Overview of the Battle of South Mountain
On October 15, 1862, Lieutenant John Williams Hudson of the 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was finishing a rather lengthy letter for the folks back home. Although John had been present for duty during the whole Maryland Campaign, the bulk of the missive dealt with his experiences during the Battle of Antietam which had occurred a month earlier. 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 that some historians have chosen to incorrectly label the events of early September 1862 as "The Antietam Campaign."
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 had 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 was attacking the Union defenders on the heights in preparation for the siege of Harpers Ferry. Franklin had been urged by McClellan to use all the intellect and activity he could exercise to destroy McLaws' command and relieve Harpers Ferry. Because McLaws was forced to remove some of his troops from Maryland Heights to defend the Union assault at Crampton's Gap, some historians feel that Franklin's attack at Crampton's Gap should be considered a part of the siege of Harpers Ferry.
Consequently, a case can be made to consider the fighting at the northern gaps to be the true "Battle of South Mountain." This narrative will center on the action at the northern gaps. This battle resulted from the unexpected 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 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 would remember the action "as hot as any in the entire war." The fighting at Fox's Gap claimed the lives of two 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.
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 would be 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 re-interred 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 would have to do 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." The Pennsylvania Reserves under the command of General Meade included the famed "Bucktails" Regiment.
On the other side of Dahlgren Road, Union Brigadier General John P. Hatch would lead his division in an assault that would later earn him the Medal of Honor. The Union troops had started 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 had to fight after their strenuous journeys on some of the most difficult mountainous terrain of the Civil War.
In the center of the South Mountain Battlefield, 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 Gen. Colquitt was hereafter known as the "Rock of South Mountain."
Approximately 25,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate troops fought at South Mountain. Casualties at the northern gaps of South Mountain were 4,856 killed, wounded, and missing. In terms of these casualties, losses at South Mountain were slightly greater than the war's first major battle at Bull Run. In terms of its strategic results and repercussions it 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 the serendipitous finding of the "Lost Dispatch" this battle enabled General George B. McClellan to thwart the first invasion of the North by the Confederacy. It was The Battle of South Mountain that prohibited Lee from taking his army into Pennsylvania, as most historians agree was his plan. This battle robbed Gen. Lee of the victory on northern soil that the South desperately needed for foreign recognition by England and France. Ultimately the Maryland Campaign was the Confederacy's best and last hope for that 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 dashed southern hopes for independence in 1862.
When one considers the tactical situation, there were times during the day that the Battle of South Mountain could have resulted in the destruction of a large part of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and, perhaps, an earlier conclusion to the war -- a conclusion not favorable to the South. This battle saved Gen. Lee's army. As it came to pass, rather than being remembered as a key event in the Maryland Campaign, South Mountain has often been referred to as "skirmishing in the mountain passes," and has become the often overlooked prelude to that other 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 was fought by people: husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, Americans all. As Gen. D. H. 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 these men the slopes of South Mountain would be their last battlefield. 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 Battle of South Mountain, regardless of the "much work & poor pay" deserves to be considered as a separate and distinct engagement.
If you are as moved as we at the Central Maryland Heritage League are by the human drama that took place on that Sunday in 1862 then we hope you will help us preserve this remarkable battlefield by making a tax deductible contribution to the Central Maryland Heritage League or by alerting your elected representatives to the importance of preserving the South Mountain Battlefield.