Their class project for this semester is to create a podcast tour of the battlefield, and to complete an application to list the battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places.
On a recent Thursday Ed Dunleavy, Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association president, drilled a deep hole in soft soil moistened by several days of rain. Dunleavy then worked with three WVU graduate students to level and secure a numbered wooden post in the hole.
After they secured this post, the group moved downhill to install another post with another number. The numbers correspond with a podcast about the battle.
“This is stop number three, I believe,” student Ashley Whitehead said. “So this is describing the advance up toward the top of the bluffs for the 118th Pennsylvania.”
Whitehead went on to describe how men from the 118th climbed the steep and formidable landscape, not knowing what was going on above this ridge above them. Whitehead said the soldiers knew there was fighting but they were a green regiment and they didn’t know what they were going to find.
The battle at Shepherdstown took place along the banks of the Potomac River in September 1862 as Confederate forces retreated from the battle of Antietam in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland.
This was the first time Pennsylvania’s 118th, known as the Corn Exchange Regiment, saw combat. Soldiers in the 118th were issued faulty rifles, and failed to hear the order to retreat.
Student Joe Obidzinski said about 40 percent of the regiment was killed or injured during this battle.
“As they fall back through the ravine they’re trying to get out of the cliffs and down the ravines. They’re trying to get back towards the river,” Obidzinski said. “And they end up falling back towards the cement mill. And its there that amidst the archways and the bricks they’re able to take some shelter from the Confederates who have moved up on top of the bluffs and are firing down on them.”
Student Jake Struhelka has been working on the national register nomination. He said it’s been a challenge to write a narrative that balances what happened here from a military and human standpoint with the battle’s national significance.
“The battle at Shepherdstown was the last action in the eastern theater of the American Civil War that took place before President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary emancipation proclamation on September 22 1862,” Struhelka said.
Struhelka said an argument could be made that by preventing General Robert E. Lee’s army from continuing its fight in Maryland allowed President Lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation
Peter Carmichael, WVU Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies, said this is an ideal project for his public history students to pursue.
“It brings together so many issues,” Carmichael said. “It brings together the preservation issue. It brings together the issue of how do you interpret an historic sight. It brings to the forefront heritage tourism.”
Whitehead, Struhelka and Obidzinski all agree that this project puts a practical twist on their academic pursuits.
“Having the experience both with working with the national register nomination team and working on the podcast has really enabled us, those of us who want to pursue a career in public history, to learn more about what it takes to do effective interpretation, to engage an audience, to get the attention of the federal government or of preservationist groups,” Whitehead said.
“It’s demonstrating to me the importance of partnering academic institutions with organizations in this state that have an interest in historic preservation,” Struhelka said.
“It’s the opportunity to preserve an area that is both significant to our national heritage but most importantly has a story that has not been told to the general public at least on a very broad sense,” Obidzinski said.
The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association has a conservation easement on this portion of the battlefield.
Dunleavy said having the map, podcast and markers created by the students represents a major step toward the organization’s goal of attracting visitors.
“I think this will help to draw more people,” Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy points out that about 200,000 visitors come to nearby Antietam National Battlefield every year and he hopes to draw some of them to Shepherdstown.
The podcast will be finished by mid May.