Reports of the battle

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t feeling lucky at the end of the day on Sept. 20, 1862, and neither was his Union counterpart, Major Gen. George McClellan.

Following two grueling days of battle near Shepherdstown at a cost of more than 675 soldiers’ lives, and having come on the heels of what would become known as the bloodiest single-day battle in American history in Sharpsburg, Md., both McClellan and Lee miscalculated; the leader of the Army of the Potomac decided not to pursue Lee’s battered army into Virginia, thinking it stronger than it was, while Lee, given a false report that McClellan’s army was in control of the south shore of the Potomac River, gave up on the idea of continuing his campaign into Maryland.

Interpretive markers are installed at the base of a bluff that overlooks the Potomac River and mark the location where Union and Confederate soldiers forded the river during the two-day exchange that followed the battle at Sharpsburg, Md. The National Park Service has published the comments it received last month as part of its special resource study to determine if the battlefield site should be included in either Antietam National Battlefield or Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln announced plans to issue a proclamation that would free the slaves.

Both Lee’s backing down from continuing his first northern advance as well as the timing of Lincoln’s announcement are evidence of the battle’s historical significance, say supporters of a plan to develop a national park on the site of the exchange, which lies along the river’s edge a little more than a mile east of Shepherdstown.

Last month, the National Park Service completed its public scoping period as part of a special resource study of the battlefield to determine if the site should be included within the boundaries of either the Antietam National Battlefield or Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and last week published all 131 comments received in a summary report on its website.

The comments were received in part during two public meetings held in Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown in February, with other comments posted on the service’s Planning, Environment and Public Comment website.

The study will last for two years, and Congress could decide to include the site in the park system if the U.S. secretary of the interior receives such a recommendation from the park service. An earlier study conducted by the National Historical Landmarks Program concluded the site was not historically significant enough to warrant inclusion in the national park system. Legislation approved by Congress under the leadership of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in 2009 authorized the park service to give the site a second look.

One unusual feature of the scoping period was the request by the park service for feedback on what the boundaries of the proposed battlefield park might be, said David Hayes, regional planner and transportation liaison for the National Park Service.

“Typically what happens is when we’re tasked with doing a resource study Congress gives us the boundaries,” Hayes said. “That didn’t make it to the final legislation. That’s unusual. Now we have to figure out what kind of boundary we’re going to work in.”

Hayes said between 10 to 15 different boundaries have been identified by the public, with a number of commenters asking the park service to consider preserving and interpreting more than the two-day encounter between Lee and McClellan.

Some land — more than 265 acres as of 2010 — has already been set aside into easements by property owners and late last year, the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission completed the purchase of the 18-acre Boteler Cement Mill site, thanks in part to a $25,000 economic development grant from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, which was paired with two grants from the state Department of Transportation along with donations gathered from the Shepherdstown Battlefield Protection Association and other groups for a total purchase price of $375,000.

The Philadelphia Corn Exchange Regiment fords the Potomac River near Shepherdstown in this illustration by Harper’s Weekly field artist A.R. Waud.

A 2010 Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields designates 2,792 acres as part of the Shepherdstown’s battlefield’s study area with a little more than 2,502 acres eligible for inclusion as part of a potential National Register boundary area. As part of a report on the conditions of Civil War sites, the American Battlefield Protection Program includes Shepherdstown as a third-tier battlefield worthy of preservation.

According to the report, Shepherdstown is designated one of among the most intact battlefield areas, with about 2,500 of the site’s nearly 2,800 acres considered available for inclusion on the National Register.

For supporters of the battlefield site, one parcel — the Osborn Farm — is regarded as a prime piece of real estate for preservation, and the Shepherdstown Battlefield Protection Association, which was formed in 2005, has embarked upon a protracted seven-year campaign against both the county and Maryland developer Faraway Farms LLC as part of an effort to scuttle a proposed residential development on the land around the historic homestead, which historians note was the scene of some fighting. The project would result in about 152 single-family houses built on 122 acres along Trough Road about a mile south of the river.

Last year, the battlefield group filed suit against the county planning commission to reverse a settlement between the county and the developer that would have effectively reset the clock on the project; the planning commission would re-issue a three-year conditional use permit for the project and allow a completed impact statement to serve a s a concept plan, while the developer would proceed with the plan under the county’s new subdivision regulations.

Attorney Linda Gutsell, who represents the battlefield association, said the planning commission committed an Open Meetings violation in agreeing to the settlement. The case is expected to be heard in Jefferson County Circuit Court on May 7.

In another move, an effort by the battlefield group to stop 23rd Circuit Judge David Sanders from approving the county’s settlement with the developer was rejected by the state Supreme Court of Appeals earlier this year.

According to the recently released summary report, a frequent response from those who submitted comments was to have the battle interpreted in Maryland, at the Ferry Hill site, which is already under park service management as part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Others who responded noted the difficulty in getting to the site because of both traffic and the terrain, which is wooded and hilly with steep cliffs overlooking the river about a half-mile past the cement mill ruins.

Other commenters were skeptical of plans to interpret the site, while others disagreed with efforts to expand the study site into the corporate limits of Shepherdstown.

Including the battlefield into the park system isn’t the only option being considered, Hayes said. Other options include recommending the site be made into a state park or working to secure the preservation of the land through private easements.

Gutsell said West Virginia stands to benefit by preserving land associated with the three-battle Antietam campaign.

“We’re the only state that hasn’t preserved our part of it,” Gutsell said, adding Washington County, Md., captures between $15 to $18 million in heritage tourism dollars. “Hundreds of people would come to West Virginia if they had a reason. It’s a forgotten part of history.”

The park service is expected to begin preparing a draft study this spring, which will be complete by early 2013.

“By that point, we’ll have a boundary and we’ll have decided if there is any national significance,” Hayes said.

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