Amaziah J. Barber
Company H, 11th U.S. Infantry
The Battle of Shepherdstown, VA (now West Virginia) was fought two days after Antietam as the Confederate troops retreated back into Virginia. Union troops followed and attacked the rearguard of the CSA army on September 19 and 20, 1862. The Confederate troops crossed the Potomac River at a ford and on a low 10’ wide stone and wood dam close to one another about a mile below the town. Confusing both sides was the fact that the ford carried four different names; Blackford’s, Boteler’s, Pack Horse, and Shepherdstown Ford. The covered wooden bridge which previously spanned the Potomac at Shepherdstown was burned by Stonewall Jackson in 1861. The stone piers remain in the river to this day. This bridge destruction virtually stopped all commerce across the river and brought the growing town to a standstill. Farmers and merchants relied on the bridge to cross the river and gain access to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which ran parallel and close to the river on the Maryland side. The canal allowed the transport of farm produce and material goods to and from Harper’s Ferry, Georgetown, and Washington as well as points in between. The canal, however, was previously breached in this area and was now virtually dry.
This little known and less studied engagement did not have to happen and served no purpose other than to satisfy Major General George B. McClellan that he made an effort to pursue the Confederate troops back into Virginia. Those killed and mortally wounded on both sides were light; 99 Union and 63 Confederate. However, for the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry (The Corn Exchange Regiment), this was their baptism of fire after being mustered into Federal service on August 30 in Philadelphia. Held in reserve and not used on September 17, this new, green, and untested regiment suffered 63 killed outright, 101 wounded, and 105 missing or captured. The loss of 269 soldiers of their strength of 737 men amounted to 36% of the regiment lost in their very first engagement.
Amaziah J. Barber was originally from upstate New York. His family moved to Medina, Ohio and then to Burlington, Iowa. Amaziah was not a career military soldier. He originally enlisted in Company I of the 7th Iowa Infantry on August 2, 1861 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He resigned six weeks later while in camp near Falmouth, VA. Then, on January 8, 1862, he mustered into the U.S. Army, 11th Infantry as a Corporal. He rose through the ranks and had several promotions. He was probably a Sergeant Major in September 1862. The 11th Infantry was on the front line at Shepherdstown but due to their position on the field against the attacking Confederates, they only suffered three wounded before retreating back across the river. They were, however, in position to witness the carnage wreaked upon the 118th Pennsylvania. Barber survived unscathed but he was to meet his fate 10 months later at Gettysburg. He was severely wounded in the left leg on July 2, 1863. Amaziah lingered in the Fifth Corps hospital in Gettysburg until his death on July 26. Today he lies under a marked headstone in Evergreen Cemetery. Barber’s letter regarding Shepherdstown has been lightly edited with punctuation for easier reading. His spelling errors were left intact.
In the Field
Camp near Sharpsburgh, Md
Sep’t. 28th 1862
My Dear Father and Mother
And Brother Ed
It has been some time since you have heard from me, which was while we were on the West side of the Potomac oposite the City of Washington; the City that we were then defending from the Enemy that had just whiped us at Bulls Runn. We have since passed through another heavy Battle in which, thank God, we were victorious. At least we drove the Enemy across the Potomac and we, Sykes Division, are here guarding the fords below Shephardstown which we shall probably continue to do until high Water. Then we shall probably go into Winter Quarters at some town or City – I hope Washington or Baltimore.
Well about the Fight, I cannot tell you much as we were the Reserve and therefore was not engaged but our Batalion was supporting a Battery during the fight and therefor should say that we were in. But as the officials say not, I suppose that we was not. The Batalion only had one man Wounded during the Battle of the 17th and none killed – the one that was wounded was sitting within two feet of myself when a ball from a case shot struck him on the head. We were eating our dinner at the time he was not wounded very bad.
However, the next day the enemy asked for a cesation of hostilaties to enable them to pick up the dead and wounded. But instead of doing that, they used the time in retreating across the Potomac which we did not discover untill the next morning at which time the Reserve (Porter’s Corps which was in the center) was ordered to the front which was done with Sykes Division in the front. We advanced to within two miles of the Potomac when a halt was ordered and Skirmishers advanced (from) the ford to the Bluffs overlooking the Potomac when they were fired into by the enemys Rear guard both Infantry and Artilery. Then a couple of our Batteries of Artilery went to the front and soon put a quietus on their guns but there was an accasional shot fired during the whole day and part of the night but we did not advance any farther until the next morning when there was no enemy in sight. Sykes Division was ordered to cross to River. The 3rd Brigade, 5th & 10th N.Y., Col. Warren comdg taking the lead and to the left after crossing. The 2nd Brigade next with the 1st Batl, 11th Infty on the advance. We took the center after crossing and advanced up a deep ravine about one mile when we came out on the high ground with a corn field in front and on the right and left of the road with a wood in the rear of the field. At this time the Major says that he thought he saw a horseman cross the Road beyond the corn field he halted the column and sent out skirmishers on the left in front through a wooded opening. The balance of the 2nd Brigade filed left into the wood in four lines, each Batallion forming a line. We then rested for about half an hour when word came back that the enemy were advancing in force. We then fell back to the Bluff overlooking the River under a sharp fire from the enemys Skirmishers suported by a heavy force. At this time our Light Artillery opened on them from the Maryland side of the river and kept them in check for about an hour; our Skirmishers and theirs keeping up a continual fire. At this time we were ordered to recross the River which was done in pretty good order considering. But here is the place that the enemy could have Slaughtered the regular Army of the east but they was affraid of our Artilery and kept back which gave us a chance to regain the Maryland shore in safety. But if they had opened their Musketry and Artilery on us while crossing we would all have been killed or drowned. And another thing, if they had let us gone a half a mile farther into Virginia they could have taken us all prisoners as they had force enough to have surrounded us. We are now encamped within sight of the river in the edge of a piece of Woods.
My health is first rate better than usual and I am glad to hear that Ed is improving so rapidly and I hope that he will entirely recover and not be a criple for life. (Note: Edward Barber, brother of Amaziah, was severely wounded in the hip on April 6, 1862 at Shiloh and survived until June 13, 1863.) I recieved your (Fathers) letter dated Chicago yesterday also one from Patt and Frank which I have answered to day. They are all well except the “Pig.” When you write give them my love.
I should have written sooner but as soon as the Excitement of the Battle was over, the Major ordered the pay Rolls made up and I have been busy on them for the past week. Yesterday I got them passed and signed by the Major – and so they are off my mind for the next two months by which time I hope that the 1st Sergt. will be well and back to his company and relieve me.
I will try and write as often as I can after this – hoping to hear from you soon.
I remain your
P.S. I will write to Washington to keep that Box until farther orders when I shall be able to get it is more than I can say.
Say to Lieut. Harbach that I recd his letter and will answer soon maybe tomorrow – also that Sergt. John
Reid was only Wounded but pretty badly the Ball passing through his body – he has not been heard from
since we left Centerville, Va
Write soon. Direct the same as usual Co. “H” 1st Batl.
11th U.S. Infantry Washington D.C.
Suggested Reading: Thomas A. McGrath, Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign September 19 – 20, 1862, 2007, Schroeder Publications