Tom McGrath looks over the Shepherdstown battlefield in West Virginia. The Ticonderoga man, who has written a book on the battle, is part of an effort to preserve the historic site.
The 1862 Battle of Shepherdstown is little more than a footnote in American history for most people, but to Tom McGrath it has become an important part of his life.
The Ticonderoga man, who accidentally learned about the significance of the Civil War encounter, is now part of a Congressional effort to preserve the West Virginia battlefield.
“This is all totally new for me,” McGrath said. “It’s almost surreal. It started out as just a personal interest and then all this other stuff happened.”
McGrath, who teaches at North Country Community College, went to Shepherdstown to do research on the famed 20th Maine, the regiment commanded by Joshua Chamberlain. It was at Shepherdstown that the unit saw its first combat.
But while studying the 20th Maine, McGrath became more and more interested in the Shepherdstown battle, which he and some others now believe to be a turning point in the War Between the States. The result — McGrath wrote the book “Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862,” the only full-length account of the battle. He also authored “Maryland September: True Stories from the Antietam Campaign” and has written many magazine articles.
When historians found the Shepherdstown battlefield threatened by development, they approached McGrath to help them gain National Park status, which can only be granted by Congress. The National Park Service hired him to created maps and complete a study on the battlefield. Both were submitted to Congress. He has also taken part in a series of public meetings on the proposed preservation of the battlefield.
“It’s a 150-acre battlefield untouched by development — a Civil War farmhouse still stands there with a shell in the wall,” McGrath said. “A developer wanted to build 120 houses on the site in 2004, that’s what sparked the preservation movement.”
Congressional action takes time. Since 2004 a private group has acquired easements for more than 100 acres of the battlefield while efforts to gain National Park status have continued.
“We’re at the point now where the National Park Service is writing its final report with a recommendation that will be submitted to Congress,” McGrath said. “I expect a decision by Congress next spring. I’m optimistic.”
McGrath, who has bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in Civil War Studies from the American Military University, expects the Shepherdstown battlefield will become part of either the Antietam or Harper’s Ferry national historic sites. Both are nearby.
The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association Inc. is a non-profit organization working with McGrath to preserve the Shepherdstown battlefield. It can be found online at www.battleofshepherdstown.org
The 1862 Battle of Shepherdstown, the final fight in the Maryland Campaign, may have changed the course of the Civil War. The Confederate campaign’s goal was to win support of the citizens of Maryland and to win a military engagement in the north. It was hoped those accomplishments would convince the governments of England and France to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy.
Following the Confederate defeat at Antietam Sept. 17, 1862 — the bloodiest day in American history with 23,000 casualties — the Army of Northern Virginia retreated across the Potomac River, about a mile east of Shepherdstown, which was then still part of Virginia. To cover the retreat, Gen. Robert E. Lee left Maj. Gen. William Pendleton in command of artillery and infantry troops on the south shore of the river.
At the same time Lee sent the cavalry under Gen. JEB Stuart to find another ford of the Potomac. Lee had plans to again attack Union forces and continue the Maryland Campaign.
Pendleton had never commanded troops in battle before Sept. 19, when the Union army began an artillery assault. Pendleton panicked and fled the battlefield.
Pendleton reported to Lee that all had been lost at the river and the Army of the Potomac had taken possession of the south shore of the Potomac. In fact, units of the Army of the Potomac had ceased their attack and returned to the Maryland side of the river.
Based on Pendleton’s report, Lee decided not to re-enter Maryland and ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to retreat further up the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester.
The two armies did meet the next day, Sept. 20, as Confederate forces retreated. During a four-hour battle at Shepherdstown there were 8,000 troops engaged with 677 casualties.
“It’s an amazing battle,” said McGrath, who is working on his doctorate degree at SUNY-Albany. “There were 700 casualties in a very short time. It was ferocious fighting. Yet no one had ever really explored what had happened there. I became interested immediately.”
After the battle Union forces remained in Maryland and did not pursue the retreating Confederates.
The consequences of the Shepherdstown battle proved important to the outcome of the Civil War. Lee abandoned the Maryland Campaign because of misinformation, believing the Confederate retreat across the Potomac was being pursued aggressively. And, ironically, President Abraham Lincoln removed Union Gen. George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac because he did not pursue the Confederates aggressively.