The Battle Of Boonsboro Gap Or South Mountain
Judge GEORGE D. GRATTAN, Harrisonburg, Va., Captain and A. A. G. Staff of General Colquitt.
The interest centered upon the battle of Sharpsburg, which is generally conceded to have been the bloodiest and most stubbornly contested battle of the Civil War, has served to almost obliterate the memory of the minor engagement of Boonsboro Gap, or South Mountain as it is called in all the official reports of the Federal officers. For this reason I am moved to call to mind some facts in connection with the Boonsboro Gap fight, with the hope that fuller justice may be done to General D. H. Hill, and the brave men who fought With him on that day.
In order that the importance of that battle may be known and appreciated, it is necessary to recount some of the events and circumstances connected with it. Without entering into a discussion of the much mooted question as to who was responsible for the loss of the copy of General Lee's order directing the movements of his troops for the capture of Harper's Ferry, which fell into the possession of General McClellan on the morning of the 13th of September, 1862, it is sufficient to say that this order, which gave full information as to the movements of the several commands of Lee' army for some days to come, was fully appreciated by General McClellan, and afforded him the best opportunity of dividing the Confederate army and defeating it in detail, which could have been hoped for, and if he and his men had been more active and efficient and the Confederates less watchful and courageous, the result might have been disastrous. This order (a copy of which can be seen in the Official Records of the War, Vol. 19, part I, page 603) informed General McClellan that more than half of Lee's army would be with General Jackson engaged in surrounding and capturing Harper's Ferry, while General Longstreet with part of his command, and Hill's Division, would be between Boonsboro and Hagerstown, with the Potomac River separating them from General Jackson. McClellan was not slow to see the opportunity the information he had by good fortune obtained, gave him to strike Lee's army in detail; while General Lee calculating upon McClellan's usual caution, did not expect any attack before General Jackson could accomplish the capture of Harper's Ferry and rejoin him on the north side of the Potomac.
At 12 M. on the 13th, McClellan, in the exuberance of his joy in securing the order, telegraphed President Lincoln from his headquarters at Frederick, Md., as follows: "I think Lee has made a great mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. The army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged. We have possession of Catoctin. I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap, if my men are equal to the emergency. I now feel that I can count on them as of old. My respects to Mrs. Lincoln. Will send you trophies. All well and with God's blessing will accomplish it." General G. B. McClellan shortly afterward sent a more extended telegram to General Halleck, in which he spoke of this order, and said that there was no doubt about its genuineness.
He had already ordered General Franklin with the 6th corps to attack McLaws at Crampton's Gap, as soon as he heard the guns open the fight at Boonsboro Gap, where he told General Franklin he was sending the rest of his troops to carry that position.
Franklin was also directed, after driving McLaws from Crampton's Gap, to push through and relieve Miles at Harper's Ferry, and uniting Miles' large force with his own, to destroy the bridges on the Potomac River, and to press on to Sharpsburg and Williamsport. This order to Franklin concludes as follows: "My general idea is to cut the enemy in two, and beat him in detail. I ask of you at this important moment all your intellect and the utmost activity that a general can exercise." The telegram to Lincoln and the orders to Franklin and other commanders are set forth in full in the Official Records of the War, Series No. I., page 231, and in McClellan's official report, Vol. 19, page 49.
It is plain to see with what importance General ,McClellan viewed his attack at Boonsboro Gap, and with what hope and spirit he commenced this battle with his whole army, except Franklin's corps, which was engaged at the same time at Crampton's Gap, in the same general purpose. General Lee in his official report of the capture of Harper's Ferry and operations in Maryland, speaking of this battle, says: "The resistance that had been offered to the enemy at Boonsboro, secured sufficient time to enable General Jackson to complete the reduction of Harper's Ferry." If he had known when he wrote that report what is so plain to us now, he could well have added, "and foiled General McClellan's ambitious purpose 'to cut the enemy in two, and beat him in detail.'"
Believing that full enough has been said in reference to the circumstances under which this battle was fought, to demonstrate its importance, and effect, I proceed to give account of the battle itself. My opportunity for personal knowledge of most of the movements of the troops in this engagement arises from the fact that I, a lieutenant in the 6th Georgia Regiment, had been called by Colonel Colquitt to serve as 'his Aide, while in command of the brigade, afterwards known as Colquitt's Brigade, and at that time forming a part of the division of General D. H. Hill.
This brigade was the first on the field, having been ordered by General Hill to occupy the pass on the evening of the 13th, at which time I was with Colonel Colquitt, when he made an examination of the ground. I was also with him early the next morning when in company with General Hill he again went over the field, and as our brigade held the road in the center of the line, and was not vigorously attacked until about four o'clock in the afternoon of the 14th, I in carrying messages between Colonel Colquitt and General Hill was necessarily in all parts of the field, and had a good opportunity to observe most of the movements of the different troops.
On the afternoon of the 13th, while in camp near Boonsboro, the town situated on the west side of the South Mountain, and not far from the pass, Colonel Colquitt received an order from General Hill to move his brigade to the top of the mountain to guard the pass, where the pike leading from Frederick City to Hagerstown crosses the South Mountain, known as Boonsboro or Turner's Gap.
We reached the top of the mountain with the head of the line, at about the same time General Stuart, with his cavalry falling back from Frederick City, got there. The infantry was ordered to move to the side of the road while the cavalry passed down the West side of the mountain, and as this was being done, Colonel Colquitt had a conference on the road-side with General Stuart, at which I, as his aide, was present, and heard what General Stuart said in regard to the advance of the enemy. My distinct recollection is that General Stuart reported that there were no troops following him but cavalry and that Colonel Colquitt would have no difficulty in holding the pass with his brigade. I remember that Colonel Colquitt requested that two companies of Calvary might be left with him for picket duty, but General Stuart thought it unnecessary, and declined to leave them. Colonel William Allan, in his "Account of the Sharpsburg Campaign," says that General Stuart learned from a friendly citizen of Maryland, on the afternoon of the 13th, that the lost order had come into the possession of McClellan, and so informed General Lee. Colonel Allan is generally remarkably accurate in all his statements, but I am very sure that in this he was mistaken. Certainly General Stuart, at sundown on the 13th, when he met Colonel Colquitt, had no such information, and General Hill in his official report says that General Stuart afterwards, on the same evening, told him that "only two brigades of cavalry were following him, and that one brigade of infantry could hold the pass.
Neither General Stuart nor General Lee mentioned any such fact in their official reports, and I am constrained to think that for once Colonel Allan was wrongly informed. After General Stuart's cavalry had passed down the mountain, Colonel Colquitt moved his brigade to the east side of the mountain and formed a line of battle about half day down and across the Frederick and Hagerstown pike.
By this time it was growing dark, and as the enemy did not make any attack, the brigade was ordered to move for the night back to the top of the mountain, and pickets were sent out in advance, and also on the two narrow mountain roads leading from the Mountain House at the pass; one to the right and south at Fox's Gap, and the other to the left and north to a narrow pass over the South Mountain. General Hill in his report says that he ordered the brigades of Colquitt and Garland to hold the pass on the afternoon of the 13th. If General Garland was ordered to the pass on the afternoon of the 13th, I am very sure he did not reach the top of the mountain until sunrise the next morning. I had never met General Garland and was anxious to see him, because I had heard that he was engaged to be married to a very dear friend of mine, and I can hardly be mistaken in my very distinct recollection, that the first and only time I ever saw him in life, was when he rode up about sunrise on the morning of the battle, to the front of the Mountain House where we were eating a hurried breakfast, and Col. Colquitt asked him to get down and take a cup of coffee, which he did while his brigade was filing by. Hardly two hours afterwards, at the request of General Hill, I was bearing an order to him, and met some of his men carrying his body from the field.
In the next place Colonel McCrae, who took command of General Garland's brigade after his fall, says in his official report, that "the brigade reached the Mountain House at the top of the mountain about sunrise on the morning of the 14th." In the last place, if General Garland had been present at the pass during the night of the 13th, he would have been the ranking officer and in command of all the troops and would have given his own brigade position on the pike in the center, and Col. Colquitt would have been relieved of the responsibility, which I am sure rested heavily upon him, when during the night he saw the whole Middletown Valley lighted with camp-fires far in excess of what would have been necessary for the two brigades of cavalry which General Stuart had reported as the only troops following him. When these camp-fires continued to increase as the night advanced, Col. Colquitt became satisfied that there was a very large force in his front, and he sent a courier with a note to General Hill, giving this information. Before daylight General Hill appeared on the mountain top, and being soon convinced that Colonel Colquitt's information was correct, sent orders to the other brigades of his division to come to his aid in the defense of the pass, and also informed General Lee of the situation.
Three brigades had been posted to hold the several roads leading through the valley lying west of the South Mountain, known as Pleasant Valley, to prevent the escape of troops at Harper's Ferry in that direction, and at the same time to guard General Lee's wagon and artillery trains parked in the neighborhood of Boonsboro.
General Hill says he was slow to order these brigades to leave their important positions, but the fact that he was confronted by a very large force of the enemy compelled him to call them to his support. After giving these orders, General Hill, with Colonel Colquitt to assist him, made a hurried examination of the pass he was to defend. Colquitt's brigade was already in position on the pike, nearly halfway down the side of the mountain, the left of the 28th Georgia Regiment resting against a steep cliff of the mountain, around which it was very difficult for any troops to pass, and the 23rd Georgia on the right of the 28th, its line extending to the pike and both regiments resting for the most part behind a stone fence which ran perpendicular to the pike. On the south side of the pike the 6th Georgia was in position with its left on the road and extending in a perpendicular direction to the road, with the 27th Georgia next, the 13th Alabama still further to the left, but not reaching to the base of the mountain spur, on the south side of the road. In order to prevent any flank movement on that south side, the sharpshooters or skirmishers of Colquitt's brigade, consisting of one company from each regiment, trained for that work, under the command of Captain Arnold, of the 6th Georgia, were deployed on the left of the 13th Alabama.
The whole of the ground in front, except just near the road, was covered with heavy timber, and in front of the 28th and 23rd Georgia Regiments it was rough and rocky. Captain Lane's battery, which on that day was attached to Colquitt's brigade, was placed in position in an open space on the mountain side in rear of the 23d and 28th Georgia Regiments, and fired at intervals at the Federal troops forming in the valley and on the side of the mountain south of the pike, but such a concentrated fire was poured upon it from Gibson's heavy battery at the foot of the mountain, and the Federal batteries at Fox's Gap, that it was forced to retire to the crest of the mountain early in the day.
In a magazine article written by General Hill, in 1886, he says that when he reached the Gap on the morning of the battle, he found Colquitt's brigade stationed at the foot of the mountain on the east side, and that he moved it back near the top of the mountain, and on the map which he gave with his article, he placed Colquitt's brigade just in front of the Mountain House. In this I am satisfied General Hill's memory is at fault. He made no such statement in his official report, written but a few days after the battle of Sharpsburg, and I am sure that I can't be mistaken in the position the brigade held, and from which position General Hill says "it was not moved an inch during the whole day." About the first of July, 1899, I received a letter from General Carman, of the "Antietam Battle Field Board," asking if I could help to locate the position of General Colquitt's brigade on the battlefield of South Mountain, of which his board was preparing a map, and stating that they had examined the field after carefully reading all the official reports of the officers engaged in the fight, and had been unable to fix the ground held by his brigade. Although I had not visited the field since the battle on the 14th of September, 1862, I had such a distinct recollection of it that I made a somewhat rude sketch of the ground as I remembered it, marking the position held by the brigade about half way down the east side of the mountain on both sides of the Hagerstown pike, as above stated, and sent this sketch to General Carman with a note of explanation, and in due time I received a letter from him, which I still have in my possession, in which he says' "Yours of the 7th instant received, and we thank you for the information therein contained. There have been many changes in the fence lines on the South Mountain field, but your sketch enables us to locate the one behind which were the 23rd and 28th Georgia."
This gives me assurance that my recollection is correct about the location of the brigade, and that it was not moved back by General Hill to the top of the mountain, but remained in the same line where Colonel Colquitt had placed it. A very important place it occupied and though furiously assailed several times during the afternoon by largely superior numbers, it was never driven from it, and when we fell back that night we brought off all our wounded.
As soon as General Hill discovered that the enemy were moving in heavy force towards Fox's Gap, on his right, he sent General Garland with his brigade and Bondurant's battery out on the narrow mountain road leading from the Mountain House, to the top of the mountain at Fox's Gap, about three quarters of a mile south of the pike.
At this point the road upon which General Garland marched connects with the Old Sharpsburg road, by which the Federal division of General Cox had reached the mountain top some little time in advance of Garland, and here the fight commenced between 8 and 9 o'clock in the morning. General Garland had little time to put his regiments in position before he was attacked by the brigade of Scammon and Crook, the first Federals to gain the summit. In this first attack General Garland was killed, and his brigade was somewhat broken and divided. The part that rallied on the north side of the mountain road was gathered under the command of Col. Ruffin of the 5th North Carolina Regiment, and the remnants of the other three regiments on the south of the road being rallied under Col. McCrae, who was the officer next in rank to Gen. Garland. At the beginning of this fight General Garland had attempted to bring Bondurant's battery into play, but owing to the roughness of the ground on the mountain side, and the sudden attack of the Federals, it was not able to render effective service, and it was soon compelled to retire.
It appears from the report of General Scammon that the fight was opened on the Federal side by the 23rd Ohio, deployed as skirmishers under Lieut. Col. R. B. Hayes, afterwards President of the United States, who was severely wounded in the fight. Col. McCrae and Col. Ruffin, with their small detachments separated and demoralized by the sudden attack, and the death of their gallant General, held their ground as long as they could, but were finally forced to retire. Col. Ruffin falling back towards the Mountain House, and Col. McCrae retiring on the north side of the Old Sharpsburg road, and when some distance down the mountain, he joined Col. Rosser who had been sent by Gen. Stuart, without the knowledge of Gen. Hill, with a regiment of cavalry, and Capt. Pelham's Battery of Horse Artillery, to guard the approach to Pleasant Valley by that road.
After this successful assault of the Federals, it is difficult to see why they did not follow it up by pushing their whole force down, either on the road to the Mountain House, or on the Old Sharpsburg road to Pleasant Valley. Gen. Hill says that at this crisis he ordered two guns of a battery to move forward and open fire on the enemy, and that he organized a support for these guns from staff officers, teamsters, cooks, and stragglers, but this small force could easily have been swept away.
Cox's division had cleared Garland's command from its front, and it was followed by three other divisions under Wilcox, Sturgis, and Rodman, and this overwhelming force could have marched upon either road, with little opposition, for Gen. Hill had nothing but his little show of troops to meet them. Fortunately for us, their evident timidity caused them to delay, and in the meantime General Anderson arrived on the scene with his brigade of North Carolinians, and was immediately sent to the rescue. His first attack was repulsed, but charging again with more determination, and with the help of the skirmishers of Colquitt's brigade, under Capt. Arnold, on the enemy's right flank, they succeeded in driving the Federals back over some of the lost ground, and held them in check. It seems that General Ripley's brigade reached the field about this time, and was sent to Anderson's assistance, but by some mishap lost its way in thick brush, and never rendered any service unless perhaps in its marching around from place to place, it was seen by the Federals from the mountain top, and gave the impression that there was a large force in their front. Certainly the Federal force, alarmed by the attack of Anderson in front, and the fierce attack of Captain Arnold on the flank, and the appearance of Ripley's moving on the mountain side, fell back to the original line of Fox's Gap, and the whole of Gen. Reno's corps remained idle there, until the advance all along the Federal line was ordered by McClellan about three o'clock in the afternoon. During this attack in the morning at Fox's Gap, there was no advance on our center or left, but about three o'clock in the afternoon General McClellan ordered an advance of all his troops, and General Hooker's corps was moved to the right from the Hagerstown pike, and formed along the base of the mountain. Meade's division on his right, supported by Ricketts' division, was ordered to attack the left of our line, held by General Rodes and his brigade of Alabamians, only about 1,200 strong, and extended so far that his troops constituted not much more than a heavy skirmish line. Fortunately this brigade had arrived on the field in time to occupy the top of the mountain, which was not so thickly covered with woods as the rest of the battlefield, but was filled with ledges of limestone rock affording fairly good cover for such experienced sharpshooters as composed this gallant brigade. As Meade moved cautiously up the east side of the mountain, supported by Ricketts, they were met with a most disastrous fire from the men on top, and if the numbers had been more nearly equal, they would have been easily repulsed, but Meade's large division extended far beyond Rodes' line and Col. John B. Gordon, commanding the 6th Alabama, on the left, was obliged to reform his line, to meet the Federals, who unopposed had reached the top of the mountain beyond him. This, General Rodes says in his report, Gordon did, in the coolest and most skillful manner, under a heavy fire, "handling his men in a way he had never seen surpassed."
While Meade with two divisions was pressing Rodes in this unequal and desperate fight, General Hatch was moving his division to attack the right of the position held by General Rodes on the mountain.
General Gibbon's brigade on the left of Hatch's division rested on the Hagerstown pike, and was in front of the 23rd and 28th Georgia Regiments of Colquitt's brigade lying between the pike and the abrupt end of the mountain on the top, of which Rodes was fighting; Gibbon's whole brigade being opposed to these two regiments. At the same time General Reno was advancing at Fox's Gap with his whole corps.
Fortunately, between three and four o'clock, the advanced brigades of General Longstreet's command had reached the field, and Kemper's brigade and Pickett's brigade under Col. Garnett, as they arrived, were sent to the left to help Rodes, who was at that time desperately struggling with five times his number, and they were formed to attack Hatch's division just coming to the top of the mountain on Rodes' right. The brigades of Drayton and Law, followed later by Hood, were sent to the left to meet the attack of Reno's corps.
For some reason our artillery seemed almost useless during this whole day; the fire from the mountain top down into the valley appeared to have little effect, while the heavy batteries of the Federals on the north side of the pike at the foot of the mountain, and from the mountain top at Fox's Gap, threw their shells with great accuracy and effect into our troops as they came to the top of the mountain on the pike, and marched to the right and left to take position on the field of battle. The report of General Wilcox, however, shows that the artillery fire of some of the batteries did more execution than we at the time observed. As the sun was going down the fight became general along the whole line.
General Reno being killed on the mountain near Fox's Gap about this time, the pressure there was not so strong, but the divisions of Wilcox and Sturgis continued to move forward through the wood on the north slope of this mountain. Every advance, however, was met and repulsed by Hood's troops and the part of Colquitt's brigade on the south of the pike. On the top of the mountain on our right the fight raged more fiercely. Kemper, and Garnett, and Evans held their ground stubbornly, but were finally driven back a short distance by Hatch's division, where they made a last stand until after dark, while Rodes on the left fought the whole of Meade's division and a part of Rickett's with unfaltering courage, and though forced back by the overwhelming numbers almost surrounding him, yet yielded so slowly and orderly that when night closed the battle. He still held a position not far from the top of the mountain he and his brave men having covered themselves with glory.
At the same time that these attacks were made on the right and left of our lines, Gibbon's brigade again and again rushed upon the 23rd and 28th Georgia Regiments in the fiercest assaults, hoping to break through our center and continuing the assaults sometimes after the firing had ceased on other parts of the field. General Burnside, who was personally commanding the attack on the center, in his report, says that General Gibbon supported by Campbell's battery "had a most brilliant engagement after nightfall, pushing the enemy to the crest of the mountain." The attack after nightfall was certainly brilliant, but they never succeeded in pushing these two regiments one foot from the ground they had held during the whole day.
In this last assault Col. Grabill, of the 28th Georgia, finding that the ammunition of his men was exhausted, mounted a large stone and in the darkness, shouted at the top of his voice, "fix bayonets." Immediately there was a lull in the Federal firing in his front, and soon the enemy ceased firing altogether, and withdrawing, gave up the fight. Thus ended McClellan's grand effort to force his way through Boonsboro Gap and cut Lee's Army in two. When we remember the disparity in the forces engaged, and the issue involved in this battle, no one ought to withhold from General D. H. Hill and the brave men who fought with him that day, the praise due them for holding McClellan's army at bay, from early morning until half-past three in the afternoon, when the first Longstreet's men arrived to assist. Not over 4,000 men beating back for nearly eight hours more than ten times that number of the enemy, as is fully shown by their own official records.
In the light of the cold facts established by these published records, it is somewhat amusing to hear the estimate given by the Federal officers of the number of troops opposing them in this battle. General McClellan, in his official report, says: "It is believed that the force opposed to us at Turner's Gap consisted of D. H. Hill's Corps (15,000), and a part, if not the whole of Longstreet's Corps, and perhaps a part of Jackson's, probably some 30,000 in all. We went into action with about 30,000 and our losses amounted to 312 killed, 1,234 wounded and 22 missing; total 1,568."
General Hooker, with characteristic boastfulness, says: "When the advantages of the enemy's position are considered, and the preponderating numbers, the forcing of the passage of South Mountain will be classed among the most brilliant and satisfactory achievements of this army, and its principal glory will be awarded to the first corps. With shameful effrontery, this field was heralded from the rebel capital as a victory." While we do not claim that this was a great victory, yet we can justly claim that this fight served the purpose of holding McClellan in check until Harper's Ferry was captured, and General Lee was enabled to bring his divided forces together for the great battle at Sharpsburg, where D. H. Hill's division held the center of the Confederate line, and again illustrated the heroism of Southern soldiers, when, from sunrise until dark, they repulsed every attempt of superior numbers to break through our lines on this historic field.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Richmond, Va., April, 1914. New Series, Vol. 1, Old Series, Vol. XXXIX.
This page last updated 12/17/03