Friday, February 1, 2008

McGrath: "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign"

[Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 18621 by Thomas McGrath (Schroeder Publications, 2007) Cloth, photos, illustrations, 16 maps, notes, 4 appendices, bibliography. Pages main/total: 268/206 ISBN:1-889246-39-5 $30 ]

Shepherdstown is the first full treatment of the two day battle that effectively ended the 1862 Maryland Campaign. It would not be a great stretch to call author Thomas McGrath's detailed military history and tactical analysis of the fighting a definitive effort.

Partly due to leadership blundering from both sides, the Battle of Shepherdstown was an unusually sharp rear guard action, fought amidst the clifftops, ravines2, and open fields surrounding both ends of the Potomac River crossing at Blackford's (Boteler's) Ford. As McGrath very ably illustrates, the September 19th fighting was a prime example of the superiority of Federal artillery and the dismal leadership of Army of Northern Virginia reserve artillery chief William Nelson Pendleton. On the Virginia side of the river, the next day witnessed a progressively severe battle develop between A.P. Hill's division and two advanced brigades of Fitz John Porter's V Corps.

From the Union side, a large part of the Shepherdstown fight, and an unwelcome measure of its tragedy, was borne by the 118th Pennsylvania, a nearly full-strength infantry regiment experiencing its first combat. Left behind when the rest of the V Corps regiments withdrew back to Maryland in the face of Hill's counterattack, the Corn Exchange Regiment suffered severe losses. McGrath's illuminating account of the 118th's harrowing experience could be considered the centerpiece of his narrative history of the battle on the 20th. As mentioned by participants, the battle had a "Ball's Bluff" feel, except, in this case, massive Union artillery support facilitated a far more orderly Federal withdrawal.

Following the modern convention, McGrath skillfully integrates a multitude of personal accounts (both military across ranks and civilian) into his narrative. While his writing style utilizes overlapping viewpoints in places, I didn't find the repetition overbearing. The author also avoids overuse of lengthy block quotes3.

In addition to constructing a good battle history, McGrath does a fine job of inserting Shepherdstown within the context of the Maryland campaign and in the immediate aftermath of Antietam. Early in the book, a wonderfully vivid picture is painted of the impact of the campaign on the civilians of Shepherdstown, their private and public resources already overtaxed by passing stragglers and casualties from South Mountain, even as the battle of Antietam raged a short distance away.

Overall, Shepherdstown provides precious little to complain about beyond some niggling proofing errors; but I do have some issues with the volume's cartography. While maps are numerous (sixteen by my count, and indeed helpful in unit placement relative to each other), detail is spare overall and the landscapes are unusually stark. The four appendices [to include an OB, KIA list, and contemporary commentary on the weather and the artillery bombardment] are useful. Numerous photographs of officers and men, along with a number of period and modern landscape images, further enhance the text.

With his book Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, Thomas McGrath has crafted an original contribution to the literature of the Maryland Campaign. The level of research and the detailed analysis provided is more than satisfactory, while the pleasing writing style is a welcome bonus. Dedicated students, especially those mainly interested in the military aspects of the campaign, will want to obtain a copy of this book.

1 - the direct link is now active (go here or click on title above).
2 - The terrain abutting the river is startlingly rugged. If you haven't done so already, check out Ranger Mannie's photo tour. The book itself includes a nice array of photographs as well.
3 - I realize this is largely a matter of taste, but in narrative settings I prefer thoughtful editing rather than reproduction in full for the most part.


  1. The Battle of Shepherdstown book can now be ordered through the Schroeder Publications website or call 434-525-4431. Patrick Schroeder can be reached via e-mail at

  2. The direct weblink to the book is:


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