The Blunders by Fitz John Porter at Boteler's Ford
by Gordon Thorsby
Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Boteler’s Ford on Sept. 19-20, happened after Antietam and it often is ignored while battles leading up to Sept. 17 are discussed. Boteler’s Ford (aka Shepherdstown) was a microcosm of the campaign and what was wrong with the Army of the Potomac. Union blunders raged and infantrymen died. Union officers knew it.
Two days after Antietam, Lee had recrossed into Virginia and at one place was at Shepherdstown VA (now WVA.) near Boteler’s farm on the Potomac, a Confederate rearguard force was waiting for a Union pursuit. Boteler’s Ford went by Blackford’s Ford and Packhorse Ford. It also went by the name of the road that transcended from Georgia through to Philadelphia, Wagon Road Ford. It was rocky with scattered boulders and under normal conditions was only hip deep. This was normal conditions. There was at one time a nearby bridge that replaced a ferry, but the bridge was burned by Stonewall Jackson in 1861. So, the only choice across was the ford.
Confederate Brig. Gen William N. Pendleton was assigned to guard the ford by mounting 33 guns from his reserve artillery along with two badly damaged brigades from the fighting on the 17th. Pendleton had no experience handling infantry and was not the right man for the job.
Union Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was ordered by McClellan to pursue the
Confederate army. Porter approached the ford lined up his Union artillery and the two sides hammered away at one another until Pendleton’s batteries fell back under the pummeling.
That night McClellan (right) sent orders for Porter to ”…push your command forward after the enemy as much as possible using your artillery upon them whenever the opportunity presents itself.” He continued admonishing Porter not to incur risk to the command. “If great results can be obtained do not spare your men or horses.” The directive was vague and conflicting. It could be interpreted in many ways and maybe that was its intention. Then again, it was McClellan.
For the V Corps, the effort on the first day was awarded with a total of five captured artillery pieces, three caissons, and a few casualties. Notified of the success, McClellan then ordered a reconnaissance to ascertain where Confederate forces had gone. Why McClellan was not using cavalry for the job is another question. On the 20th, Maj. Gen Sykes crossed his two brigades to check things out.
Pendleton had panicked after the fighting on the 19th, abandoned his troops, and reported to Lee he had lost all guns. Jackson put A.P. Hill’s Light Division on the road and at sunup, Hill was less than five miles away. Hill put two lines out with three brigades apiece and advanced with a skirmish line in front. Sykes with his two brigades on the Virginia side of the river saw gray lines barreling down on him. Hill’s orders from Jackson were to drive the Union brigades into the river.
Porter should have known he had isolated a division of his Corps and one would think that when muskets started rattling, he would want to know. Fortunately, Sykes at 9:15am reported to Porter that he had Barnes and Lovell deployed and suggested more troops to be sent over “and someone in authority.” If Porter was reading the message, Sykes could not be more clear. Where was Porter and more of the V Corps?
( courtesy Library of Congress)
According to Author Carman, “Knowing that the Virginia side of the river was no place for Union troops until a proper reconnaissance had been made, and several reports from citizens inducing the belief that a large force of the enemy was sweeping down upon us” and with that Porter ordered withdrawal. Union Brigade generals easily saw the problem and most of the troops got back across at low cost. That is, except for the 118th PA.
As described by one account:
“When the survivors reached the foot of the cliff near the river, they found the escape rout to the ford cut off by Confederate marksmen, who were firing from the old cement mill. A small group of Federals sought shelter in the archways of some old lime burning kilns dug into the base of the cliff, but there they soon came under fire from a friendly battery across the river, whose crews had set their shell fuses too short. Some men jumped into the river and began swimming. The Confederates took aim on them and lifeless bodies were soon bobbing in the current.”
A.P. Hill (courtesy Library of Congress)
By late morning, the fighting was over. Union casualties of the fighting were 71 dead, 161 wounded, and 131 missing. The Confederates had 30 men killed and 161 wounded; most of Hill's losses were from artillery fire. The 118th Pennsylvania alone accounted for 269 of the Union losses. Casualties in killed and wounded exceeded Harpers Ferry.
It is without a doubt Lee erred in placing Pendleton in a rear-guard position. However, Jackson corrected it with energy and initiative. Jackson even personally scouted the Union position before the advance.
Porter’s possible errors:
-Should Porter have crossed a division (1/3) of his infantry with their backs to a river. No. His doing so increased risk and violated McClellan’s order.
- Did Porter know what he was advancing on? No. He should have verified the situation on the ground and/or he should have been on the field on the south side.
-Was Porter knowledgeable of the conditions for his own troops? Probably, and Sykes and Brigade commanders were there. Sykes notified Porter but Porter’s response was slow and Jackson's action rapid.
The difference between Union and Confederate army commanders at the time was that Union commanders were slow and timid in action while Confederate commanders were quick-minded and aggressive. The result of Boteler’s Ford was McClellan concluded that Lee was ready and able to fight and McClellan decided to step back and do nothing. That cost George McClellan his job.
Two and a half weeks after McClellan was replaced, on November 25, without the protection of his friend as commander of the army, Porter was arrested and relieved of command. Porter, who had performed ably on the Peninsula had in three weeks reversed all of his successes. His blunders were fundamental.
Stated by a junior Union officer, “On no other Civil War field did a commanding general violate so many of the established principles of the military art” describing McClellan’s performance at Antietam.
Landscape Turned Red, by v Sears, Stephen W., 1983., p. 310.
The Maryland Campaign, Vol. III, by Carman, Ezra, Annotated by Thomas G. Clemens, Savas Beatie, 2017 p3-8.
Shepherdstown (Boteler's Ford ) | eHISTORY (osu.edu).
e ACWS Newsletter, August 2003 .
Official Records of the Rebellion Vol. 19.