Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bloody Day at Boteler's Ford

The savage little Battle of Shepherdstown made for a bloody coda to the 1862 Maryland campaign. After an exhausting day, General Robert E. Lee settled into a much-needed sleep under an apple tree. It was not long before he awakened to a real-life nightmare. Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, who served as the Army of Northern Virginia's chief of artillery, stood over him in a near panic with terrible news. The army's entire rear guard, with 44 pieces of artillery, had just been overwhelmed and gobbled up by Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac at the Potomac River crossing of Boteler's Ford. "All?" asked Lee. The shaken Pendleton replied, "Yes, General, I fear all."
It was after midnight on September 20,At dawn on September 19, Lee was on horseback in the middle of the river as the last remnants of his army passed him. Major General John G. Walker rode into the Potomac and talked with the commander. Lee asked Walker how many men were left in Maryland, and was assured that all but one battery and the last of the wounded were safely across. "Thank God," Walker heard Lee say. With the army back on Southern soil, Lee had assigned Pendleton to guard Boteler's Ford. Now it looked like disaster had struck.
Boteler's Ford was a mile and a half downstream from Shepherdstown, a town in the part of the Old Dominion that in June 1863 would be carved off as the new Union state of West Virginia. Also called Blackford's Ford and Pack Horse Ford, the spot had been a crossing since colonial times. When the water level was down, the stony shelf of the ford was clearly visible, but according to Confederate artillery officer Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander it was "deep and rocky" during the retreat.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal paralleled the Potomac on the Maryland side, and the war had been hard on the man-made waterway. The canal's berm had been pierced in numerous places, draining the channel. Rolling hills on that side offered the Yankees abundant sites for their artillery. Heights also dominated the river at that point on the Virginia side, though they were sheerer and posed more of a challenge to the placement of the Rebel guns. On both sides, roads to the ford were in places too narrow for a horse to pass a wagon.
Lee might not have expected the cautious McClellan to pursue him too closely after such vicious fighting, but just the same he knew Boteler's Ford, his vital escape route to Virginia, should be guarded until his army was well out of the area. Perhaps because so many proven officers had been lost on September 17, he chose Pendleton, an officer with little combat experience, to guard the ford.
Pendleton, born in Richmond in 1809, graduated from West Point in 1830, a year after Lee. He spent three years in the Old Army before resigning to become an Episcopal priest, a vocation he continued in addition to his military duties during the Civil War and that led to his nickname "Parson." He taught at the Virginia Military Institute, serving on the faculty with the future "Stonewall," Thomas Jonathan Jackson. At the outbreak of the war, Pendleton commanded the Rockbridge Artillery, taking with him four guns from VMI dubbed "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke" and "John." Valued for his administrative skills, he moved through the ranks from colonel to brigadier general in March 1862 and the command of the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia.
After the fighting of the 17th, Pendleton had pulled together 44 cannons to form an artillery reserve to protect the vital crossing point on the Potomac. He managed to place 33 of the weapons in positions bearing on the ford, but there were no good firing positions for the remaining 11, so they were sent to the rear to await a possible call to the front. While the number of guns seemed formidable, and included eight Parrott rifles and a long-range Whitworth, Pendleton's hodgepodge of cannons also consisted of several short-range howitzers and a dozen obsolete 6-pounders that would be of little use against longer-range Federal rifled guns. Brigadier Generals Lewis Armistead's and Alexander Lawton's two battered and understrength infantry brigades supported the gunners. Pendleton posted most of the infantry along the riverbank, instructing them to stay concealed and not to fire unnecessarily.
Major General Fitz John Porter's V Corps had been sent to pursue Lee once it was learned that the Confederates had evacuated their lines at Sharpsburg, and Pendleton was still tinkering with his cannon placements when the V Corps vanguard came into sight on the Maryland side of the Potomac on the 19th, at about 8 in the morning. Federal skirmishers quickly filed into the bed of the C&O Canal and began popping away while the Union gunners started wheeling their cannons into place.
Seventy Union cannons eventually began to hammer Pendleton's position, and the salvos drove the Rebel infantry back from positions near the ford and overpowered the Southerners' attempts to return the cannon fire. Some Southern cannonballs did take effect against Battery K, 5th U.S. Artillery, fatally wounding one man and breaking the legs of two of the battery's horses. Pendleton's gunners suffered much more, however. Captain Victor Maurin of the Donaldsonville Artillery, a Louisiana battery, started the day with six guns. He sent three smoothbore guns to the rear due to their short range, along with a 3-inch rifle for which he had no long-range fuses, forcing Maurin to rely only on his two 10-pounder Parrott rifles to answer Porter's bombardment. His battery lost 20 horses during the artillery duel, and a Yankee shell wrecked one of his 6-pounder caissons.
Colonel James Gregory Hodges, serving as commander of Armistead's Brigade, sent Pendleton anxious dispatches as the Union fire grew heavier. "They have opened another battery on us, and are bringing up one more," read one report. Later Hodges passed along a report from Colonel Edward Claxton Edmonds of the 38th Virginia. Edmonds, under fire from "20-odd" enemy guns, warned, "we have not a piece of artillery in position, firing." He added, "There is nothing to prevent the enemy from crossing except the line of sharpshooters on the river." 1862, not much more than 48 hours after the firing ended on the deadliest day of the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam. After that fighting of September 17, the armies eyed each other warily before the Confederates began to slip across the Potomac back into Virginia after dusk on the 18th. The retreat was a gloomy echo of their jubilant crossing into Maryland a couple of weeks before, when high-spirited Rebel soldiers were cheered by the strains of bands playing "Maryland, My Maryland." Cavalrymen posted in the river held torches to light the gloom as the long column of wagons, ambulances, guns and weary foot soldiers splashed across Boteler's Ford on their way into the relative safety of the Old Dominion.


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