Shepherdstown’s Wounded Thousands – Sept., 1862 by Jim Surkamp TRT: 54:53
COME THE DRAGONS THRU THE HOLLOW – Two Armies Descend on Western Maryland and Circle
Mary Bedinger Mitchell writes:
SEPTEMBER, 1862, was in the skies of the almanac, but August still reigned in ours; it was hot and dusty. The railroads in the Shenandoah Valley had been torn up, the bridges had been destroyed, communication had been made difficult, and Shepherdstown, cornered by the bend of the Potomac, lay as if forgotten in the bottom of somebody’s pocket. We were without news or knowledge, except when some chance traveler would repeat the last wild and uncertain rumor that he had heard. We had passed an exciting summer. Winchester had changed hands more than once; we had been ‘in the Confederacy’ and out of it again, and now were waiting, in an exasperating state of ignorance and suspense, for the next move in the great game.
It was a saying with us that Shepherdstown was just nine miles from everywhere. It was, in fact, about that distance from Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry oft-mentioned names and from Williamsport, where the armies so often crossed, both to and from Maryland. It was off the direct road between those places and lay, as I said, at the foot of a great sweep in the river, and five miles from the nearest station on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.
As no trains were running now, this was of little consequence; what was more important was that a turnpike road unusually fine for that region of stiff, red clay led in almost a straight line for thirty miles to Winchester on the south, and stretched northward, beyond the Potomac, twenty miles to Hagerstown. Two years later it was the scene of “Sheridan’s ride.”
Before the days of steam this had been part of the old posting-road between the Valley towns and Pennsylvania, and we had boasted a very substantial bridge. This had been burned down early in the war, and only the massive stone piers remained; but a mile and a half down the Potomac was the ford, and the road that lay to it lay partly above and partly along the face of rocky and precipitous cliffs. It was narrow and stony, and especially in one place, around the foot of “Mount Misery,” was very steep and difficult for vehicles. It was, moreover, entirely commanded by the hills on the Maryland side, but it was the ford over which some part of the Confederate army passed every year, and in 1863 was used by the main body of infantry on the way to Gettysburg.
Beyond the river were the Cumberland Canal and its willow-fringed tow-path, from which rose the soft and rounded outlines of the hills that from their farther slopes looked down upon the battle-field of Antietam. On clear days we could see the fort at Harper’s Ferry without a glass, and the flag flying over it, a mere speck against the sky, and we could hear the gun that was fired every evening at sunset.
Now Shepherdstown’s only access to the river was through a narrow gorge, the bed of a small tributary of the Potomac, that was made to do much duty as it slipped cheerily over its rocks and furnished power for several mills and factories, most of them at that time silent. Here were also three or four stone warehouses, huge empty structures, testifying mutely that the town had once had a business. The road to the bridge led through this cleft, down an indescribably steep street skirting the stream’s ravine to whose sides the mills and factories clung in most extraordinary fashion. . .
September 13 – Saturday
In this odd little borough, then, we were waiting ‘developments,’ hearing first that ‘our men’ were coming, and then that they were not coming, when suddenly, on Saturday, the 13th of September, early in the morning, we found ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of lean and dusty tatterdemalions, who seemed to rise from the ground at our feet. I did not know where they came from, or to whose command they belonged; I have since been informed that General Jackson re-crossed into Virginia at Williamsport, and hastened to Harper’s Ferry by the shortest roads.
These would take him some four miles south of us, and our haggard apparitions were perhaps a part of his force. They were stragglers, at all events, professional, some of them, but some worn out by the incessant strain of that summer. When I say that they were hungry, I convey no impression of the gaunt starvation that looked from their cavernous eyes. All day they crowded to the doors of our houses, with always the same drawling complaint: ‘I’ve been a-marchin’ an’ a-fight-in’ for six weeks stiddy, and I ain’t had n-a-r-thin’ to eat ‘cept green apples an’ green cawn, an’ I wish you’d please to gimme a bite to eat.’
Their looks bore out their statements, and when they told us they had “clean gin out,” we believed them, and went to get what we had. They could be seen afterward asleep in every fence corner, and under every tree, but after a night’s rest they “pulled themselves together” somehow and disappeared as suddenly as they had come. Possibly they went back to their commands, possibly they only moved on to repeat the same tale elsewhere. I know nothing of numbers, nor what force was or was not engaged in any battle, but I saw the troops march past us every summer for four years, and I know something of the appearance of a marching army, both Union and Southern. There are always stragglers, of course, but never before or after did I see anything comparable to the demoralized state of the Confederates at this time. Never were want and exhaustion more visibly put before my eyes, and that they could march or fight at all seemed incredible.
September 14 – Sunday
As I remember, the next morning it was Sunday, September 14th we were awakened by heavy firing at two points on the mountains. We were expecting the bombardment of Harper’s Ferry, and knew that Jackson was before it. Many of our friends were with him, and our interest there was so intense that we sat watching the bellowing and smoking Heights, for a long time, before we became aware that the same phenomena were to be noticed in the north. From our windows both points could be observed, and we could not tell which to watch more keenly. We knew almost nothing except that there was fighting, that it must be very heavy, and that our friends were surely in it somewhere, but whether at South Mountain or Harper’s Ferry we had no means of discovering. I remember how the day wore on, how we staid at the windows until we could not endure the suspense; how we walked about and came back to them; and how finally, when night fell, it seemed cruel and preposterous to go to bed still ignorant of the result.
Nettie Lee writes:
On September 14th, 1862 our young cousins, Henry and Charles Boteler surprised us by walking into their mother’s house in Shepherdstown. They told us their battery in Jackson’s command was near Kearneysville, en route to Harper’s Ferry. They had come ahead on foot just to see us all and then cut across to Duffield’s to rejoin their battery. So Pink, Harry and I got into the buggy, and took in it all it could hold, to see our friends as they passed the Ridge Road to Harper’s Ferry. “Jackson’s Foot Cavalry” was in a real trot as they passed, and we waved our hands and they theirs, for firing at Harper’s Ferry had already begun. None of us dreamed what it was all about for we knew that two days before our army had crossed the Potomac at Williamsport.
September 15 – Monday
‘Our cook rushed into the house. She had seen wagons coming up the hill full of wounded men, and measuring to her shoulder on her outstretched arm she said: ‘The blood is running out of them that deep.’ This horrible picture sent us flying to town. We found the foremost wagons of what seemed an endless line, discharging their piteous burdens.’
Mary Parran found one of the first seriously wounded men to come to their hospital was her dear cousin, William. The father of a little girl and a young doctor himself in Barboursville, Va., he tried to help close a break in the Confederate line at what was to be called the Bloody Lane. William died.
‘Men ran for keys and opened the shops, long empty. Other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages; then swarms of children began to appear with bundles of hay and straw, taken from anybody’s stable. We worked right on the street and sidewalk to comfort the men as hospitals were created. Men ran for keys and opened the shops, long empty, and the unused rooms; other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages; then swarms of children began to appear with bundles of hay and straw, taken from anybody’s stable.
‘Our women set bravely to work and washed away the blood or stanched it as well as they could, where the jolting of the long rough ride had disarranged the hasty binding done upon the battle-field. But what did they know of wounds beyond a cut finger, or a boil?
One girl, who had been working very hard helping the men on the sidewalk, moved with the wounded into the closed, hot room of a home, telling me that the sights and smells so overcame her that she could only stagger to the staircase where she hung, half-conscious, over the banister, saying to herself: ‘Oh I hope if I faint, someone will kick me into a corner and let me lie there.’
Homes began filling up with wounded as did the Christ Reformed Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, where the wounded bled and died in the wooden pews. Dr. Quigley’s home soon had 34 wounded and his children – Julia, John, and Mary Josephine helped. Country neighbors came pouring in to help. Farmers’ wives had been thoughtful enough to bring supplies of linen, and some bread and fruit. Our wants became better known. But when all was done, it was not enough. As over 1,000 wounded soldiers were already in town, Rev. C. W. Andrews decided the doctors and residents needed Trinity Episcopal Church to rest and pray in peace. Soon the church was the only building in town left without wounded. Yellow, makeshift flags denoting a hospital flew from housetops everywhere. The water from the reliable Grant’s Pump on German Street began to look muddy as men all day long crowded around it, thirsting, nearly faint with exhaustion. Elijah Rickard, the locksmith who made the lock that locked the pump, watched with concern. The number of wounded would triple within thirty hours.
Nettie Lee writes:
Next day (Monday- September 15-ED)
‘Cannonading began over the Potomac and once in a while a shell came over on our side. Then we heard that some wounded were being brought into Shepherdstown, several into the old Schnively house and some into the Parran’s. I rushed into town and as I entered the door of the former mansion, I saw my first wounded man, with two soldiers supporting him as the surgeon probed for a ball in his wrist. He asked for water and I ran to get some; and then fanned him while the cutting and probing continued. No anesthetic relieved his pain; no cry escaped his lips, save once in a while a long breath and an “ouch”! At last the ball was cut out. He never flinched or fainted; but, alas, I almost did and opened the door for air. Soon every room was filled with the wounded. I went to a Mississippian with a hole in his cheek. A ball had passed through it and loosened all his beautiful white teeth, touching the palate. He told me that with his finger he had straightened his teeth and hoped they would grow tight. He spoke with difficulty. I took a wet cloth and tied it under his chin to support it. He had large bright black eyes and brown whiskers; he seemed wonderfully hopeful.’
Nettie Lee continues:
As he was expecting the surgeon and it was time for me to go home to my dinner, I left promising to bring him some nice ripe grapes, which it was hoped he could swallow. After asking my name, he put his hand in his pocket and pulling out a lovely little gold faced watch, said to me: “Miss Lee, will you be kind enough to take my watch home and keep it for me? I hope I will be able to move on and not fall into the hands of the enemy or become unconscious. This watch is an heirloom and I value it. It is not safe with me here now.”
I took the watch home with me to Bedford, but after consultation it was agreed that I had better take it back to him, as no one could tell at what moment he might be removed farther South into the Confederate lines. After dinner, I returned with a basket of grapes and sat beside him; I squeezed grapes into his open mouth as long as he wanted them. He said they were the only things he could swallow without pain. I made him take the watch.
September 16 – Tuesday
Mary Bedinger Mitchell continues:
‘We worked far into the night that Monday, went to bed late, and rose early next morning. Tuesday brought fresh wagonloads of wounded, and would have brought despair, except that they were accompanied by an apology for a commissariat. Soon more reliable sources of supply were organized among our country friends. Some doctors also arrived, who were with a few honorable exceptions might as well have staid away. The remembrance of that worthless body of officials stirs me to wrath. Two or three worked conscientiously and hard, and they did all the medical work, except what was done by our own town physicians.
‘In strong contrast was the conduct of the common men detailed as nurses. They were as gentle as they knew how to be, and very obliging and untiring. Of course they were uncouth and often rough, but with the wounded dying about us every day, and with the necessity that we were under for the first few days, of removing those who died at once that others not quite yet dead might take their places, there was no time to be fastidious; it required all our efforts to be simply decent, and we sometimes failed in that.
‘We fed our men as well as we could from every available source, and often had some difficulty feeding ourselves. The townspeople were very hospitable, and we were invited here and there, but could not always go, or hesitated, knowing every house was full.
‘I remember once, that having breakfasted upon a single roll and having worked hard among sickening details, about 4 o’clock I turned wolfishly ravenous and ran to a friend’s house down the street. When I got there I was almost too faint to speak, but my friend looked at me and disappeared in silence, coming back in a moment with a plate of hot soup. What luxury! I sat down then and there on the front doorstep and devoured the soup as if I had been without food for a week.
‘It was known on Tuesday that Harper’s Ferry had been taken, but it was growing evident that South Mountain had not been a victory. We had heard from some of our friends, but not from all, and what we did hear was often most unsatisfactory and tantalizing.
‘For instance, we would be told that some one whom we loved had been seen standing with his battery, had left his gun an instant to shake hands and send a message, and had then stepped back to position, while our civilian informant had come away for safety, and the smoke of conflict had hidden battery and all from view.
‘As night drew nearer, whispers of a great battle to be fought the next day grew louder, and we shuddered at the prospect, for battles had come to mean to us, as they never had before, blood, wounds, and death.’
September 17 – Wednesday
Mary Bedinger Mitchell continues:
‘On the 17th of September cloudy skies looked down upon the two armies facing each other on the fields of Maryland. It seems to me now that the roar of that day began with the light, and all through its long and dragging hours its thunder formed a background to our pain and terror. If we had been in doubt as to our friends’ whereabouts on Sunday, there was no room for doubt now. There was no sitting at the windows now and counting discharges of guns, or watching the curling smoke.’
‘There were noise, confusion, dust; throngs of stragglers; horsemen galloping about; wagons blocking each other, and teamsters wrangling; and a continued din of shouting, swearing, and rumbling, in the midst of which men were dying, fresh wounded arriving, surgeons amputating limbs and dressing wounds, women going in and out with bandages, lint, medicines, food. An ever-present sense of anguish, dread, pity, and, I fear, hatred these are my recollections of Antietam.’
Mary Bedinger Mitchell continues:
‘We went about our work with pale faces and trembling hands, yet trying to appear composed for the sake of our patients, who were much excited. We could hear the incessant explosions of artillery, the shrieking whistles of the shells, and the sharper, deadlier, more thrilling roll of musketry; while every now and then the echo of some charging cheer would come, borne by the wind, and as the human voice pierced that demoniacal clangor we would catch our breath and listen, and try not to sob, and turn back to the forlorn hospitals, to the suffering at our feet and before our eyes, while imagination fainted at thought of those other scenes hidden from us beyond the Potomac.’
As the sun began to set, the chaos of moans and efforts to care for the suffering continued. At last, Elijah Rickard stepped in, and among the soldiers that towered above him, lowered the pump handle they all grabbed for and locked it tight to the pump. A roar of anger and frustration came upon him. The soldiers almost mutinied. But his firmness and the courage that housed within his frail, elderly frame so impressed them that their frustration broke into cheers. After all, water had to be saved.
Mary Bedinger Mitchell continues:
‘When night came we could still hear the sullen guns and hoarse, indefinite murmurs that succeeded the day’s turmoil. That night was dark and lowering and the air heavy and dull. Across the river innumerable campfires were blazing, and we could but too well imagine the scenes that they were lighting. We sat in silence, looking into each other’s tired faces. There were no impatient words, few tears, only silence, and a drawing close together, as if for comfort. We were almost hopeless, yet clung with desperation to the thought that we were hoping. But in our hearts we could not believe that anything human could have escaped from that appalling fire. Across the river, innumerable campfires were blazing, and we could but too well imagine the scenes that they were lighting.’
(September 17-18 Wednesday-Thursday)
(Henry Kyd Douglas writes of the battlefield scene):
‘That night after the battle was a fearful one. Not a soldier, I venture to say, slept half an hour. It was a dreadful scene, a veritable field of blood. The dead and dying lay as thick as harvest sheaves. The pitiable cries for water and appeals for help were much more horrible to listen to than the deadliest sounds of battle. Silent were the dead, and motionless. But here and there, were raised stiffened arms; heads made a last effort to raise themselves from the ground; prayers were mingled with oaths and oaths of delirium; and the men wriggled over the earth. Midnight withheld all distinction between the blue and the grey. My horse trembled under me in terror, looking down at the ground, sniffing the scene of blood, stepping falteringly as a horse will over, or by, the side of human flesh; afraid to stand still hesitating to go on, his animal instinct shuddering at this cruel human mystery.
‘Once his foot slid into a little shallow filled with blood and spurted a little stream on his legs and my boots. I had a surfeit of blood that day and I couldn’t stand this. I dismounted. General Jackson had said he would have me relieved in a few hours; but the garish sun had risen and was throwing its merciless searchlight on the debris of that ghastly battlefield when he made his appearance in person and took a careful, critical view of all the surroundings.’
September 18 – Thursday
‘On Thursday the two armies lay idly facing each other, but we could not be idle. The wounded continued to arrive until the town was quite unable to hold all the disabled and suffering. They filled every building and overflowed into the country round, into farmhouses, barns, corncribs, cabins, wherever four walls and a roof were found together. Those able to travel were sent on to Winchester and other towns back from the river, but their departure seemed to make no appreciable difference. There were six churches, and they were all full; the Odd Fellows’ Hall, the Freemasons’, the little Town Council room, the barn-like place known as the Drill Room, all the private houses after their capacity, the shops and empty buildings, the school-houses, every inch of space, and yet the cry was for more room.
‘The unfinished Town Hall had stood in naked ugliness for many a long day. But somebody threw a few rough boards across the beams, placed piles of straw over them, laid down single planks to walk upon, and lo, it was a hospital at once. The stone warehouses down in the ravine and by the river had been passed by, because low and damp and undesirable as sanitariums, but now their doors and windows were thrown wide, and, with barely time allowed to sweep them, they were all occupied, even the ‘old blue factory,’ an antiquated, crazy, dismal building of blue stucco that peeled off in great blotches, which had been shut up for years, and was in the last stages of dilapidation.’
The surgeon at the hospital at Hoffman’s wagonmaker shop cut off legs and arms regardless of the feelings of the unfortunate soldiers who came under his care. There was in this place a big soldier, who was suffering from the greatest pain from a ball in his foot. There were indications of gangrene. Dr. Blank, as he was called, examined the foot brusquely and told the man that the foot would have to come off. “No it won’t!” said the soldier. “Then, you’ll die,” said the surgeon. “All right,” was the soldier’s reply. The surgeon swore at the man and turned away and continued to dress the wounds of others. A woman who had heard the conversation brought another surgeon from Moulders Hall.
This second doctor examined the soldier’s foot and presently, with quick pressure of his strong skillful fingers, he squeezed the wound, and out popped the bullet.
(Mary Bedinger Mitchell writes):
‘One who had no thought of leaving her post desired to send her sister a mere child out of harm’s way. She, therefore, told her to go to their home, about half a mile distant, and ask their mother for some yellow cloth that was in the house, thinking, of course, that the mother would never permit the girl to come back into the town. But she miscalculated. The child accepted the commission as a sacred trust, forced her way out over the crowded road, where the danger was more real than in the town itself, reached home, and made her request. The house had its own flag flying, for it was directly in range and full of wounded. Perhaps for this reason the mother was less anxious to keep her daughter with her; perhaps in the hurry and excitement she allowed herself to be persuaded that it was really necessary to get that strip of yellow flannel into Shepherdstown as soon as possible. At all events, she made no difficulty, but with streaming tears kissed the girl, and saw her set out to go alone, half a mile through a panic-stricken rabble, under the fire of a battery and into a town whose escape from conflagration was at best not assured. To come out had been comparatively easy, for she was going with the stream. The return was a different matter. The turbulent tide now had to be stemmed. Yet she managed to work her way along, now in the road, now in the field, slipping between the wagon wheels, and once, at least, crawling under a stretcher. No one had noticed her coming out, she was but one of the crowd; and now most were too busy with their own safety to pay much heed to anything else. Still, as her face seemed alone set toward the town, she attracted some attention. One or two spoke to her. Now it was, “Look-a here, little gal! Don’t you know you’re a-goin’ the wrong way?” One man looked at the yellow thing she had slung across her shoulder and said, with an approving nod:
‘That’s right, that’s right; save the wounded if ye kin.” She meant to do it, and finally reached her sister, breathless but triumphant, with as proud a sense of duty done as if her futile errand had been the deliverance of a city.’
Mary Bedinger Mitchell continues:
‘I had just taken a bowl of gruel to a friend in the old blue factory, and she was walking across the floor with the bowl in her hands, when a shell crashed through a corner of the
wall and passed out at the opposite end of the building, shaking the rookery to its foundations, filling the room with dust and plaster, and throwing her upon her knees to the floor. The wounded screamed, and had they not been entirely unable to move, not a man would have been left in the building. But it was found that no one was hurt, and things proceeded as before. I asked her afterward if she was frightened. She said yes, when it was over, but her chief thought at the time was to save the gruel, for the man needed it, and it had been very hard to find any one composed enough to make it.’
A Mrs. Snyder visited the soldiers that filled her Presbyterian Church, carrying a large kettle brimming with her potato-and-green-bean stew. It didn’t take long to feed the hungry and empty the kettle, when she felt a tug at her skirt. She stopped to see a young fellow scarcely seventeen-years-old, holding to her dress. He said: ‘Have you any more beans?’ She said she had not, but would cook more beans and bring them Friday morning. ‘Will you bring me some?’ She said she would. ‘Please bring me a lot of them.’ Mrs Snyder’s mother-heart went out to this golden-haired lad.
She stooped down and kissed him and held him close for a moment, as tears filled her eyes and his. Then he forced a smile. And she replied she wouldn’t forget to bring him ‘a whole lot of beans.’
Sixteen-year-old William L. Reinheart crawled across Pack Horse Ford, wounded in both the hand and the foot. For two long days and nights after that, he lay behind the old Boteler Cement Mill, while a courier brought word of his whereabouts to his family farm at Molers Crossroads. Jacob Wintermoyer even remembered the man who wounded him: a man from Hagerstown named Heidwohl.
Nettie Lee writes:
‘I found the house, father’s office, and every vacant space full of soldiers. General Lawton had been badly wounded and with his doctor and orderlies had brother Edwin’s room in the eastern wing. In the next room was young Tom Barlow with a broken leg and his brother, Jack, to nurse him. Jack came with tears in his eyes and asked us to care for them; they were from Williamsburg, Virginia. My uncle, Colonel Richard Henry Lee, though not wounded, was induced by Father to stay with us. Then General Robert E. Lee’s son, “Rooney,” had his horse fall on his leg and sprain it badly; he was in the littlest room next to General Lawton and remained a day or two.
‘In the room next to my own was a poor fellow named Willis, who soon began to develop typhoid fever, was ill for weeks, and died there.
‘That Thursday night, the 18th, was raining. But Dr. Quigley left his house to visit one of the men cared for by Mrs. Henrietta Bedinger Lee at Bedford. He was one of sixteen wounded soldiers there.
‘In my father’s office in the yard, a soldier sat propped in an arm-chair, holding his arm which rested on his knee. There was a puddle of blood between his feet; blood was dropping from a wound, small and not painful, but it had dropped all day; we had tried to get a surgeon to tie the artery; we feared he would die before morning. At last mother sent a note to dear old Dr. Quigley, our family physician. It was dark and it was raining, but he came to us, with only a dim lantern to guide his foot-steps. He told us he could not see to take up the artery, but thought his medicine would clot the blood and stanch it until morning. It did relieve the patient, who slept quietly all night with a friend beside him.
‘On Thursday night, we heard more than the usual sounds of disturbance and movements and in the morning we found the Confederate army in full retreat. General Lee crossed the Potomac under the cover of darkness and when the day broke the greater part of his force had gone in to Kearneysville and Lee Town. General McClellan began to shell the retreating army from Douglas’s Hill.
‘Ah me! Those maimed and bleeding fugitives. When firing commenced, the hospitals began to empty. All who were able put one foot after another or bribe or beg comrades to carry them left in haste. In vain, we implored them to stay, in vain we showed them the folly and the suicide of the attempt. In vain, we cajoled, threatened, ridiculed, pointed that we were remaining and that there was less danger here than on the road. The cannon were bellowing on Douglas’ Hill, the shells shrieking and whistling, the air full of shouts and cries. We had to scream to make ourselves heard. The men replied that the Yankees were crossing, that the town was about to be burned, that we could not be made prisoners, but they could, that, anyhow, they were going as far as they could walk or be carried.
‘And go they did – men with cloths about their heads went hatless in the sun; men with cloths about their feet limped shoeless on the stony road; men with arms in slings, without arms, with one leg, with bandaged sides, and backs; men in ambulances, carts, wheelbarrows; men carried on stretchers or supported on the shoulders of some self-denying comrade; all who could crawl went and went to almost certain death.’
Nettie Lee hurried to Schnive1y house to see the young soldier from Mississippi but he had gone. The soldier who refused Dr. Blank’s decision to amputate left with his army on a new set of hand-made crutches made for him by a resident.
The soldier who had been bleeding heavily from his wound at Bedford was propped up on a cavalry horse by his comrades and, he too, left with the army. Wounded men at the old Bedinger home left on peg-legs, taken from a stairway bannister. Perhaps thinking of her husband who had been mortally wounded at Manassas, Lilly Parran Lee and her sister, Annie, also begged their wounded soldiers to stay, stay under their father’s care.
Mrs. Snyder arrived, once again, at the Presbyterian Church carrying her kettle of fresh, specially-made green bean stew – just as an attendant was placing a sheet over the young soldier she had promised the stew.
Having thought of the young friend for most of the night. She was heart-broken. She turned and offered her gift of food to the living.
‘Our hospitals did not remain empty. It was but a portion who could get off in any manner. And their places were soon taken by others, who had remained nearer the battlefield and attempted to follow the retreat, but having reached Shepherdstown, could go no farther. We had plenty to do, but all that day, we went about with hearts bursting with rage and shame and breaking with pity and grief for the needless waste of life.
‘Oh child of my heart, how I long for quietness and rest. May God in his mercy bless you and keep you is your devoted mother’s prayer. Oh! How many desolate homes, orphan children, and widowed mothers has this vile, cruel and oppressive war caused.’
September 20 – Saturday
The Battle of Sharpsburg and Antietam ended truly on Saturday September 20th with the bloody, unsuccessful attempt by Federal soldiers to catch the tail-end of the retreating Confederate Army at Pack Horse Ford.
Only soldiers under General A. P. Hill turned back the attempt. Soldiers from Philadelphia, called “the Corn Exchange” regiment, because they had just recently joined the army in exchange for a bonus provided by the corn brokers, were trapped and killed on the hills of Shepherdstown or as they tried suicidally to re-cross the river. Their rifles, not yet used in war, did not work.
According to an eyewitness: “The slaughter was terrific. The Potomac was reddened with blood and corpses.” The event signaled the true climax of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s high-stakes invasion into the north. Those few days, those few events, of Old Testament enormity and scale, are what the people of once-sleepy Shepherdstown bore witness to. Those few days and those few events forged the purpose of the war and have been the American chronicle ever since, for the parent, the child, the meek and the mighty alike.
An estimated 5,000 wounded soldiers were cared for in Shepherdstown during and after the battles. 2500 Confederate wounded, still on the Maryland side were treated by Federal doctors. When Federal troops took control of Shepherdstown, they exchanged wounded and brought some Federal wounded from Shepherdstown back to Maryland. Confederate dead were buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
‘To Henrietta Lee,’ recovered soldier, Tom Barlow, wrote from Richmond: ‘It was indeed with sad hearts that we parted with you all to whose kindness we owed so much.’
Felix Warren wrote to “The Ladies of Shepherdstown:”
May the blessings of an unseen hand
Upon this place attend
For they indeed have proved to us,
to be the soldier’s friend
Fathers, Mothers Sisters dear
For us count do not more;
For they have eas’d our painful wounds
Whilst weltering in our gore.
Mary Bedinger Mitchell writes:
‘The country grew more composed. General Lee lay near Leetown, some seven miles south of us, and General McClellan rested quietly in Maryland.
‘On Sunday we were able to have some short church services for our wounded, cut still shorter, I regret to say, by reports that the “Yankees” were crossing. Such reports continued to harass us, especially as we feared the capture of our friends, who would often ride down to see us during the day, but who seldom ventured to spend a night so near the river. We presently passed into debatable land, when we were in the Confederacy in the morning, in the Union after dinner, and on neutral ground at night. We lived through a disturbed and eventful autumn, subject to continual “alarms and excursions,” but when this Saturday came to an end, the most trying and tempestuous week of the war for Shepherdstown was over.’
‘Without exaggeration, I almost pine to see that romantic little Town (of Shepherdstown) on the banks of the Potomac: ‘Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine; And all save the soul of man in divine.’
Not knowing that his beloved son had already died of wounds and typhoid, Lt. Col. W. R. Willis fearfully wrote back to Henrietta Lee on October 16, 1862: ‘I will thank you to inform us by telegraph or other means of his condition, it being possible for his Mother to get to him.’
That winter, residents of Shepherdstown went hungry. Typhoid fever reached record levels. Yet, unlike many, the town lived on.
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Seth Austen, Kevin Williams, the late Freyda Epstein, Alice Bort, Ardyth Gilbertson, Laura Oehser, Margie Didden, Barbara Wheeler, the late Hubert Rolling, and Mrs. John (Betty Ann) Lowe.
References and Image Credits are at other posts in CivilWar Scholars:
Free, Public Non-Commercial, Educational Fair Use of Public Domain Music Works: “Amazing Grace”, “Oh, Death”, “The Planets” by Gustav Holst; “New World Symphony” by Antonin Dvorak.
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