SHAF Eyes Purchase of Potomac Ford Near Shepherdstown

One of the oldest battlefield-preservation organizations is setting its sights on purchase of a significant piece of battlefield land on the banks of the Potomac River.

Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) hopes to purchase 13 acres on the West Virginia side of Shepherdstown Ford, a mile and a half downstream from Shepherdstown. Here on Sept. 19 and 20, 1862, following the cataclysmic battle at Antietam on the 17th, the rearguard of the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee clashed with pursuing elements of the Union Fifth Corps.

SHAF President Tom Clemens said his group was seeking the purchase as a way of collaborating in an expanding grassroots movement to preserve the battlefield of Shepherdstown. The newly formed Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association (SBPA) is making headway in its effort to preserve Faraway Farm, a portion of the battlefield that a developer had planned to subdivide into 152 house lots.

“There’s nothing definite at this point,” said Clemens, who has headed SHAF since 1989, four years after its founding. “But there is a very good and growing movement in Shepherdstown to save that battlefield.”

SHAF brings to the table $100,000, a bequest of preservationist and Civil War historian Brian Pohanka, who died last year.

“Brian of course was nuts about the 5th New York Zouaves, which crossed here and provided covering fire for the Federals,” Clemens said. The 5th didn’t fight at Antietam, he pointed out, “but they did fight in the battle at Shepherdstown Ford. Brian would be excited about this.”

Clemens said whether or not Pohanka’s gift would cover the purchase, “We’d want to match it and stretch it” with donations from others.

SHAF is talking with the family that owns the 13 acres and is awaiting an appraisal. Clemens said much of the parcel is “not buildable” because of floodplain and “practically vertical” bluffs above the river. Besides one side of the ford itself (also known as Boteler’s or Packhorse ford), the property includes two key ruins of buildings that witnessed the battle action.

Boteler’s cement mill, now comprising tall stone foundations, [dates from 1828], according to Clemens. Cement was shipped downriver to help build some of the buildings of the young capital city. The building stood throughout the war and Union soldiers crossed at its dam and used the building for shelter during the battle of Shepherdstown on Sept. 19.

The other remarkable feature of the property is a set of three large brick-and-stone lime kilns across River Road from the Potomac. Members of the 118th Pennsylvania took shelter there in the fighting.

The recently identified core battlefield of Shepherdstown, 600 acres, extends from the river southward a mile and a quarter and is three-eighths of a mile wide. To the south, all 123 acres of Faraway Farm are included in the core. Clemens said that if the 13-acre ford property were preserved, there would be only one property between it and Faraway Farm, a gap of “a few hundred yards.” And that property owner supports the preservation effort and may be willing to place easements on his property, Clemens said.

In its 20-year history SHAF has worked to preserve sites relating to the Maryland Campaign. Elsewhere there have been significant victories, at Harpers Ferry where the federal government and private organizations are acquiring sites relative to Stonewall Jackson’s siege and capture of the Union garrison on the eve of Antietam; at South Mountain, where Maryland established a park to mark fighting at the gaps where federal troops pressed westward toward Sharpsburg; and in Frederick, Md., where tourism officials are boosting associated sites.

“And then there’s the battle of Shepherdstown, which no one could ever find,” said Clemens. “We think it’s time that the last battle of the Maryland Campaign is recognized.”

The purchase of the ford would not be a first for SHAF. Several years ago they bought several acres south of Sharpsburg that was the site of a Union signal tower made famous by a photograph by Alexander Gardner. The group also owns a small portion of the historic Grove Farm near the Antietam battlefield.

(This article appeared in The Civil War News – Feb/March 2006 by Deborah Fitts; dateline SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va.)

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