James L. Denton and Jordan H. Snow Nearly Meet at Shepherdstown, 150 Years Ago

Much is made of the supposed fact that George B. McClellan failed to pursue Robert E. Lee after Antietam.  True, McClellan did not renew the offensive on September 18, for which he has come under criticism in some quarters.  I’m not so sure: reading the letters and recollections of Union soldiers as they viewed the field that day suggests that many of them did not have the stomach to attack again and risk exposing themselves to a second meat grinder so soon.

Lee commenced withdawing on the night of September 18, and McClellan soon followed along.  No sooner had Confederates crossed the Potomac at Boteler’s Ford than lead elements of Fitz John Porter’s V Corps began showing up on the northern bank.  A Confederate rearguard action proved unsuccessful, leaving its commander, William N. Pendleton, to report to Lee that the Yankees were coming.

Lee turned to A. P. Hill to save the day again, and on September 20 several Confederate brigades advanced to eliminate the Yankee beachhead.  Among the brigade commanders was James H. Lane, formerly colonel of the 28th North Carolina, who had just assumed command of the brigade following the death at Antietam of its commander, Lawrence Branch.  As Lane’s men reached the field he changed direction and led them to the left of the Confederate line.  Among those men was Jordan Snow, my wife’s direct ancestor.

It was just as well for future events that the 28th North Carolina moved as it did.  Otherwise it would have continued advancing along the Charleston Road (now the Trough Road), where it would have encountered the Union left flank, anchored by Gouverneur K. Warren’s brigade, which was seeing its first significant battle action since it had been overrun at Second Manassas some three weeks previous.  Among the soldiers who had joined the brigade since that time was none other than my direct ancestor, James L. Denton, a member of the 5th New York.  If anything, the two men were closer on this day than they were on September 17.

Most of the Union forces, including Warren’s command, withdrew in the face of superior Confederate numbers, although the 118th Pennsylvania, nicknamed the Corn Exchange Regiment, had a particularly tough time of it. The regiment failed to withdraw and soon found itself badly outnumbered: among the Confederate attackers were Lane’s men. Nevertheless, the clash was not without its significance, for it convinced Robert E. Lee, who had contemplated a recrossing of the Potomac to resume his operations north of that river, to remain south of it in Old Virginny.