The Battle at the Cement Mill, and the 2014 IEEE Conference

Registration for the 2014 IEEE-IAS/PCA Cement Industry Conference is now open.  The conference is being held at the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center near Washington, D.C., and the plant tour for this conference will be the Essroc cement plant in Martinsburg, WV.

To properly kick-off this event, we have a special guest post this week covering some local cement history to the Martinsburg area, as provided by a historian who regularly works at the Smithsonian Institution.

Natural Cement and the “Battle at the Cement Mill”

During the early and mid-nineteenth century, the American continent experienced incredible growth in settlement and with it a great increase in the national economy.  This growth was spurred on in large part by an increase in infrastructure.  Turnpikes, railroads, and canals changed the way that people and goods could travel throughout the country, and greatly decreased the cost of such travel.  One such infrastructure improvement was the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which improved river traffic along the Potomac River in modern-day West Virginia.  This canal and a quiet mill along the banks of the Potomac River would come to be the apex of a collision between the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War at the Battle of Shepherdstown, sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Cement Mill[1].

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was one of the major canal projects of the 19th century, and travelled parallel to the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, DC.  The groundbreaking took place in July of 1828, but Shepherdstown’s role began before the first shovel was used. Before construction even began, Henry Boteler contacted the company to alert them of a location of limestone along the river that could be used during the construction process.  The company, always in search of local sources, sent John H. Cocke, Jr. to test the limestone and he concluded that it would create good natural cement.  Boteler proposed that, “…they could burn, grind, and deliver cement at the mill for 18.75 cents per bushel.”[2]  In 1829 the mill, owned by Henry Boteler and George Reynolds, began grinding both grain and cement stone.  The first lime kiln was constructed in 1829, and six more would be added over the course of the project.   They were also authorized to build a warehouse to store the 2,000 bushels of lime being ground per week for the canal company.  Between 1829 and 1837, the Boteler and Reynolds’ Potomac Mill complex provided over 140,000 bushels of ground lime to the C & O Canal company to fulfill its need for natural cement. After 1837, cement for the continued construction was produced by another mill in Hancock, Maryland, and construction of the canal continued until 1850.  Henry Boteler sold his stake in the business to George Reynolds in 1835, and the business was eventually sold by Reynolds to pay off debts.  Alexander Boteler, son of Henry Boteler, purchased the Potomac Mill complex, and continued grain and cement production until the coming of the Civil War.[3]

In August of 1861, the Potomac Mill complex was burned by Union troops guarding the area near Shepherdstown.  Alexander Boteler, the owner and a colonel in the Confederate Army, was targeted and as a result, his home and the mill complex were set on fire during a raid by Union troops.[4]  The destruction brought about the demise of the business, but the mill’s true legacy came during the battle of Shepherdstown.  In September of 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Confederate army on its first major invasion of the North.  His army would meet the Union army, commanded by General George McClellan near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where both sides fought to a bloody standstill.  The battle of Antietam became the single bloodiest day in American history.  Following the battle, Lee began moving his battered force back into the safety of Virginia.  A ford, just ½ mile east of the city of Shepherdstown, often referred to as Blackford, Shepherdstown, or Boteler’s Ford, proved invaluable for Lee to quickly move his troops and wagons across the Potomac River.  On September 18, 1862, Lee began moving his forces across the river.  In order to protect the critical river crossing, General Lee ordered General William Nelson Pendleton to set up forty-four cannons on the bluffs overlooking the southern side of the river, south of the mill complex.  The Union army, in pursuit of Lee’s army, arrived and began setting up artillery on the northern side of the river.  Union forces then occupied the drained canal with sharpshooters, and exchanged volleys with Confederate forces.  These actions would set up a bloody conflict between each side for the next day.[5]

Overview image of the Potomac Mill Complex, looking north.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—16.

Overview image of the Potomac Mill Complex, looking north. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—16.

On September 19, 1862, about 2,000 men of the Union V Corps moved forward across the river and captured four of General Pendleton’s artillery pieces guarding the ford.  In panic, General Pendleton fled the battlefield without fully observing the situation and reported to General Lee that Union forces had taken the ford and were moving men across the river in order to attack the Confederate forces.  Lee, fearing that his army would soon be attacked, dispatched Major General A.P. Hill with six brigades of infantry to hold off any Union attack.  On September 20, 1862, the relatively small Union force under the command of Major Charles Lovell which had crossed the river was surprised to see a large Confederate force approaching from the south.  Union forces pulled back to the river, and Confederate skirmishers rapidly advanced.  The Union artillery on the northern side of the river opened fire, and caused great casualties among Hill’s troops.  After a bloody skirmish along the river, the greatly outnumbered Union forces began retreating across the river back into Maryland.  Due to miscommunication, however, the 118th Pennsylvania remained on the southern side of the river and suffered terrible casualties in the fighting.[6]  Some men hid within the lime kilns for protection from Confederate fire coming from the bluffs above them.  One private, Joseph Meehan, explained that as he fled the Confederate fire, he slid down the bluff, “…and reaching the road at the bottom…ran a short distance till I came to three archways [of the cement kilns] in the hill.  Into the first of these I got for protection.”[7] The men of the 118th Pennsylvania were finally able to retreat across the river, and Confederate forces retired from the field under the heavy firing of Union artillery.  During the conflict, Union artillery caused damage to the cement mill and the cement mill property was in the center of the fighting along the river.  The battle ended with a little over 600 casualties, one of the bloodiest battles fought in West Virginia, and brought about the end of the Maryland Campaign.

Kilns from the Potomac Mill Complex.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—1

Kilns from the Potomac Mill Complex. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—1

Kilns from the Potomac Mill Complex.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—2

Kilns from the Potomac Mill Complex. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—2

The action at the Potomac Cement Mill Complex was small in comparison to many of the battles of the Civil War, but its outcome proved to be critical to the outcome of the war.  The Confederate Army was able to escape back into Virginia to rebuild and fight again.  The failure to destroy Lee’s army led Abraham Lincoln to relieve the Union commander George B. McClellan of command.  The cement mill never recovered from the damage caused during the war.  The war torn remains of some of the complex, including some of the original kilns, can still be seen to this day.  The Civil War Trust purchased the land around the cement mill remains, and continues to preserve the site of the battle to this day.

More information can also be found through the Shepherdstown Visitors Center.

Kiln Block built in the 1830s.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—12

Kiln Block built in the 1830s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—12

The 1828 Large Single Kiln, looking northwest.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—17.

The 1828 Large Single Kiln, looking northwest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540, HAER WVA,19-SHEP.V,4—17.


[1] “Landmark Nomination Report for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission” (Microsoft Word Document of paper presented to nominate the Battle of Shepherdstown at Boteler’s Cement Mill for historic landmark status, Jefferson County, WV, September 19, 2012), 1-4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://jeffersoncountyhlc.org/countylandmarks/Battle of Shepherdstown 9-12.doc.

[2] “Landmark Nomination Report for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission” (PDF Document of paper presented to nominate the Potomac Mills/Boteler’s Cement Mill for historic landmark status, Jefferson County, WV, September 19, 2012), 1-4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://jeffersoncountyhlc.org/countylandmarks/Potomac Mills.pdf.

[3] “Landmark Nomination Report for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission” (PDF Document of paper presented to nominate the Potomac Mills/Boteler’s Cement Mill for historic landmark status, Jefferson County, WV, September 19, 2012), 1-4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://jeffersoncountyhlc.org/countylandmarks/Potomac Mills.pdf.

[4] “Landmark Nomination Report for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission” (Microsoft Word Document of paper presented to nominate the Battle of Shepherdstown at Boteler’s Cement Mill for historic landmark status, Jefferson County, WV, September 19, 2012), 1-4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://jeffersoncountyhlc.org/countylandmarks/Battle of Shepherdstown 9-12.doc.

[5] Steven Whitesell, Shepherdstown Battlefield Special Resource Study: West Virginia and Maryland (National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012), 3-4, parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=36834‎.

[6] Steven Whitesell, Shepherdstown Battlefield Special Resource Study: West Virginia and Maryland (National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012), 4-6, parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=36834‎.

[7] “Landmark Nomination Report for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission” (Microsoft Word Document of paper presented to nominate the Battle of Shepherdstown at Boteler’s Cement Mill for historic landmark status, Jefferson County, WV, September 19, 2012), 1-4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://jeffersoncountyhlc.org/countylandmarks/Battle of Shepherdstown 9-12.doc.

Submitted by: Thomas Paone, Civil War Historian



Categories: Cement Industry History

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