Review: Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862

Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862

by Thomas A. McGrath

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Schroeder Publications (December 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1889246395
  • ISBN-13: 978-1889246390

Small battle books are a joy!  I have many reasons for making this statement and this book illustrates most of them.

They allow us to grasp interactions, see tactical considerations and understand terrain.

They allow us to see the personalities at the Regiment and Company level where the fighting takes place.

They change the faceless line of battle into individuals.

Professional authors normally do not write small battle books.  These books are often a “labor of love” by a local enthusiast.  The author, typically spends years researching, discussing and walking the field before starting to write.  The book’s publisher attended college in Shepherdstown and maintained a long interest in this battle.  This happy event coincided with a manuscript from a young historian on the battle, resulting in this book.

After Antietam, a dispirited and damaged Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown.  Following closely, is the V Corps, Army of the Potomac, under Fitz John Porter.  On September 19 & 20, 1862 the AoNV’s rear guard and elements of the V Corps fight a nasty little battle, ending the Antietam Campaign.  This is a history of those two days of battle outside of Shepherdstown.

The author makes this book work in many ways.  He gives us an excellent understanding of what the war was like for a small out of the way town.  With no radio or Television, news requires a trip of several hours to Harpers Ferry or Winchester and back.  News of Antietam is from the thousands of wounded transported into or through the town.  The response of the local people, the state of medicine and transportation are well done.  On the heels of the wagons comes the army.  Tired, thirsty, hungry Lee’s men march into town from Antietam.  Weary men fall out of ranks, beg for food, water or sleep in any available space.

With the bridges over the Potomac down, the local ford is critical.  Posted south of town, a rearguard is to stop or at least slow pursuit.  On the 19th, they fail as V Corps forces the ford and may have captured the artillery reserve.  We are given a look into military communications as both armies struggle to define mission, explain what happened, ask for direction or deflect blame.  On the 20th, Jackson returns to save Lee’s artillery reserve and gain time.  What follows is a very nasty bloody fight that is the heart of the book.  The author takes the time to cover the aftermath of the battle for both sides.  The Union suffers badly on the 20th and this section of the book brings the reality of battle home as few books have.

This is a well-researched and written battle history.  It is an easy read with almost no dull parts.  The author maintains a balance between personal and regiment actions, mixing the two into a coherent narration.  He manages to give us a clear picture of the terrain while not allowing us to forget the problems this causes.  Shepherdstown demonstrates how training and experience multiply the value of men.  In addition to giving us a picture of the appalling training procedures of armies in the Civil War.

The maps are basic.  There is a problem in that most of them are on the Brigade level while the description is on the Regimental level.  There is one sequence of about three maps that suffer from this problem meaning they cannot be used to follow the battle.  However, I used the maps on either side of the group to keep me orientated.  Illustrations and photographs of the area and people are in the proper place.  Tom Clemens has written the Forward and is thanked for “reading the manuscript and offering valuable suggestions”.  Professor Clemens is a prime resource for the Antietam Campaign. His participation adds an authority and value to any work.

This is the only book on the battle at Shepherdstown I know of.  Fortunately, it is a very good one!

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