Today we begin a journey along the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland, where Union troops waded through the water to reach the West Virginia shore on September 19 and 20, 1862. We'll then travel to the West Virginia side and climb the bluffs that rise at certain points fifty to sixty feet above River Road, which runs alongside the river in Shepherdstown. We'll then emerge into still open pasture through which A.P. Hill's Division charged and drove back Union troops, viewing the scene from the perspective of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Quick note: the very narrow pictures were taken in panoramic mode. Unfortunately the confines of the space allotted doesn't do them justice.
Excerpt from Fighting With the Eighteenth Massachusetts; The Civil War Memoirs of Thomas M. Mann; Edited by John J. Hennessey
Early the next morning [September 20, 1862] a larger force was sent across at the same ford, including the whole of Barnes’s brigade….The river where this brigade crossed is 300 or 400 yards wide and the ford, was made passable at low water by a kind of bar thrown up by the action of the swift running water after flowing over a dam that was a hundred yards above….With the utmost care in pcking one’s way the water was found to be waist deep, while very few succeeded in crossing without wading to the armpits, and many were swept from their feet by the strong current….
Looking from the Maryland side of the Potomac toward Shepherdstown
As the troops left the river they moved by a narrow cart-path that followed one of those ravines that cut through the cliffs on the Virginia short, and bearing to the right by an easy ascent it led into the village of Shepherdstown. Some of the buildings of this place almost overhung the river from the top of the cliff, which was 100 to 150 feet and almost perpendicular in height. The path that Barnes’s brigade followed was used to reach a large stone mill, built down near the water’s edge, which was grinding what is known as Portland cement from the rock of which the cliff was largely composed.
Maryland from the West Virginia side of the Potomac
[The brigade] formed into line of battle on the cliffs above, pushed a skirmish line to the front, and commenced to move cautiously forward. It was soon stopped, however, by the appearance of an overwhelming force of rebels who had not retreated so far as was supposed. A few rounds were exchanged, but it was plainly seen that unless the river was regained in double-quick time this brigade would be scooped in. “About-face! Double-quick, - march!” was the order rolled out by “Jimmy Barnes,” and back the whole force went in a hurry.
The start of the trial leading toward the top of the cliffs
As the brigade was driven back, the 18th and 22d Massachusetts, 13th and 25th New York, 1st Michigan, and 2d Maine, about 1,200 men in all, upon reaching the top of the ravine marched by the left flank and filed into it, thus practically dropping out of reach of the rebel fire for a time. But the 118th Pennsylvania, hardly three weeks in the service, with nearly as many men as the other six regiments combined, were driven to the crown of the cliff where no means of escape seemed available except down its precipitous face to the river, and to the damn that was abreast of the cliff.
Naturally they huddled a few moments, like sheep, on the brink. There they presented the best possible targets for the pursuers and were also in the range of the Union artillery on the opposite cliffs, which was being effectively used to check the hooting, yelling, rebel brigades. To all appearances it was every man for himself with this unfortunate regiment, and soon they began to drop over the cliff by the score. Some crawled down along safe crevasses to the dam; others found the ford. The whole brigade afforded targets for a scattering fire from the Johnnies as it recrossed the river, though soon as the “Corn Exchange” regiment left the cliff the Union guns re-opened and kept back the main body of pursuers. Many of this unfortunate regiment tried to cross on the slippery dam, which barely afforded a foot-hold for a single person, and many deaths from drowning was the result.
The whole loss to the brigade was 361 killed and wounded, but of this number the 118th lost 269. The Eighteenth lost [five killed and mortally wounded, with ten others wounded].
Approximate view of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry as Confederates advanced on the First Brigade's position
Early in the morning of September 20, movements were made by Gen. McClellan to ascertain the position of the Army of Northern Virginia. Maj. Charles S. Lovell’s Brigade (1st and 7th, 2d and 10th, the 11th and the 17th U.S. Infantry) Sykes Division, Fifth Corps, crossed the Ford and pushed out on the Charlestown Road. Barnes’ Brigade, Morrell’s Division was ordered to cross and move on Shepherdstown. Lovell had gone about a mile and a half on the Charlestown Road when he met the Confederates in force. The Brigade was deployed, about-faces and fell back to the bluffs bordering the river and on either side of the Charlestown Road. The 2d and 10th Infantry were deployed as skirmishers in a belt of woods on the left front. Warren’s Brigade (5th and 10th New York Infantry), Sykes Division crossed at the Ford and formed on Lovell’s left. Barnes, being ordered by Sykes to form on Lovell’s right suspended his movement on Shepherdstown and went into position west of the mill, 220 yards north of this point. Lovell’s skirmishers and some cavalry, which had crossed and gone to the front, were now pressed back by the advance of A.P. Hill’s Confederate Division and Sykes ordered the entire command to recross the Potomac, which was done in good order by Lovell’s and Warren’s Brigades. The Confederate advance on the part of the line held by them being checked by the fire of Weed’s, Randol’s and Van Reed’s batteries posted on the heights of the Maryland side of the river. Barnes’ Brigade, the last ordered withdrawn met with great loss at the mill and on the bluffs and the river bank beyond.