Riding on a string of victories, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland on September 4, 1862. Lee hoped to take the Civil War into the Union, where a victory might persuade neutral Great Britain and France to side with the South, and convince war-weary Northerners to sue for peace. In short, a victory in the North might have secured Southern independence.
The Confederate invasion went well at first. Lee’s army occupied Frederick, Maryland, then moved into Washington County towards Hagerstown. Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, however, left its fortifications around Washington, D.C. and pursued Lee’s army faster than expected. Then on September 13th a copy of Lee’s battle plans fell into Union hands. McClellan now knew that Lee had divided his army, sending part of it to capture Harpers Ferry, leaving only a few regiments to guard the South Mountain Gaps. This set the stage for the campaign’s turning point: the Battle of South Mountain.
Fought on September 14th, the Battle of South Mountain took place on three gaps. The northern gaps (Turner’s and Fox’s) are clustered around the National Pike (present-day Alternate U.S. 40). Crampton’s Gap is six miles to the south at present-day Gathland State Park. Advancing from the east, the Union troops sought to cross South Mountain, and destroy Lee’s dispersed army. Preventing this were a few Southern regiments on the mountain gaps. The battle for the northern gaps involved two waves of Union attacks. The first wave hit Fox’s Gap at 9 am, while the second wave hit both gaps simultaneously in the early afternoon. The Union attacked Crampton’s Gap in the late afternoon.
The battle forced Lee to abandon his invasion plans and go on the defensive. However, the Union’s failure to muster a full-scale attack in the morning allowed the Confederates to bring up reinforcements. The defenders bought time for Lee to reassemble his dispersed army, setting the stage for the Battle of Antietam, fought three days later.
The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American History, forced Lee to retreat back to Virginia. It also provided President Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which ultimately led to the abolishment of slavery in the United States.
Total casualties for the Battle of South Mountain were about 6,100 killed, wounded, and missing. For many of these men the South Mountain was their last battlefield. The battlefield serves as a shrine to the memory of those who fought and died here in 1862. Assistance is needed to prevent encroaching development from forever snuffing out this unique landscape.
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