- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

Around 5:30 p.m. on a warm September afternoon in 1862, about 500 men from the the 26th Pennsylvania Regi-ment were charging through G. Whip's cornfield into an open pasture beside the Mountain Church Road in Frederick County, Md.
From behind stone walls and wood fences along the road, 100 soldiers from the 6th Virginia and 206 from the 10th Georgia were firing into the Pennsylvania ranks as they stepped into the open field. It was like a shooting gallery. Eighty-one Union troopers dropped in the first volley. Their comrades stopped, fired and charged forward.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Pennsylvania regiment along with the rest of Col. Joseph J. Bartlett's Union brigade had been positioned behind a stone wall overgrown with trees, facing South Mountain and some 1,200 feet from the Confederate line. For about an hour, there had been a long-range duel between the two sides. The Union soldiers had gotten the worst of it because of devastating artillery fire from Confederate guns halfway up the mountain. Bartlett's own artillery had been far in the rear and out of action. He had needed to move his men and had had no intention of retreating. He had told them fix bayonets and prepare for a frontal assault. After moving through the cornfield, where the men had some protection, they emerged into the open field, where the Confederates opened a savage barrage.
The 300-yard run was terrifying; during the minutes it took to cross the open field, Minie balls were whistling all around them. Many plowed harmlessly into the dirt, but others found their mark, ripping through flesh and shattering bones.
The entire Union line stretched over 3,700 feet as more than 2,000 soldiers joined the attack. The entire Confederate line numbered a little more than 1,000. To the Confederates' backs was Crampton's Gap. The Rebels' task was to keep the vanguard of Gen. George McClellan's army from getting through the gap and at Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces.
The fierce exchange of fire lasted just a few minutes. As the Union soldiers stormed over the walls, they were in a frenzy. According to John Michael Priest, in his book "Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain," the Southerners tried desperately to surrender, but Bartlett's men would hear nothing of it. A brutal hand-to-hand fight ensued, and many Confederates were bayoneted. The rest fled up the steep, rocky slopes of South Mountain, while the Union forces shot them in the back.
I read this account in Mr. Priest's book, but I also have the bullets I dug from the battlefield as testament to the fierceness of the fight.
Last spring and this fall, I was granted permission by two battlefield landowners to hunt for relics on their property. One is the current owner of Whip's old farm, which contains the major portion of the battlefield. The other owns land along what was the Confederate line at the foot of South Mountain.
After 30 years of seeing Civil War enthusiasts hunting for relics there, one of the landowners laughed and told me, "Go ahead, but you're not going find anything. It's all been dug up already."
Like Antietam, Gettysburg and many other Civil War fields, the battlefield at Crampton's Gap is a beautiful site. On many a warm autumn day, much like the day of the engagement, I have walked through the pastures and fields, a breeze blowing; blue sky above the long, tree-clad mountain; a few birds chirping and a couple of hawks soaring in the heavens. So calm and peaceful. But not on that day.
Between 30 and 50 yards from the Mountain Church Road, I found more than three dozen bullets and one Union eagle button with a little of the gilt still on it. How many thousands of shots were fired? How many more soldiers were felled at that close range? Relic hunters have been digging up Civil War artifacts there for years, and yet every season, after plowing, planting and harvesting have been completed, the earth yields another crop of corn, plus more bullets and artifacts.
Recently I dug up another "three-ringer" the standard bullet of the Civil War. One hundred thirty-nine years after some battle-weary Southern soldier hurriedly rammed the bullet down his barrel and fired it at the oncoming attackers, my fingers became the first to touch it again. It is in near-perfect condition and certainly missed its intended target. Yet others in my collection are smashed in and flattened, perhaps by the bones of some unlucky Pennsylvanians. The record indicates that 113 Union troops were killed and 419 wounded. Confederate losses were 67 killed and 292 wounded.
*Henry Christopher is a graphics artist for The Washington Times.


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