Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Young historian reveals story of war-torn Shepherdstown

Civil War-era view of Shepherdstown, Va., from the Maryland side of the Potomac River. 
The town became part of West Virginia when it joined the Union in June 1863. (Library of Congress)

Kevin Pawlak, a 23-year-old Shepherdstown, W.Va., 
resident,  already has begun research for
 another Civil War book.
Like Frederick, Md., to the north, Shepherdstown, Va., was inundated with casualties after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. While much is known about Frederick and its role as a mostly Union army hospital town, little has been published about what citizens and the Confederate medical corps endured when Shepherdstown was overwhelmed by thousands of tired, wounded and dying Rebels after the bloodiest day of the war.

In Shepherdstown In The Civil War, One Vast Confederate Hospital, Kevin Pawlak, a 23-year-old, first-time author, tapped into many unpublished sources to help fill that void. "Writing a book about the Confederate medical corps and the Confederate hospitals in Shepherdstown during the [Maryland] campaign gave me an opportunity to look at the stories of the physically scarred Confederates who walked away from the horrors of the battlefields ...," Pawlak said.

Locals referred to Shepherdstown as "nine miles from everywhere," but war was omnipresent for its citizens as the armies swept back and forth through the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1862. After fighting at Solomon's Gap, South Mountain, Harpers Ferry and elsewhere in the area, wounded Rebels filled the town along the banks of the Potomac River. "Battles had come to mean to us, as they never had before, blood, wounds, and death," wrote a Shepherdstown resident about that period.

But the aftermath of Antietam proved to be the biggest nightmare for Shepherdstown, only four miles from Sharpsburg, Md. By the morning of Sept. 19, 1862, Pawlak writes, wounded Confederates jammed each of the town's six churches as well as private homes, warehouses, barns and other buildings. There were so many Rebels in town that its water supply nearly ran dry. Also on Sept. 19, the pursuing Union army began shelling Shepherdstown from the Maryland side of the Potomac, wreaking more havoc. Writes Pawlak:
Published by The History Press, Kevin Pawlak's
 book is available on amazon.com and elsewhere.
"Randolph Shotwell of the 8th Virginia remembered well the first shells to land among Shepherdstown's streets on September 19. As he was sitting in a doorway, a Shepherdstown woman approached him with a slice of pie in one hand and a glass of buttermilk in the other. Suddenly, a gun boomed from across the river and the shell landed "near a church full of wounded." Startled, the matron dropped the plate of pie and fled to the cellar of her home."
Reared in the small western New York town of Albion, Pawlak got hooked on the Civil War as I did: He went to Gettysburg with his family when he was a youngster. Studying Civil War history and historic preservation, Pawlak graduated from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown in 2014, With so much Civil War history in his back yard while he was in college, Pawlak could easily dive into rich local resources and investigate in-person the area's many war-related sites.

Pawlak, who still lives in Shepherdstown, works as a licensed battlefield guide at Antietam and as an education specialist at the Mosby Heritage Area Association. He has already begun research for another Civil War book: an examination of the often-overlooked Battle of Shepherdstown on Sept.19-20, 1862.

Pawlak recently took time out to answer a few questions about Shepherdstown And The Civil War, published in August by The History Press. (E-mail him here for information on how to obtain an autographed copy of his book.)

                                                                             X X X

The Maryland Campaign and, of course, the Battle of Antietam have been written about extensively. Why did you write a book about Shepherdstown?

Many aspects of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam have been covered in separate monographs. However, I felt that a work like mine filled in some of the holes that still remain within the historiography of the Maryland Campaign.

Firstly, when talking about the medical aspects of Antietam, this is overwhelmingly covered from the Federal aspect. Jonathan Letterman’s triage system, the Union hospitals throughout the western Maryland countryside, the photographs of those Union hospitals -- all of these compelling stories and unique sources have led to this uneven coverage. I wanted to flip things around and see what the Confederate medical corps was up to during this campaign and how their operations, successes and failures differed and compared with the Union medical corps during the campaign.

Next, the most famous Confederate casualties from the Maryland Campaign can be found in Alexander Gardner’s photographs as sun-bloated, grotesque, anonymous corpses. The photos are moving, to be sure, but we do not know those soldiers’ names or their personal stories. We likely know what part of the action they fell in and what state they came from, but nothing beyond that. Writing a book about the Confederate medical corps and the Confederate hospitals in Shepherdstown during the campaign gave me an opportunity to look at the stories of the physically scarred Confederates who walked away from the horrors of the battlefields of the Maryland Campaign.

Lastly, because the campaign is called the Maryland Campaign, the events that took place in Maryland and the horrors the civilians of Maryland experienced is all that had been looked at. The story of Shepherdstown --- then in Virginia -- and the horrors its civilians experienced had fallen by the wayside and had yet to be examined. I hope that my book rectified that.

Confederate surgeon William Parran was killed at the Battle of Antietam. He's buried in 
Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, W. Va.
 (Parran photo: Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va.)

What's the most compelling story you discovered?

Pawlak: Every story that I discovered was compelling to me, but I think the most compelling was one that modern residents of Shepherdstown already know. Dr. William Parran was a surgeon in the Confederate Army and had family living in Shepherdstown during the war. His cousin’s husband was killed at First Bull Run. Before Antietam, Parran -- an enterprising man who attended West Point, VMI, and the University of Maryland at various points in his life -- had a chance to visit his relatives in Shepherdstown. At the time, William’s wife at home was pregnant with their second child. He urged her to come to Shepherdstown to be surrounded by his family, but she likely never made it. If she did, she would not have found her husband there. During the fight at Antietam, Parran volunteered to serve with a Virginia battery and was killed in action. His body was recovered and his remains laid to rest in Shepherdstown. He never met his son, but in his last letter home, Parran told his infant daughter Emma, “Daddy’s little Emma -- must be a good girl and know her daddy when he returns.” Of course, Emma never got the chance.

Going to school in Shepherdstown, I was familiar with this story. Upon further research, I found even more information about Parran than I had heard and even found a few facts contradicting the popular version of the story. No matter which story you believe, it is a touching story and combines all three themes of the book: the Confederate medical corps, Confederate casualties during the campaign, and Shepherdstown’s sufferings in September 1862.

More than 100 Confederates who died of wounds suffered in battle at Antietam or Shepherdstown 
are buried in the town's Elmwood Cemetery.  (Photo courtesy Kevin Pawlak)

Many buildings in Shepherdstown date to the Civil War era and even earlier. Was there any evidence left behind -- say, blood-stained floors, initials carved in window sills -- that can be traced to the Civil War?

Pawlak: Many of the buildings that I related stories to from September 1862 are still standing and easily recognizable today. Needless to say, I have yet to find blood stains from this particular stint of hospitals in Shepherdstown. However, one of the churches in town (no longer standing) used pews that for years after the war, blood stains were still visible. There are a couple of cases of graffiti from soldiers in some of the buildings in town, but none of them were probably created in September 1862.

The most tangible evidence of Shepherdstown’s stint as a hospital can be found in Elmwood cemetery outside of town, where stone markers denote the graves of over 100 Confederates who died in town from their wounds received in September 1862. Seeing these every day makes it hard for people of Shepherdstown to forget what their town endured.

Shepherdstown's Presbyterian Church was used as a hospital
 for Confederate wounded. (Historic Shepherdstown Museum)
Many casual visitors to Antietam have no idea that another battle was fought nearby at Shepherdstown on Sept. 19-20, 1862. What did you learn about that?

Pawlak: I actually anticipated that my first book would be solely about the Battle of Shepherdstown, but I was convinced otherwise from a variety of factors. However, keep your eyes peeled for that book, which is my current project.

Because this is my next work, I did not cover the battle extensively in my current book, but I did find a lot of useful stories coming from the smaller Battle of Shepherdstown. Indeed, most people have no idea that there was a battle fought after Antietam. It does not fit into the common and flawed interpretation of the campaign that states that George McClellan and the Union Army did not pursue the Confederates after they left Sharpsburg. In fact, this is not true at all. While the two-day battle was not a large pursuit, it was nonetheless a pursuit that altered Robert E. Lee’s plans for the rest of the campaign and ended the critical Maryland Campaign.

In my research for this current book, I did come across many unpublished and unused sources for the battle, which will be expanded on more fully for my next work. One of the best things I found related to the battle pertinent to this book was the notebook of a surgeon in the 14th South Carolina Infantry detailing the wounded men in that regiment. I found a lot of great stories (some of which I did not publish in this book) from that wonderful source.

 Rebels attacked through this field during the Battle of Shepherdstown on Sept. 20, 1862.

Finally, what do you hope the reader takes away from your book?

Pawlak: Many towns experienced their homes, churches and warehouses being inundated with wounded that vastly outnumbered the civilians during the Civil War. Indeed, the term “one vast hospital,” which a Union trooper applied to Shepherdstown four days before the famous words were attached to western Maryland, was applied to countless towns and cities from 1861-1865. Like those other towns, what happened to Shepherdstown beginning in September 1862 was a shared experience that soldiers, surgeons and civilians would never forget. Amidst war’s atrocities, friendships were forged among citizens and soldiers that lasted decades beyond 1862.

Additionally, the story of the Confederate medical corps is a fascinating one. Even Robert E. Lee had to be treated by it during the course of the campaign! But it demonstrates, in a microcosm, the problems the Confederate armies experienced throughout the war -- straggling, lack of transportation and supplies, and a large disparity between the number of surgeons and the wounded they had to treat. The Confederate medical corps in the Maryland Campaign very much shows a medical corps in transition and one struggling to meet the needs that the times demanded of it.

Lastly, I hope that readers will take away the idea that each of those anonymous soldiers in Alexander Gardner’s haunting photographs has a story yearning to be told -- whether the task is impossible or not. We should strive to uncover as many of those stories as we can because those are the stories that bring us historians back down to earth. These regiments and companies were made of men who had aspirations, dreams, goals and families and their stories serve as a wonderful and inspirational reminder of why it is so important to tell their stories and preserve the land where they fought and died so that other stories could be written long after they were gone.

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