- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Battle of South Mountain is the story of unimaginable difficulties, uncommon courage and a lot of luck.

Two future presidents would participate, and one would nearly lose his life. The events that would set the stage for Antietam, one of the most important battles of the Civil War, took place on what is now the Appalachian Trail on South Mountain in Maryland.

Today, trees cover its slopes and wild animals wander along its crest. Hikers tramp along the ridge where Civil War soldiers fought among the jutting rocks and outcroppings high above the valley. It is difficult to believe that a critically important battle was contested here on Sept. 14, 1862.

South Mountain is a long ridge that extends from Harpers Ferry into southern Pennsylvania, forming the top of the Blue Ridge chain. This ridge creates a wall as high as 1,800 feet and provides a defensive shield for any army advancing toward Pennsylvania from the south.

Nine miles north of Harpers Ferry, above Burkittsville, Md., hikers come across a 50-foot-high memorial arch and a series of historical Civil War markers at Crampton’s Gap. Six miles farther, on what was the Daniel Wise farm, are monuments to Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland and Union Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno.

One mile north, the trail meets Alternate Route 40, which crosses over South Mountain. The Old South Mountain Inn stands at the crest just as it did on that fateful day in 1862.

Into Maryland

In September 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee set out to capture the transportation center of Harrisburg, Pa., and split the Union east from west. Lee’s 50,000-man army marched north through Leesburg, Va., where the local population cheered as it passed. The army crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, which was only waist deep in late summer.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had just taken command of the Army of the Potomac for the second time. He was a brilliant organizer and strategist but overly cautious, usually overestimating the strength of his opposition and always requesting more troops and supplies.

Lincoln commented, “Sending reinforcements to McClellan is like shoveling flies across a barn.” McClellan moved north to stop Lee.

Lee encamped at Frederick, Md., but the positive reception he had anticipated did not materialize, as most of the population in Western Maryland remained loyal to the Union. As the Confederates entered Frederick, 95-year-old Barbara Fritchie went out to her porch and began waving a small American flag.

In 1863, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verse that would immortalize the moment, if not the historical accuracy, of the incident:

“Shoot if you must this old gray head

But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

On Sept. 10, Lee put his plan for the next four days into writing in a document called Special Orders No. 191. He would move to the western side of South Mountain and split his army into two parts.

Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would be charged with capturing Harpers Ferry because, with its 12,500 Union troops, it was a threat to Lee’s rear as he advanced.

Maj. Gen. James Longstreet would take the remainder and occupy Boonsboro, Md. The special orders were so secret that Longstreet memorized them and then chewed the message to pulp. McClellan was moving his 88,000 soldiers toward Frederick as Lee departed.

The Lost Orders

McClellan would be the beneficiary of a major stroke of luck. On Saturday, Sept. 13, two soldiers were resting near Frederick when they spotted a small envelope on the ground. They happily discovered it contained three cigars, which they prepared to share. The cigars were wrapped in a document titled Special Orders No. 191.

After it was authenticated, the elated McClellan said, “Here is the paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home.”

McClellan formulated a plan to insert his Army between Lee’s divided forces and defeat them piecemeal, thus ending the war in the East. Unbeknown to McClellan, the situation was even better than he thought.

Lee’s army was not divided into two parts, but five — Jackson with his force looking down on Harpers Ferry from three mountain tops; Longstreet at Hagerstown, where he had moved to stop a perceived threat; and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill at Boonsboro.

Learning from a Southern sympathizer that McClellan had his plan, Lee desperately called in his scattered troops in order to make an orderly withdrawal back across the Potomac.

Jackson would have to abandon the siege of Harpers Ferry. In the meantime, Lee also ordered Hill to make a full-scale defense at Turner’s Gap so he would have time to consolidate his forces.

“The gap must be held at all hazards,” Lee ordered. Longstreet sent eight brigades from Hagerstown to help defend the pass.

In Frederick, McClellan made his plan. Under Maj. Gen. William Franklin, 18,000 men would strike at Crampton’s Gap above Burkittsville. He would then relieve the siege of Harpers Ferry. With the remaining 70,000 soldiers under Maj. Gens. Reno and Joseph Hooker, the other wing would attack over the National Road (now Alternate Route 40) at Turner’s Gap and the adjacent Fox’s Gap.

McClellan knew he had a chance to destroy Lee’s disjointed army and he wanted to do it cautiously without making any mistakes. The Army was told not to begin to move until daybreak on Sunday morning, Sept. 14.

Fox’s Gap

The die was cast. Lee knew his army might be annihilated unless his small band of Confederates could defend three gaps on South Mountain to buy him some time. His army was scattered, and his back was against the Potomac River. Even a retreat would be difficult.

The serpentine blue line of 70,000 Union soldiers advanced toward Turner’s Gap. Hill watched the advancing army from an observation post near the South Mountain Inn. With just 5,000 soldiers available to defend the pass, he had “never experienced a feeling of greater loneliness. It seemed as though we’d been deserted by all the world.”

Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox, commanding 3,000 troops, decided to flank the Confederates by attacking up Old Sharpsburg Road at Fox’s Gap. Near the crest of the ridge, the 1,000-man brigade of the 32-year-old Garland was waiting.

The 23rd Ohio, under the command of Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, the future 19th president of the United States, was ordered to attack.

Hayes led his troops up the rugged mountain and out of the woods into an open field. As he pushed his men forward, he was hit in the left arm by a musket ball. Bleeding profusely, he sank to the ground as the battle swirled around him.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old supply Sgt. William McKinley, another future president in the 23rd Ohio, worked diligently to move supplies to the front. In the center of the line, the troops engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand fighting.

Garland galloped to the battle on the Daniel Wise farm, where he was hit and mortally wounded. By 11 a.m., Cox controlled Fox’s Gap and the Confederates were withdrawing down the western slope. Cox immediately turned his troops north and began to advance along the ridge toward Turner’s Gap one mile away.

Turner’s Gap

Hill now encountered Federals at his front and to his right on the ridge. In desperation, he sent whatever troops he could spare, including staff and teamsters, to give the appearance of a strong force. It worked, and Cox’s tired soldiers withdrew to Fox’s Gap to wait for reinforcements.

As the afternoon wore on, a Texas division under Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood arrived and plugged the hole on the ridge. Despite repeated attacks, the Federals couldn’t advance. Reno moved forward to make a personal reconnaissance and break the stalemate.

As he crossed the Wise farm, gunfire erupted from the woods, and he fell mortally wounded near the spot where Garland had died earlier.

At 4 p.m., McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. John Gibbon and his Black Hat Brigade of veterans to attack Turner’s Gap straight up the National Road into the teeth of the Confederate defenses. The men came under fire at once. A major wrote, “For half a mile of advance our skirmishers played a deadly game of bo-peep, hiding behind logs, rocks, and bushes.”

Confederate artillery opened up, but the Black Hats didn’t falter. Near dusk they approached the crest where the pass narrows and the Georgia defenders waited behind rocks, walls and trees. The battle continued into the early darkness, and the combatants took aim “by the flashing of the enemy guns.”

Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes, with 1,200 Alabamians, had to cover the ridge north of the road. Brig. Gens. Robert Hatch and Abner Doubleday led their men to the top of the ridge and almost overran the defenders. The Confederates barely held the ridge, and darkness finally put an end to the titanic struggle. Lee withdrew his troops during the night, leaving the dead and wounded behind. The survivors joined him at Sharpsburg.

Crampton’s Gap

Seven miles south, the Confederates under Col. T.T. Munford prepared to defend Crampton’s Gap, not at the gap itself but in the valley below at Burkittsville. Union Maj. Gen. William Franklin had been resting his troops at Buckeystown and Licksville and didn’t begin to move until daybreak. Even though he had an overwhelming advantage over the defenders, Franklin slowed his advance to wait for additional troops.

Munford formed his 800 soldiers in a line at the bottom of the mountain along Mountain Church Road and prepared to meet the 18,000 advancing Union soldiers. Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, at Harpers Ferry, knew the importance of holding the gap to protect his rear and sent 1,300 reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb, the former secretary of the Treasury in the Buchanan administration.

Cobb’s orders said he should defend the gap even, Cobb recounted, “if it cost the life of every man in my command.” Cobb arrived just before the battle began and stationed his troops halfway down the mountain behind the first line.

Franklin’s Corps entered Burkittsville at 3 p.m. and quickly came under fire. A Union soldier wrote: “Through the streets we went while cannon balls crashed among the houses and the women … with great coolness waved their handkerchiefs and flags at us.”

The main Federal assault broke through the first line and moved up Gapland Road. Cobb’s Georgians fought valiantly but couldn’t hold and were pushed up the mountain. On the ridge, at George Padgett’s pasture, Cobb attempted to make a stand and waved the regimental flag. In the midst of the flying bullets, the flagstaff was shattered and knocked from his hands.

Two cannon, named “Jennie” and “Sally Craig,” were raced up the western side of the pass, trampling some of the retreating soldiers in the process. With no infantry support, the guns began firing at the advancing Union soldiers, who were by then only yards away. Finally disabled, “Jennie” had to be abandoned to the advancing troops, who would read its painted inscription: “Jennie; presented by the patriot ladies of Georgia to the state artillery.”

After three hours of furious fighting, the gap was in Union hands, but Franklin didn’t pursue the Confederates. Defenses were set, campfires were started, and coffee was made as Franklin rested his troops.

The 2,100 Confederates had stalled Franklin’s 18,000 soldiers, and Harpers Ferry received no relief from its siege. Early the next morning, Sept. 15, Harpers Ferry surrendered to Stonewall Jackson, who immediately raced his men toward Sharpsburg to join Lee.

The next battle

With his army consolidated, Lee surveyed the land and, instead of withdrawing, decided to defend the ridge and bridges at Antietam Creek. The cautious McClellan gave him another day to prepare. The holding action at South Mountain had cost a combined 4,500 casualties for both sides.

On Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1862, the armies clashed again. Never had so many Americans fallen on a single day as at the Battle of Antietam — more than 22,000 casualties. The result was a stalemate. Seeing no chance to move north, Lee withdrew his troops across the Potomac at Shepherdstown. McClellan made no attempt to follow.

President Lincoln had prepared a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would declare freedom for all the slaves in the rebellious states.

Lincoln had delayed announcing the proclamation because, without a victory, he thought it would be viewed as a sign of desperation and defeat. The withdrawal of Lee from Maryland created an opportunity for Lincoln to treat the battle as a victory. On Sept. 22, 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Rud” Hayes recovered from his wound and returned to the war. By the end of the conflict, he had been wounded four times. He left the Army with the rank of major general. William McKinley became the 25th president of the United States in 1897. He died on the anniversary of South Mountain, Sept. 14, 1901, as a result of a gunshot wound inflicted by an assassin. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, succeeded him.


On Memorial Day, Union and Confederate flags still appear at the monuments to Reno and Garland at Fox’s Gap. After the war, a new town in the growing West was named to honor the fallen Union hero: Reno, Nev., “The biggest little city in the world.”

In 1884, the land at Crampton’s Gap was purchased by George Alfred Townsend, who had been a young correspondent during the war using the pen name “Gath.” In 1896, he erected the War Correspondents Arch, which dominates the gap today.

This tranquil space has become Gathland State Park, where a constant flow of Appalachian Trail hikers stop to rest in the peaceful setting off Padgett’s field. A shelter stands on the spot where Howell Cobb unsuccessfully attempted to rally his troops.

The abandoned Confederate dead on South Mountain were buried hastily throughout the area as the Union Army moved forward. At Daniel Wise’s farm, about 60 bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the well near his house. Most of the bodies were moved eventually to the Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown. Undoubtedly, the remains of many soldiers still reside somewhere on the battlefield on South Mountain.

Eight months after Antietam, Lee revived his plan for an invasion of the North. Again using South Mountain as a shield, he marched his army north. He would have a new adversary, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. This time, on July 1, 1863, the armies would meet in a sleepy little Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

Michael S. Zbailey is a freelance writer and Appalachian Trail hiker from Charlottesville.

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