Battle of South Mountain

It is well known that Maryland's State Forests and Parks are home to a rich variety of cultural and South Mountain Battlefieldhistorical resources. But did you know that one of the areas managed by the Department of Natural Resources was actually the site of a Civil War battle? Gathland State Park, nestled in the first ridge of the Appalachians just west of historic Frederick, was the scene of a little known yet quite noteworthy conflict, the Battle of South Mountain.

South Mountain is often overlooked by the Civil War novice, overshadowed by the atrocities of the Battle of Antietam (near Sharpsburg), which took place three days later and resulted in a loss of 23,000 men.

As battles go, it was not one of the larger ones, with approximately 13,000 Confederates and 36,000 Federals involved. Nor was it one of the costliest, with about 2,900 casualties for the South versus 2,340 for the North -- roughly the same number as the Battle of First Manassas. The battle's significance is in the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia's first campaign north was stopped not at Antietam, but here in the rugged mountain gaps of South Mountain.

It was the late summer of 1862. Following a shocking Federal defeat at Second Manassas, General Robert E. Lee felt the time was right to carry the war into the North, hoping to take advantage of the region's waning sentiment toward the war and possibly influencing Northerners to pressure their government to sue for peace.

Virginia had been ravaged by the conflict and Lee, desperate to feed and outfit his poorly supplied army, found the ripening crops in neighboring Maryland a strong lure. Further, he knew that if he was able to sustain a campaign in the North, perhaps even gaining a major victory there, the foreign powers of England and France might finally recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

The stakes were high on September 4 as General Lee and his army crossed the Potomac into Maryland, proceeding north. They eventually camped in and around the small town of Frederick, where Lee prepared and issued Special Order 191 detailing his plan to divide his army into five parts.

Major Generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Lafayette McLaws, along with Brigadier General John G. Walker, were to surround and contain a 12,000 man Union garrison at Harper's Ferry, preventing any interference to Lee's supply and communication lines.

At the same time, Major General James Longstreet would lead a supply mission through Boonsboro and Hagerstown, while Major General Daniel Harvey Hill's command was left to guard the rear of the army along the South Mountain passes.

As the Confederate plan went into effect, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of General George B. McClellan, moved into the area around Frederick that the rebel army had just vacated. In one of the war's more memorable twists, Union soldiers stumbled upon a copy of Lee's Special Order 191 wrapped around a bundle of cigars in a field on the neighboring Best Farm. This discovery allowed McClellan to move with uncharacteristic speed to catch Lee while the Confederate army was still divided.

A tattered Confederate eating field corn during the 1862 Confederate invasion of Maryland.


The Battle of South Mountain (which was actually two separate battles), broke out on September 14 in the Fox's Gap and Turner's Gap areas after Confederate gunners opened fire on Federal forces moving toward the base of the mountain.

Confederate General Samuel Garland and Federal General Jesse Reno both received mortal wounds during the heavy fighting near Fox's Gap. Here too, future presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley participated in the battle.

Hayes, a lieutenant colonel with the 23rd Ohio, was severely wounded. Left on the field until after the battle was over, he was then taken to a house in Middletown to recover. McKinley, a supply sergeant, did not actually take part in the combat; however, it is interesting to note that he was assassinated in office on
September 14, 1901, 39 years to the day of the battle.

The fighting in these areas continued most of the day as charges and counter charges were made by both sides. By evening the ends of the Confederate line had been turned and were in danger of being flanked. Recognizing this, General Lee ordered his forces to withdraw during the night.

Further south at Crampton's Gap, General William B. Franklin's Union VI Corps moved into the area from its camp in nearby Jefferson. The fighting didn't begin until around noon, as Franklin allowed four crucial hours to pass while devising a battle plan against a thin Confederate line that he outnumbered by as much as ten to one.

As the Federal assault began, the Confederate troops broke and retreated back up the mountain and through the gap. Just as these troops reached the gap, Confederate General Howell Cobb's brigade arrived, and in a heroic attempt to stem the flight, his 1,300 men held their ground, bravely firing on the Federal charge. In a mere 15 minutes Cobb's legion was nearly decimated. When roll was called the following day only 300 men answered.

After Crampton's Gap had been cleared of Confederate forces, Franklin ordered his troops into camp for the night. Had his attack not been delayed earlier in the day, he might have continued his pursuit of the Confederates into the valley beyond, driving a wedge between the two parts of Lee's divided and disorganized army, thereby allowing McClellan the opportunity to attack each section separately. The result could have been an early end to the war, as McClellan's troops would likely have overwhelmed each half. However, the attack was not renewed and Harper's Ferry fell to the confederates on September 15.


Confederates in Frederick City during their 1862 Maryland campaign.

Once the Federal army had cleared the gaps and taken up a position on the same side of the mountain as the Confederates, Lee realized his campaign could not possibly continue. He relayed word to his generals to proceed on the most expedient routes to Sharpsburg, a very defendable position should the Federal army follow and attack. The army would then continue its withdrawal back into Virginia.

The following day, after pulling his army back behind the Antietam Creek, Lee learned that the Union stronghold at Harper's Ferry had fallen. With those units now available and able to partially reorganize, he decided to hold his ground. It was there that McClellan found him waiting when the Federal army attacked on the morning of September 17. The horrific conflict that resulted would go down as the single bloodiest day in American history.

The Battle of South Mountain was significant in several respects. For the Confederate forces, it marked the end -- at least temporarily -- of Lee's hopes of a sustained campaign in the North. A near disaster averted, the battle resulted in a costly stand of the Southern army three days later at Antietam, a disheartening retreat back into Virginia, and several more years of war. And for the Federal army, it marked another missed opportunity where, with better coordination and conviction, the Southern army could have been divided and defeated, possibly bringing about an early end to the war. On the heels of the Federal success at Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby elevating the destruction of slavery to preservation of the Union as official Northern war aims.

Gathland State Park is located in Crampton's Gap, where thousands of soldiers, both blue and grey, fought and died. Nearly $4 million has been spent to protect approximately 1,313 acres of the historic battlefield at South Mountain -- through Program Open Space. Much of this acreage has been preserved through easements rather than outright purchase, enabling the Department to accomplish more for its dollar.

Recent legislation has been passed and signed by the Governor to preserve, protect and interpret South Mountain Battlefield as a state park. The Battle of South Mountain has finally receive the recognition it deserves as a critical part of the 1862 Maryland Campaign and ultimately, in the history of the American Civil War.