The Battle of South Mountain (known in several early Southern accounts as the Battle of Boonsboro Gap) was fought September 14, 1862, as part of the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War. Three pitched battles were fought for possession of three South Mountain passes: Crampton's, Turner's, and Fox's Gaps. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, needed to pass through these gaps in his pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Despite being significantly outnumbered, Lee's army delayed McClellan's advance for a day before withdrawing.
South Mountain is the name given to the continuation of the Blue Ridge Mountains after they enter Maryland. It is a natural obstacle that separates the Hagerstown Valley and Cumberland Valley from the eastern part of Maryland.
After Lee invaded Maryland, a copy of an order, known as order 191, detailing troop movements that he wrote fell into the hands of McClellan. From this, McClellan learned that Lee had split his forces and the Union general hoped to attack and defeat some of these isolated forces before they could concentrate against him. To reach Lee, McClellan had to move across South Mountain. Lee learned of McClellan's intelligence coup and quickly sent forces to reinforce the passes to block his advance.
McClellan temporarily organized his army into three wings for the attacks on the passes. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the Right Wing, commanded the I Corps (Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker) and IX Corps (Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno). The Right Wing was sent to Turner's Gap and Fox's Gap in the north. The Left Wing, commanded by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, consisting of his own VI Corps and Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch's division of the IV Corps, was sent to Crampton's Gap in the south. The Center Wing (II Corps and XII Corps), under Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, was in reserve.
At the southernmost point of the battle, near Burkittsville, Confederate cavalry and a small portion of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws's division defended Brownsville Pass and Crampton's Gap. McLaws was unaware of the approach of 12,000 Federals and had only 500 men under Col. William A. Parham thinly deployed behind a three quarter-mile-long stone wall at the eastern base of Crampton's Gap. Franklin spent three hours deploying his forces. A Confederate later wrote of a "lion making exceedingly careful preparations to spring on a plucky little mouse." Franklin deployed the division of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum on the right and Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith on the left. They seized the gap and captured 400 prisoners, mostly men who were arriving as late reinforcements from Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb's brigade.
Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, deploying 5,000 men over more than 2 miles, defended both Turner's Gap and Fox's Gap. Burnside sent Hooker's I Corps to the right and Turner's Gap. The Union Iron Brigade attacked Colonel Alfred H. Colquitt's brigade along the National Road, driving it back up the mountain, but it refused to yield the pass. Hooker positioned three divisions opposite two peaks located one mile north of the gap. The Alabama Brigade of Brig. Gen. Robert E. Rodes was forced to withdraw because of his isolated position, despite the arrival of reinforcements from Brig. Gen. David R. Jones's division and Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans's brigade. Darkness and the difficult terrain prevented the complete collapse of Lee's line. At nightfall, the Confederates still held the gap.
Just to the south, other elements of Hill's division (most notably Drayton's Brigade ) defended Fox's Gap against Reno's IX Corps. A 9 a.m. attack by Union Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox's Kanawha Division secured much of the land south of the gap. In the movement, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio led a flank attack and was seriously wounded. Cox pushed through the North Carolinians positioned behind a stone wall at the gap's crest, but he failed to capitalize on his gains as his men were exhausted, allowing Confederate reinforcements to deploy in the gap around the Daniel Wise farm. Reno sent forward the rest of his corps, but due to the timely arrival of Southern reinforcements under Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood, they failed to dislodge the defenders. Union Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno and Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, Jr., were killed at Fox's Gap. Union soldiers dumped 60 Confederate bodies down Farmer Wise's well, paying him $60 in compensation.
By dusk, with Crampton's Gap lost and his position at Fox's and Turner's Gaps precarious, Lee ordered his outnumbered forces to withdraw from South Mountain. McClellan was now in position to destroy Lee's army before it could concentrate. Union casualties of 28,000 engaged were 2,325 (443 killed, 1,807 wounded, and 75 missing); Confederates lost 2,685 (325 killed, 1560 wounded, and 800 missing) of 18,000. The Battle of South Mountain was an important morale booster for the defeat-stricken Army of the Potomac. The New York World wrote that the battle "turn[ed] back the tide of rebel successes" and "the strength of the rebels is hopelessly broken." Lee contemplated the end of his Maryland campaign. However, McClellan's limited activity on September 15 after his victory at South Mountain condemned the garrison at Harpers Ferry to capture and gave Lee time to unite his scattered divisions at Sharpsburg for the Battle of Antietam on September 17.
The battlefields are preserved within the South Mountain State Park, Gathland State Park, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Kennedy, Frances H., Ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- McPherson, James M., Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-513521-0.
- Sears, Stephen W., George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, Da Capo Press, 1988, ISBN 0-306-80913-3.
- Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, Houghton Mifflin, 1983, ISBN 0-89919-172-X.
- U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.
- National Park Service battle description
- Kennedy, p. 117.
- General D. H. Hill's report of his operations at this time is included in the Official Records, Series I, Vol. 19, pp. 1019-1022.
- Eicher, p. 344.
- McPherson, p. 112.
- Sears, McClellan, p. 292; McPherson, p. 112.
- Sears, Landscape, p. 149.
- Battle of South Mountain is at coordinates Coordinates:
- Battle of South Mountain: Maps, Photos, Histories, and Preservation News (CWPT)
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