Idyllic southern Maryland scenery overshadows the carnage that once took place here.
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The Battle of South Mountain was fought on September 14, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet in Frederick and Washington counties, Maryland during the American Civil War. The battle was a Union victory, with the Confederate army withdrawing and General Robert E. Lee considering prematurely ending his invasion of Maryland.
After General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia destroyed the Union Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee saw an opportunity to invade Maryland, threaten Washington, DC, and possibly influence European powers to recognize Confederate independence. Lee divided his army and sent one wing to capture Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and the other into Maryland. A copy of his orders fell into enemy hands, however, and for once Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan acted swiftly to catch Lee off guard.
McClellan sent elements of his reconstituted Army of the Potomac to capture three strategic gaps in South Mountain, hoping to sever Lee’s army and destroy it in detail. The mountain passes were known as Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Crampton’s Gap. Because of the difficult terrain and distance between them, the Battle of South Mountain was actually three separate engagements, though they all took place in a single day.
The Union army’s right wing, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and consisting of the I and IX Corps, assailed Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap, while the Left Wing, commanded by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and consisting of the VI Corps and one division from the IV Corps, assailed Crampton’s Gap. The Union force consisted of approximately 28,000 men. Opposing them was Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s division at Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap, and a single brigade commanded by Col. William A. Parham at Crampton’s Gap, with a total of 18,000 men.
On the morning of September 14, 1862, Burnside’s right wing attacked. The I Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, assaulted Turner’s Gap, and the IX Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno, assaulted Fox’s Gap.
At Fox’s Gap, Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland was badly outnumbered and mortally wounded in the fight. His men were overrun. Union Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox’s victorious Kanawha Division included two future U.S. presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. Less than a mile away, the Federal attack on Turner’s Gap didn’t get underway until 4pm. With John P. Hatch’s Division on the left and George Gordon Meade’s on the right, their coordinated assault up the mountain managed to turn Longstreet’s flanks. By that time, however, it was too dark to exploit their success.
Three miles south, at Crampton’s Gap, the Union VI Corps faced a stubborn defense by veteran units. Confederate Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb rushed his brigade to reinforce his beleaguered comrades, but it was too little, too late. Though, after hard fighting, the Federals gained possession of the mountain pass, it was once again too late in the day to follow up their success.
Early next morning, the Confederates withdrew, leaving all three mountain passes in Union hands. The Confederates lost 325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing to the Union’s 443 killed, 1,807 wounded, and 75 missing in a single day of hard fighting.
Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.
Overshadowed by the much larger Battle of Antietam, efforts to preserve the South Mountain battlefield have been relatively recent. Since 1991, the Civil War Trust (now American Battlefield Trust) has preserved 665 acres, including 298 acres at Turner’s Gap, with trails and interpretive signs. Maryland declared the site a ‘state battlefield’ in 2000 and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. A monument to North Carolina soldiers was erected on private land in 2003, which has since been vandalized.
South Mountain State Battlefield is open daily 8:00am to sunset. There is no visitor center, but information on the battle is located at the nearby Washington Monument State Park museum, 6620 Zittlestown Road in Middletown, Maryland. There are monuments and wayside markers at Turner’s Gap (U.S. Route 40 Alt/Old National Pike), Fox’s Gap (Reno Monument Road), and Crampton’s Gap (Gathland State Park at Gapland Road). Call (301) 791-4767 for more information.