The Battle 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.
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
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
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.