The Battle of South Mountain Webmaster's Note: The name "The Battle of South Mountain" is mine. It was created to make it easier to understand on the Internet and is not in the original book. The original title of this chapter is stated at the end of the page and with the source.
Jackson left Hill to receive the surrender of the Federal troops and property, and moved at once with his remaining divisions to rejoin Lee in Maryland. By what he calls a severe night march, he reached the vicinity of Sharpsburg on the morning of the 16th. Walker's division followed closely, and also reported to General Lee near Sharpsburg early on the 16th.
We left McClellan at Frederick, on the 13th, with the copy of Lee's order in his hands. For military reasons, which seem sufficient as he states them, he determined not to attempt to move by the most direct road, through Jefferson to Knoxville, and thence up the river to Harper's Ferry, but to move his left by Burkittsville to and through Crampton's Pass, while his centre and right marched by Middletown to Turner's Pass. These passes are gaps or gorges through which the roads across the South Mountains run. It must be remembered that the South Mountains are a continuous range of hills, and not detached heights. By moving through Crampton's Pass, the Union left would debouch in rear of Maryland Heights and of the forces under McLaws which Lee had ordered there, while the route chosen for the rest of the army would place it between Longstreet and D. H. Hill on the right, and Jackson's forces beyond the Potomac on the left, and also between Lee and McLaws.
It has been said that it does not appear at what hour on the 13th McClellan came into possession of Lee's order. A somewhat long letter written by him to General Franklin on the 13th, is dated 6.20 P.M. In that letter he gave Franklin the substance of the information which he had obtained from Lee's order, and also told him that his signal officers reported that McLaws was in Pleasant Valley, and that the firing showed that Miles still held out. He also informed him that his right advance had occupied Middletown in the Catoctin Valley, and that the four corps of his centre and right, with Sykes's division, would move that night and early the next morning upon Boonsboro', to carry that position; that Couch had been ordered to concentrate his division and join him as rapidly as possible; that, without waiting for the whole of that division to join, he was to "move at daybreak in the morning by Jefferson and Burkittsville upon the road to Rohrersville." The letter proceeded thus: "I have reliable information that the mountain pass by this road is practicable for artillery and wagons. If this pass is not occupied by the enemy in force, seize it as soon as practicable, and debouch upon Rohrersville in order to cut off the retreat of, or destroy McLaws's command. If you find this pass held by the enemy in large force, make all your dispositions for the attack, and commence it about half an hour after you hear severe firing at the pass on the Hagerstown pike, where the main body will attack. Having gained the pass, your duty will be first to cut off, destroy, or capture McLaws's command, and relieve Colonel Miles. If you effect this, you will order him to join you at once with all his disposable troops, first destroying the bridges over the Potomac, if not already done, and, leaving a sufficient garrison to prevent the enemy from passing the ford, you will then return by Rohrersville on the direct road to Boonsboro', if the main column has not succeeded in its attack. If it has succeeded, take the road to Rohrersville, to Sharps-burg and Williamsport, in order either to cut off the retreat of Hill and Longstreet to the Potomac, or prevent the re-passage of Jackson. My general idea is to cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail. I believe I have sufficiently explained my intentions. I ask of you, at this important moment, all your intellect and the utmost activity that a general can exercise."
It is proper to dwell upon this letter of McClellan's, because it seems to be the first order that he issued after he came into possession of Lee's lost order, and it seems to be indisputable that in issuing it he made a mistake, which made his Maryland campaign a moderate success, bought at a great price, instead of a cheap and overwhelming victor. His "general idea" was excellent, but time was of the essence of the enterprise, and he let time go by, and so failed to relieve Miles, and failed to interpose his masses between the wings of Lee's separated army. "Move at daybreak in the morning." Let us see what this means. Franklin was at Buckeystown. The orders were issued from "Camp near Frederick," at 6.20 P.M. Buckeystown is about twelve miles by road from the top of Crampton's Gap. Franklin's troops, like all the troops of a force marching to meet and fight an invading army, were, or should have been, in condition to move at a moment's notice. The weather on the 13th was extremely fine, and the roads in good condition. There was no reason why Franklin's corps should not have moved that night, instead of at daybreak the next morning. There was every reason for believing that there were no Confederate troops to interfere with him in his march to the Gap, for McClellan knew that they were all fully employed elsewhere, and, if there were, the advance guard would give him timely notice of it, and if he stopped then he would be just so much nearer his goal. We know now that if he had marched no farther than to the foot of the range that night, a distance which he ought to have accomplished by or before midnight, he could have passed through it the next morning substantially unopposed, and that advantage gained, the Federal army ought to have relieved Harper's Ferry or fatally separated the wings of Lee's army, or both. And what we know now, McClellan had strong reasons for believing then, and strong belief is more than sufficient reason for action, especially where, as in this case, he could not lose and might win by speed, and gained nothing and might lose almost everything by delay. He was playing for a great stake, and fortune had given him a wonderfully good chance of winning, and he should have used every card to the very utmost, and left nothing to chance that he could compass by skill and energy. But there are some soldiers who are much more ingenious in finding reasons for not doing the very best thing in the very best way, than they are vigorous and irresistible in clearing away the obstacles to doing the very best thing in the very best way.
As McClellan respected the night's sleep of Franklin and his men, so did he that of the rest of his army. No portion of it was ordered to move that night, with the possible exception of Couch, who was ordered to join Franklin "as rapidly as possible," and no portion of it other than Franklin's was ordered to move so early as daybreak the next morning. The earliest hour for marching that was prescribed to any other command was "daylight," on the 14th, at which hour Hooker was to set out from the Monocacy and go to Middletown.
As the distance between Crampton's Gap and Turner's Gap is about six miles in a straight line, and as the country between is a practically unbroken range of rugged hills, the attack and defence of each pass was quite isolated from the other, though the fighting was going on at each place on the same day, all day at Turner's Gap, and all the afternoon at Crampton's. As the most immediate object, in point of time, was the relief of Harper's Ferry, and as the Union left carried its pass much earlier than the Union right, the action at Crampton's Gap may as well be described first.
General McLaws does not seem to have apprehended any very prompt action on the part of McClellan by the way of the South Mountain passes, but he was too good a soldier to leave his rear quite unprotected. So, while he was busy in taking Maryland Heights, at the southern end of Pleasant Valley, and aiding in the capture of Harper's Ferry, he not only drew a thin line of troops across the valley in his rear, but sent some troops and guns to the lower passes of the South Mountain range. On the 13th, cannonading to the east and northeast, and the reports of his cavalry scouts, indicated the advance of the enemy from various directions; but he did not attach much importance to these indications, as the lookout from the mountains saw nothing to confirm them. On the following day, news of an advance of the enemy toward the Brownsville Gap (the one next south of Crampton's Gap, and about a mile from it) led him to call up two more brigades, and he sent word to General Cobb, who commanded one of them, to take command of Crampton's Gap so soon as he should arrive in that vicinity. The Gap was over five miles from the position of his main force, and he himself was directing the fire of his guns on Maryland Heights, when he heard cannonading from the direction of Crampton's. Still he did not feel any solicitude at first, and simply sent orders to Cobb to hold the Gap to the last man, but presently he set out for the Gap himself. On his way there, he met one of his messengers returning, who told him that the Federals had forced the Gap, and that Cobb needed reinforcements. The news was true, and the comparative ease and rapidity with which the Federals had achieved this success, showed how possible it would have been to gain it earlier, and so save several priceless hours. Franklin's superiority of force was such that he gained the crest after a spirited action of three hours, beginning at about noon on the 14th. He lost about five hundred and thirty men, and estimated the enemy's loss in killed and wounded at about the same; but he took from him four hundred prisoners, a gun, and three colors. His advance moved into Pleasant Valley that night, and the remnant of the brigades he had beaten, those of Cobb, Semmes, and Mahone, helped to form McLaws's defensive line of battle across Pleasant Valley.
The action at Turner's Gap was on a larger scale, took longer to decide, and was more costly. By the afternoon of the 13th, Lee heard that McClellan was approaching by that road, and D. H. Hill was ordered to guard the pass, and Longstreet to march from Hagerstown to his support. Lee's information seems to have come from Stuart, who commanded his cavalry, and it was undoubtedly Pleasonton's cavalry advance which Stuart encountered and reported. Hill sent back the brigades of Garland and Colquitt to hold the pass, but subsequently ordered up the rest of his division from the neighborhood of Boonsboro'. This, however, he did not do till the next day, after an examination of the pass, made by him very early on the morning of the 14th, had satisfied him that it could only be held by a large force.
So much of the battle of South Mountain as was fought at Turner's Gap hardly admits of a precise description. It lasted a long time, from about seven in the morning till well into the evening, and a good many troops were used first and last, but the ground was so peculiar and so little known to our commanders, that much precious time and many gallant efforts were almost wasted, and it was not till the day was near its end that the Federal advance was conducted with ensemble. There was plenty of hard fighting, but much of it was sharp skirmishing, and the whole affair, till near the end, was rather many little battles than one connected battle. There were frequent charges and counter-charges, and many attempts, more or less successful, to turn the flanks of the opposing forces.
The main road from Frederick, by Middletown to Hagerstown, crosses the South Mountain at Turner's Gap. The mountain is at this point about one thousand feet high, but the depression of the Gap is some four hundred feet. The mountain on the north side of the main road is divided into two crests by a narrow valley, which is deep where it touches the road, but much less so a mile to the north. At Bolivar, a small village between Middletown and the Gap, roads branch to the right and left. The one on the right, called the "Old Hagerstown Road," passes up a ravine and leads to the left over and along the first of the two crests above mentioned, and enters the turnpike at the Mountain House, near the summit of the pass. The left-hand road, called the "Old Sharpsburg Road," follows a somewhat circuitous route to Fox's Gap, at the top of the Mountain, and about a mile south of the Mountain House, and thence descends to the westward. Two or three wood roads lead northward from this road to, and to the westward of, the Mountain House. The mountains are steep, rugged, and thickly wooded, and rendered peculiarly hard to climb by reason of the presence of many ledges and loose rocks. A good many stone fences also were found there, and they afforded much protection to the troops defending the position.
At 6 A.M., on Sunday the 14th, General Cox, commanding the Kanawha division of Reno's (Ninth) Corps, marched from Middletown under an order received by him from Reno, directing him to support with his division the advance of Pleasonton's command, which was composed of cavalry and artillery. He took the road to the left of the main road, and ordered his leading brigade, Colonel Scammon commanding, to feel the enemy, and to ascertain whether the crest of South Mountain on that side was held by any considerable force. As the brigade moved out, he accompanied it, and presently met a paroled officer returning. An involuntary exclamation of this officer, when he told him where he was going, made him suspect that the enemy was in force at the Gap, and he thereupon ordered his second brigade, Colonel Crook commanding, to follow in support, and sent word back to Reno that he was moving his whole division, and notified Pleasonton that if the command got into an engagement, he should command as senior till Reno should come up. Reno sent word that Burnside and he approved, and that he would bring up the rest of the corps. As the first brigade advanced, Colonel Hayes (our late President) was sent with his regiment to the left, to gain, if possible, the enemy's right. He succeeded in gaining the crest on the left, and established himself there, in spite of vigorous resistance on the part of the Confederates. The rest of the command, with some aid from the artillery of the division, carried the entire crest by about 9 A.M. The enemy made several attempts to retake it, but though the fortunes of the fight were for some time uncertain, the Federals were solidly established by noon upon the ground they had won. The Confederate troops opposed to the Federals on this part of the field, were Garland's brigade, which lost its commander and was badly demoralized by his fall and the rough treatment it received, Anderson's brigade, Ripley's brigade, and part of Colquitt's, all of D. H. Hill's division, and Colonel Rosser, who had some cavalry, artillery, and sharpshooters.
At about 2 P. M., Federal reinforcements began to appear in masses, and something like a continuous line was formed. Willcox's division of the Ninth Corps was the first to arrive upon the ground, and it took position on the right of Cox, sending one regiment, however, to the extreme left, where a turning movement was threatened. Sturgis's division of the same corps supported Willcox, and of Rodman's division Fairchild's brigade was sent to the extreme left and Harlan's was placed on the right; but all these troops were on the south of the turnpike, that is to say, to the left of it, as seen from the Federal headquarters. Of Hooker's corps, Gibbon's brigade was placed on the turnpike, to make a demonstration on the centre so soon as the movements on the right and left had sufficiently progressed. The next troops to the right were Hatch's division, and beyond him was Meade, who moved up the "Old Hagerstown Road" to Mount Tabor Church, and deployed a short distance in advance of it. General Ricketts's division came up considerably later, and was deployed in the rear. Artillery was placed in position wherever it was thought it could be of service to the Federal attack, cavalry was thrown out to watch suspicious roads, and skirmishers were used freely to cover the front of the advancing brigades. At about 4 P.M. the general advance of the Federals began. The general scheme of it was that Reno's men should close in upon the Gap from the ground which they had won to the south, while Hooker's men were to reach the same point by circling round through the valley which formed the approach from the north to the Mountain House. In executing this movement, it was intended that Gallagher's and Magilton's brigades of Meade's division should pass through the ravine. Seymour's brigade of the same division was to move along the summit on the right, parallel to the ravine, and Hatch's division was to take the crest on the left; Ricketts's division was to follow in reserve; Gibbon's employment has already been indicated. Thus, including the reserves, eighteen Federal brigades, with artillery and cavalry, were used in this final operation.
To meet this general attack, there were present on the Confederate side the five brigades of D. H. Hill, viz.: Garland's, Colquitt's, Ripley's, Rodes's, and G. B. Anderson's. To these were added, about 3 P.M., from Longstreet's command, the brigades of Drayton and D. R. Jones (under Colonel G. T. Anderson), and at about 4 P.M. the brigades of Evans, Pickett (under Garnett), Kemper, and Jenkins (under Walker), and Hood's division of two brigades, commanded respectively by Wofford and by Law. If we call Rosser's command a brigade, it will appear that the Confederates at Turner's Gap met with fourteen brigades the assault of the Federal right, made with eighteen brigades.
In the afternoon fighting, Colquitt's brigade was in the centre, astride of the turnpike. The right was formed of the brigades of Drayton, G. T. Anderson, Ripley, and G. B. Anderson, in the order named from left to right, supported by Hood's two brigades, and with Rosser's men and what was left of Garland's brigade at and in rear of the right; on the left were the brigades of Rodes, who did most of the fighting there, and of Evans, Kemper, Pickett, and Jenkins. The Confederates had plenty of artillery, and they placed guns wherever they could find ground for them.
The Confederate reports of this action are not characterized by that fine tone of superiority with which all students of their reports are familiar. They claim to check and repulse and drive back the Federals, but the general result is an admission of defeat. It is refreshing to find that farcical overestimates of the strength of the enemy were not confined to the Federal side. General Garnett's report contains these words: "It has been subsequently ascertained that General McClellan's army, consisting of at least eighty thousand men, assailed our position, only defended by General D. H. Hill's division, and a part of General Longstreet's corps." The burden of all their reports, indeed, is that they were overwhelmed by numbers, and by them forced to yield, and were "withdrawn," one of their division commanders says, "in comparatively good order to the foot of the hill." D. H. Hill does not write like a soldier, and permits himself strange assertions. After describing his formation of a line of four brigades, with Drayton on one flank, he says: "Three Yankee brigades moved up in beautiful order against Drayton, and his men were soon beaten and went streaming to the rear. Rosser, Anderson, and Ripley still held their ground, and the Yankees could not gain our rear." If Rosser, Ripley, and Anderson could hold their ground, when three Yankee brigades had uncovered their flank, they were heroes indeed.
The truth is that this engagement was far from being creditable to the Confederates. Some of them undoubtedly fought extremely well, notably Rodes's brigade, which lost very heavily. They were not well handled. The position was not one of a
Straight pass in which a thousand,
Might well be stopped by three,
because of the lateral roads which led into it and partially by it; but it was one which gave great advantage to the defenders. It is probable that the Federals outnumbered the Confederates to some extent, but probably not to a very great extent. If Ricketts's three brigades, which were hardly, if at all, used, be subtracted from the Federal total of eighteen, it will leave them fifteen brigades against fourteen Confederate brigades, and there is no reason for supposing that these Federal brigades went into action very much stronger than their opponents. It is true that Longstreet's men went into action after a toilsome march, but the Union troops had done some marching, too, and they had to fight up hill. Moreover the Confederates were familiar with the terrain, and the Federals were not. It is altogether probable that D. H. Hill's assertion is true, that if Longstreet's troops, as they came on the ground, had reported to him, who had become familiar with the ground and knew all the vital points, the result might have been different. "As it was, they took wrong positions, and in their exhausted condition, after a long march, they were broken and scattered."
General McClellan's estimate of the numbers on each side is about as oriental as usual. He calls the Confederate force "probably some thirty thousand in all," and says, "we went into action with about thirty thousand men." This is an extract from his report dated August 4, 1863, when he had had plenty of time to think, and must be accepted as deliberate. It deserves attentive consideration. In the first place, let us consider his own numbers. It is impossible, from his own figures, to place the aggregate of the First and Ninth Corps present for duty September 14, 1862, higher than 35,155. If he went into action with 30,000, he took in more than five-sixths of his aggregate present for duty, and no soldier who served in the second year of our war will believe that he even approximated that. In the second place, did he believe in August, 1863--did he believe in September, 1862--that he had driven from a very strong position 30,000 of Lee's army--a force sufficient to occupy the whole position--with 30,000 of his own? Bunker Hill, if he had read no further in the history of war, might have taught him the absolute folly of such an idea. And Lee's men were not embattled farmers, or raw levies, or discontented conscripts. They were men passionately in earnest, men who had developed a natural aptitude for fighting by fourteen months of sharp and usually successful campaigning. They had shown that they could fight hard and march hard--that their audacity and tenacity were alike remarkable--that they were far more likely to carry difficult positions than to be driven from them. For McClellan, a year after the event, to profess to believe that he drove Longstreet and Hill with 30,000 men from the heights of South Mountain with 30,000 of his own men, is one of those extraordinary, inconceivable, aggravating things that stirs everything that is acrid in the nature of those who follow his career.
General McClellan reported a loss in this engagement of 1,568 men, of whom all but 22 were killed or wounded. Of this loss a large part fell upon Cox's Kanawha division, which had 442 men killed and wounded. Willcox's division also suffered heavily. The Federal General Reno was killed almost as soon as he came up to the line occupied by his men, at about dark. About fifteen hundred Confederate prisoners were taken. Many of them were taken from Rodes's brigade, which also had 218 men killed and wounded. Five Confederate colonels and lieutenant-colonels were killed or dangerously wounded, besides one brigadier-general killed.
The untrustworthy character of military reports is illustrated by what we read in print from Federal and Confederate sources as to the advance up the turnpike made late in the engagement by Gibbon's brigade. McClellan says: "The brigade advanced steadily, driving the enemy from his positions in the woods and behind stone walls until....The fight continued until nine o'clock, the enemy being entirely repulsed, and the brigade continued to hold the ground it had so gallantly won until twelve o'clock, when it was relieved." Colonel Meredith, commanding a regiment in this brigade, says: "It was a glorious victory on the part of General Gibbon's brigade, driving the enemy from their strong position in the mountain gorge." On the other hand, General Hill reports that this advance was "heroically met and bloodily repulsed" by two regiments of Colquitt's brigade, and that the fight "gradually subsided as the Yankees retired." Colquitt himself says: "Not an inch of ground was yielded." It is of little consequence which is nearer the truth. The great fact remains that the two battles of South Mountain were tactical defeats to the Confederates, but strategical victories won by them. General Hill was right in saying, "We retreated that night to Sharpsburg, having accomplished all that was required, the delay of the Yankee army until Harper's Ferry could not be relieved." This of itself was bad enough for McClellan, but it was not all. He had lost his opportunity not only to save the garrison of Harper's Ferry, but to interpose between the wings of Lee's army. A night march of his loft and right wing on the evening of the 13th--a far easier march than Jackson made on the night of the 15th, from Harper's Ferry to Sharpsburg--would have given him possession of both passes early in the morning of the 14th, and if he had been there it is hard to see how he could have failed to do such things as fairly startle one to think of. To crush McLaws, relieve Harper's Ferry, turn every gun he could get on to Maryland Heights upon Jackson and Walker, and hurl forty or fifty thousand men on to D. H. Hill and Longstreet while he interposed between them and Jackson, seem things not only within the range of possibility, but of easy possibility. But he was not equal to the occasion. He threw away his chance, and a precious opportunity for making a great name passed away. It is no wonder that Lee and Jackson were audacious at Chancellorsville. After their experiences with Pope and McClellan, they had some right to believe that a division of their forces in the immediate presence of the enemy might be ventured upon. It may be said that McClellan did better than Pope, and this is true, but such faint praise is the most that can be said of his action on this important occasion, and as for his tactical victory, it is curious to read, as we shall presently, that he did not learn till daylight the following morning, that the enemy had abandoned his positions.
Source: Campaigns Of The Civil War--V. The Antietam And Fredericksburg By Francis Winthrop Palfrey, Chapter II, South Mountain.
This page last updated 01/03/03
RETURN TO BATTLE OF SOUTH MOUNTAIN, PRELUDE TO ANTIETAM PAGE