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1862 Shepherdstown battle recounted

Author selling book to help save battlefield

Author selling book to help save battlefield

January 07, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

After the nearby Battle of Antietam in 1862 and clashes between northern and southern troops nearby, Shepherdstown was swamped with injured soldiers from the Civil War, according to an author of a new book about the Shepherdstown battle.

An estimated 8,000 Confederate soldiers with injuries like severed limbs and missing eyes streamed into the town looking for help from local residents, said Thomas A. McGrath, author of "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, Sept. 19-20, 1862."

That was a significant influx of soldiers, especially since only about 1,000 people lived in town, McGrath said.

"Every house was filled," McGrath said.

The soldiers were retreating from the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Shepherdstown, a conflict on nearby Trough Road that followed the conflict at Antietam.

The Battle of Shepherdstown site has been at the center of an effort to save a local piece of Civil War history and now McGrath has focused on the conflict with a 256-page book.

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About 9,000 infantry members clashed at the Battle of Shepherdstown after Confederate forces started retreating from Antietam and about 130 soldiers died, according to McGrath and other accounts of the conflict.

Interest in saving the site from development picked up steam following a controversial proposal to build 152 homes on 122 acres.

The Jefferson County Zoning Board of Appeals turned down a conditional use permit for the development and the developers of the project are currently appealing the decision through the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

Oral arguments on the case are scheduled to be heard March 11.

An organization known as the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association has been formed in an attempt to save the battlefield site.

A total of 84 acres at the battlefield area has been preserved through easements and $475,000 has been raised in an attempt to buy a farm that makes up the rest of the site, said Ed Dunleavy, president of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association.

That property, referred to as Far Away Farm, once had a price tag of $3.6 million.

Dunleavy has said there has not been a lot of focus on the Battle of Shepherdstown, and McGrath said he also realized that not a lot had been written about the conflict.

McGrath, a resident of Putnam Station, N.Y., said he remembered camping at the C&O Canal National Historical Park and reading some historical markers about the battle.

"I just felt this story needed to be told," McGrath said in a telephone interview from his home near the Vermont border.

McGrath teaches history, English and geography at North Country College and has a master's degree in Civil War studies from American Military University.

McGrath published one other book, "Maryland September: True Stories from the Antietam Campaign," and has written articles for publications including Blue & Gray, Yankee Magazine and Adirondack Life.

McGrath said he spent about 10 years doing research for his book on the Battle of Shepherdstown, relying on diaries, letters and early published accounts.

"The fun part was trying to piece it all together. I think I got it pretty close," McGrath said.

After the Battle of Antietam, Confederate forces began retreating across the Potomac River at Boteler's Ford, about one mile east of Shepherdstown, on Sept. 18, 1862.

Among the details from the Sept. 20 clash at the Battle of Shepherdstown was the dreadful fate of a group of 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

The soldiers realized their guns were defective and were unable to fire at the Confederates.

Many of the Pennsylvanians fled in panic and jumped to their deaths over high rock bluffs along the Potomac River at the site.

McGrath describes in detail the situation that the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers faced, like how they were drawn from their homes to take part in a conflict with little training.

The mistakes that sealed their fates could have been avoided, "but in the fog of war," there was no time to avoid them, McGrath said.

McGrath said as he wrote his book, he started to learn about the residential development that has been planned at the site by reading stories on the Internet.

Parks have been established to save Civil War history at locations like Sharpsburg and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and McGrath said he believed the history at the Battle of Shepherdstown needed to be preserved, too.

"The guys that died there died for the same cause," McGrath said.

Members of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association have been selling copies of McGrath's book to raise money for the group, he said.

The book contains more than 80 photographs, illustrations and maps.

Copies of the book can be obtained online at battleofshepherdstown.org.

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