Friday, February 18, 2011

Disaster at Packhorse Ford: The Corn Exchange Regiment's Baptism of Fire

Shiloh and I often walk along the towpath of the C & O Canal which extends for 184.5 miles along the east side of the Potomac from Georgetown to the headwaters of the Ohio River.  We park below the bridge at Shepherdstown and amble downriver, usually to Packhorse Ford, before turning around and heading home.  Packhorse Ford, also called Botler’s and/or Blackford’s Ford is a historic crossing on the Potomac River approximately 1 mile downstream of Shepherdstown.   On the evening of September 18 and early morning of September 19th, following the Battle of Antietam, the badly bloodied Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Virginia via this ford.  Union troops followed and the Battle of Shepherdstown was fought here on September 19 and 20, 1862. 

                                               Packhorse Ford  from the Maryland side of the River

The Battle of Shepherdstown seems to be another footnote in history that little is known about although the book “Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign September 19-20, 1862” helps to rectify that.  The tragedy of the Battle of Shepherdstown lies with the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment better known in history as the Corn Exchange Regiment  because they were sponsored by the Corn Exchange of Philadelphia, PA. 

The Corn Exchange Regiment was recruited at Philadelphia in early August 1862 following Lincoln’s call for another 300,000 men.  The regiment trained at Camp Union  before being mustered into federal service on August 30, 1862 and heading to Washington. On September 12, the newly minted soldiers of the 118th Pennsylvania were incorporated into the 1st Brigade, 1st Division 5th Corp, Army of the Potomac under Major General Fitz John Porter.  They marched with the Army of the Potomac to western Maryland where they were held in reserve during the Battle of Antietam.  On September 19, the regiment march west with the 5th Corp toward the Potomac in search of the retreating Army of Northern Virginia.  They bivouacked near the river on the night of the 19th and were up early on the 20th with orders to cross the river and engage the enemy.  

As told in the “History of the Corn Exchange Regiment 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers From the First Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox”, September 20 dawned bright and clear, the sun shone with mellow autumn radiance, the dew glistened on grass and leaves and the Old Potomac was calm and placid when the 118th formed on the west bank and began crossing the river.  The regiment crossed the river with other from the 5th Corp and were soon hotly engaged with veterans of A. P. Hill’s Light Division.  An order was issued to retreat which was either not received or ignored by the commander of the 118th Pennsylvania.  The regiment, which had never fired a shot prior to September 20, were hotly engaged with the rebels and soon found out their newly issued Enfield rifles were defective.  The Corn Exchangers fought bravely but were soon routed and forced to retreat down a steep embankment on the Virginia side of the river and across the river, while under fire.  The casualties were heavy, of 800 engaged the regiment lost 64 killed, 124 wounded and 94 missing in their baptism of fire.  
 At least eight soldiers from the Corn Exchange Regiment, including Ephraim Layman, are buried at Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, MD.  May they rest in peace in hallowed ground.

 Ephraim’s baptism of fire is described in the "History" cited above.  It typifies the experience of many soldiers in the Corn Exchange Regiment on September 20, 1862.
“Ephraim Layman, of (Company) I, had escaped from the bluff uninjured.  While hurrying along the edge of the river he was shot through the body and fell with his feet in the water. He lay in the same position until the following afternoon, when, under the flag of truce, he was removed to the Maryland side and subsequently taken to the hospital at Sharpsburg. There, a few hours after the ball had been extracted, he expired. Layman had not yet reached his majority. He was of excellent family, and enlisted from motives of the purest patriotism. His early training, earnest purpose and firm determination to be foremost in answer to all demands of duty, were indicative of a promising future.”

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