannons in place on the bluff above the river to guard the ford when Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's V Corps came into sight on the Maryland side. Seventy Union cannons were soon arrayed against the Confederates, who were forced to fall back. Some Union artillery shells crashed into houses in Shepherdstown, causing panic among the residents.

A small infantry detachment crossed the river and seized several of Pendleton's guns before crossing back over the river for the night.

The next morning, the Union men crossed the river again and climbed the bluffs, and an infantry battle ensued around the brick house. The Union forces were outnumbered 2 to 1, and a retreat was called, with some of the soldiers dying as they fell down the steep bluffs under Confederate fire.

The battle and retreat took place over four hours. Approximately 900 men were involved, with more than 600 casualties. The Army of the Potomac returned to Maryland, and the Confederates retreated farther into the Shenandoah Valley.

The battlefield is a serene place now. The ford and a ruined dam built for the cement factory are visible, and anglers use them to fish. Trees growing on what was the factory floor are framed by broken walls of hand-cut stone blocks. The rugged bluffs that rise above are a challenge to an experienced climber. At the top, the ground levels off into soybean fields and wooded areas.

The old farmhouse, now a rental property, shows the marks of battle. A cannonball protrudes from the brick wall on the second floor, just below a bedroom window.

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934 orcwwheel@shentel.net.

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