The Battle of South Mountain

The Battle of South Mountain

Battle of Cramptons Gap illustration South Mountain Battle of Fox's Gap illustration Battle of South Mountain color illustration​
​Battle of Cramptons Gap Battle of Fox's Gap ​​Battle of South Mountain

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“As I pulled my trigger…the line from Shakespeare’s Tempest flitted across my brain:
Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

The fighting that took place on the geographical barrier between Eastern and Western Maryland was the first of its kind to be seen in this border state. On September 14, 1862 lead elements of General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac met stiff resistance in key gaps along South Mountain, by rear elements of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. With the issuance of “Special Orders No. 191” in full effect, Lee’s subordinates left troops to protect vital mountain passes, to hold the quickly advancing Federal Army at bay, as the remainder of the invading army invested in targets prescribed within the commanding general’s order.

At 9 a.m. the Union Ninth Corps began its assault on Fox’s Gap, trying to dislodge troops under the command of Confederate General D.H. Hill, while the First Corps moved into position to the north against Turner’s and Frostown Gaps. After a brief lull in the fighting around noon, the federal attacks would resume around midday with combined assaults on Fox’s, Turner’s and Frostown. After hours of nonstop combat the federals would eventually dislodge the Confederate defenders. The fighting for the northern gaps would end late in the evening with soldiers firing blindly into the woods and rocky slopes at opposing muzzle flashes. When the fighting for Fox’s, Turner’s and Frostown Gaps was over, Federal Ninth Corps commander, General Jesse Lee Reno, and Confederate Brigadier General Samuel Garland, were dead, Union First Corps division commander Major General John Hatch was seriously wounded and almost 4,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or missing.

About six miles to the south another goal had to be reached - the Confederate troops that surrounded the 12,000 man Federal garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Major General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps were given the daunting task. After moving slowly forward and waiting on the outskirts of Burkittsville, Maryland, Franklin finally ordered his 12,000 man corps to assault Crampton’s Gap. The confederate force there, elements of Lafayette McLaw’s division, believed that if an assault was to happen, it would occur a mile south at Brownsville Pass which was then the most direct route over the mountain to Harpers Ferry. At Crampton’s Gap a small confederate force, heavily outnumbered, held soundly for a short period until the federal force overwhelmed them on both front and flank.

After dark on the night of September 14 General Lee ordered all Confederate troops to withdraw from the mountain. Though the Battle of South Mountain was a Confederate defeat, it delayed the Federal Army just long enough to allow General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to capture the garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Other Confederate troops under the command of General James Longstreet collected supplies from Hagerstown, Maryland. On the Federal side, the Battle of South Mountain was perhaps the first time the soldiers actually forced Confederate troops to withdraw during battle. But, Lee’s invasion of the north was effectively stopped at South Mountain, and he would order his army to concentrate at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Three days later on September 17, 1862 the Battle of Antietam would be fought. That battle, along with the Federal victory at South Mountain, would provide the incentive for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.