Civil War: The Battles of South Mountain • Fox's GapTurner's GapCrampton's GapFrostown Gap
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Park Tours: South Mountain State Battlefield Driving TourFox's Gap Walking Trail

 

The Battles of South Mountain
By Steven R. Stotelmyer

On October 15, 1862, Lieutenant John Williams Hudson of the 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry finished a rather lengthy letter for his folks back home. Although John had been present for duty in Maryland during the first two weeks of September, in what would later come to be known as the Maryland Campaign, the bulk of the missive dealt with his experiences during the Battle of Antietam which had occurred on September 17, 1862. Three days before Antietam, John had also participated in the Battle of South Mountain on Sunday, September 14, 1862. However, when it came to his experiences on the mountain, Lieutenant Hudson could only bring himself to pen the following, "I have written nothing about So. Mountain, because it would be much work & poor pay."

Lieutenant Hudson's sentiment very much represents the prevailing view on the Battle of South Mountain to this day. Long overlooked as simply "The prelude to Antietam" and overshadowed by the horrible carnage which followed three days later at Sharpsburg, this one day's battle has been relegated to the backwaters of history. However, both Antietam and South Mountain, as well as the occupation of Frederick and the siege of Harpers Ferry, are but part of a larger Civil War event known as The Maryland Campaign of 1862. Indeed, such has been the overwhelming influence of the Battle of Antietam on the incidents that preceeded it that some historians have chosen to incorrectly label the events of early September 1862 as "The Antietam Campaign."

The Maryland Campaign resulted from the first invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and represented the best chance the South would ever have for achieving independence. What began for Lee, in May of 1862, as a series of battles to relieve the Confederate Capitol at Richmond from Union attack had, by September, evolved into a daring plan to carry the war to the North. Maryland was a sister state, Southern in traditions and custom. Slaves were bought and sold within its borders. If it could be brought into the Confederacy the Union Capital at Washington would be completely surrounded by enemy territory. A victory on Northern soil would probably result in foreign diplomatic recognition and intervention. It was hoped that this combination of events would demonstrate to the civilian population that the war was unwinable and persuade a war weary United States Congress into a negotiated peace.

On September 4, 1862, Gen. Lee began the Maryland Campaign by moving his army across the Potomac River into the village of Frederick, Maryland. While in Frederick it became apparent to General Lee that he would have to remove the Federal Garrison at Harpers Ferry. Lee could not move northward with this body of Union troops threatening his supply lines. This decision by Robert E. Lee, and the method he chose to accomplish it, set the stage for the Battle of South Mountain. Unknown to Robert E. Lee, General George B. McClellan was moving his Army of the Potomac out of Washington more rapidly than anticipated by Lee. Ultimately, McClellan moved his troops into the Middletown Valley in an attempt to intercept Lee's army and "...beat him in detail." General Lee had his army divided into five pieces and spread across the breadth of Maryland from Hagerstown to Harpers Ferry. To destroy Lee's army piecemeal, McClellan had only to cross the mountains west of Frederick before those pieces could reunite. These mountains were the northern extension of the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, in Maryland this range was called South Mountain. For a brief time during the Maryland Campaign the success of the Confederacy, and the fate of the Union, hinged on events at South Mountain.

Rather than grouping all of the action which occurred on Sunday, September 14, 1862, under the single title of "The Battle of South Mountain," some historians feel that it is more accurate to use the term "The Battles on South Mountain." General McClellan sent the VI Army Corps, under the command of General William B. Franklin, to attack the Confederate position at Crampton's Gap near the village of Burkittsville, Maryland. On the other side of Crampton's Gap lay Pleasant Valley and then, overlooking Harpers Ferry, Maryland Heights. On September 13, 1862, Confederate General Lafayette McLaws had attacked the Union defenders on Maryland Heights in preparation for the siege of Harpers Ferry. Franklin was urged by McClellan to use all the intellect and activity he could exercise to destroy McLaws' command and relieve Harpers Ferry. However, Franklin wandered across the Middletown valley with daisy picking urgency and squandered a ten to one advantage.

 


General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

 


General George B. McClellan, commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac.

Eventually though, McLaws was forced to remove some of his troops from Maryland Heights to defend against Franklin's assault at Crampton's Gap. Because of this Franklin's attack at Crampton's Gap can also be considered part of the siege of Harpers Ferry.

Six miles north of Crampton's Gap were located Fox's Gap and Turner's Gaps. The battle in this area resulted from the clash of Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's vanguard of the Army of the Potomac and Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill's rearguard of the Army of Northern Virginia. This battle was bitterly fought for the possession of the two passes over the crest of South Mountain at Fox's Gap and Turner's Gap.

The mid-morning combat at Fox's Gap saw one of the rare instances of actual hand-to-hand combat during the Civil War. Bayonets and clubbed muskets were used freely. Many veterans remembered the action "as hot as any in the entire war." The fighting at Fox's Gap claimed the lives of two promising young Generals, Confederate Brigadier General Samuel Garland and Union Major General Jesse Lee Reno, who both received mortal wounds on that bloody Sabbath.

Two future presidents served at Fox's Gap. Both Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley served with the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Hayes was severely wounded and taken to Middletown, where he recovered from his wounds. McKinley survived, only to die by an assassin's bullet on September 14, 1901; thirty-nine years to the day of the Battle of South mountain.

Before the sunken road at Sharpsburg became famous as "Bloody Lane" the Old Sharpsburg Road which passed through Fox's Gap was called the "Sunken Road." Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General Thomas S. Drayton were caught in a torrent of gunfire in the Sunken Road that resulted in horrendous casualties. Almost one-half of Drayton's men were killed or wounded on South Mountain. Union soldiers on the field the day after the battle remembered the Confederate dead stacked like cordwood in the Sunken Road. Square foot per square foot the South Mountain sunken road was just as bloody as its famous counterpart at Antietam.

Two days after the battle, on September 16, 1862, Union burial details at Fox's Gap dumped the bodies of fifty-eight dead Confederates down the well of a farmer named Daniel Wise and, in so doing, laid the foundation for one of the most persistent legends of the Maryland Campaign. In the years after the war this foul deed was attributed to farmer Wise, who died before the legend became accepted as fact. The dead Confederates remained in the well for twelve years before being reintered at the Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.

In the area northeast of Turner's Gap, along what is now Dahlgren Road, Confederate Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes' lone brigade of 1,200 Alabama troops engaged in battle against Union General George G. Meade's Division of 4,000 men. This remarkable action has come to be known simply as "Rodes' Resistance." On the other side of Dahlgren road Union Brigadier General John P. Hatch led his division in an assault that earned him the Medal of Honor.

The Union troops on this part of the battlefield started their march that morning near Frederick, Maryland, on the banks of the Monocacy River. The bluecoats marched, on a warm summer's day, fourteen miles to the battlefield. Many of the Confederates had a twelve mile march that morning from Hagerstown. Both armies fought after their strenuous journeys on some of the most difficult mountainous terrain of the Civil War.

In the area immediately below Turner's Gap, the men of Union General John Gibbon's brigade would win special recognition for their action against the Confederate defenders of General Alfred H. Colquitt. After the Battle of South Mountain Gibbon's troops would simply be known as "The Iron Brigade." However, in contrast to other portions of the battlefield, here the terrain allowed the Southerners to hold their ground. Although Gibbon's men may have earned the name Iron Brigade it should be noted that General Colquitt was hereafter known as the "Rock of South Mountain."

Approximately 38,000 Union and 12,000 Confederate troops fought in the battles on South Mountain. Union casualties numbered approximately 2,500 and Confederate casualties almost 3,800 in killed, wounded, and missing. In terms of these casualties losses at South Mountain were greater than the war's first major battle at Bull Run. In terms of its strategic results and repercussions South Mountain ranks as one of the most important battles of the Civil War.

The full impact of the Battle of South Mountain is only now being fully appreciated. Brought about largely by General Lee's decision to invest Harpers Ferry, this battle enabled General George B. McClellan to thwart the first invasion of the North by the Confederacy. The Maryland Campaign of 1862 marks the turning point of Confederate fortunes in the Civil War and it is the Battle of South Mountain that marks the turning point of the Maryland Campaign. Previous to South Mountain Lee was proactive. After South Mountain all Lee could do was react, the momentum had passed to McClellan. It was The Battle of South Mountain that prohibited Lee from taking his army into Pennsylvania, as many historians agree was his plan. This battle robbed General Lee of the victory on northern soil that the South so desperately needed. Ultimately the Maryland campaign was the Confederacy's best and last hope for foreign recognition and intervention, and thereby southern independence. It was the Battle of South Mountain that brought about the end of the Maryland Campaign and thereby dashed southern hopes for Southern independence in 1862.

When one considers the tactical situation, there were times during the day that the Battle of South Mountain threatened the destruction of a large part of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. As it was this battle saved Lee's army from catastrophe. It provided the time Lee needed to regroup his scattered forces and avert catastrophe. Rather than being remembered as a key event in the Maryland Campaign, South Mountain has most often simply been referred to as "skirmishing in the mountain passes." Unfortunately, it has just become the trite and often over-looked "prelude" to the battle at Sharpsburg three days later.

There is more involved than just tactical and strategic influences on a military campaign. The Battle of South Mountain did not happen in a vacuum. It was shaped by the events preceding it and it shaped the events following it. Of more importance though is the fact that the Battle of South Mountain was fought by people. People of many different backgrounds and life experiences. People who were husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. People who were Americans fighting for their ideals and beliefs, or people who fought simply because they were told to do so. People who but a short time earlier had been fellow countrymen. As one of the Confederate defenders of South Mountain, General Daniel Harvey Hill, would remember years later, "The last time I ever saw Generals McClellan and Reno was in 1848...in the City of Mexico. Generals Meade and Scammon had been instructors while I was at West Point. Colonel Magilton, commanding a brigade in Meade's Division, had been a lieutenant in my company in the Mexican War. Gen. John Gibbon (whose brigade pressed up the pike on the 14th of September at the battle of South Mountain) and his brother Lardull had been best men at my wedding. They were from North Carolina, but one brother took the Northern side, while the other took the Southern."

A bullet knows no geographical or historical distinction and for many of General Lee's and General McClellan's men the slopes of South Mountain would be their last battlefield. They also gave that last measure of devotion. Their story is much more than just the prelude to Antietam. The events of Sunday, September 14, 1862, are important in their own right, and the soldier's story of the Battle of South Mountain, that bloody Sabbath, regardless of the "much work & poor pay" deserves to be considered as a separate and distinct engagement. The story needs to be told.

It is altogether fitting that the State of Maryland has created a South Mountain Battlefield Park to this story.