September 16, 1862: Union Clashes with Retreating Confederates near Shepherdstown
It was the morning of September 19, 1862, and two days after the Battle of Antietam. The bulk of Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate Army had already crossed the Potomac River at Shepherdstown.
Lee left behind a rear guard at the Potomac to defend against an anticipated attack from Union General George McClellan.
Over the next two days, Union and Confederate forces clashed off and on in the Shepherdstown vicinity. When all was said and done, nearly 700 soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured, making Shepherdstown the bloodiest battle ever fought in what would become West Virginia.
Antietam and its aftermath convinced both commanders that the Maryland Campaign was over. On the Union side, McClellan decided that his army didn’t have the strength to keep pursuing Lee, while Lee abandoned his plans to reenter Maryland. With the Confederate Army driven south of the Potomac, President Abraham Lincoln claimed a Union victory and, on September 22, issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Despite his claims of victory, though, Lincoln was incensed by his commander’s ongoing foot-dragging in pursuing Lee. He dismissed McClellan two months later.