Overly cautious leadership led to a missed opportunity for Union forces in this often-overlooked Civil War battle.
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The Battle for Crampton’s Gap (aka Battle of Burkittsville), part of the larger Battle of South Mountain, was fought on September 14, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and Confederate forces commanded by Col. William A. Parham and Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb in Frederick and Washington counties, Maryland during the American Civil War. The battle was a tactical Union victory, with Union troops seizing the gap but failing to relieve the besieged Union garrison at Harpers Ferry.
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 left wing, consisting of approximately 12,800 men from the VI Corps and one division from the IV Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Franklin, assailed Crampton’s Gap. Opposing them were two Confederate brigades commanded by Col. Parham and Brig. Gen. Cobb with a total of 2,100 men. Franklin’s mission went beyond simply seizing the gap. McClellan ordered him to push through and attack Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ Division, which was occupying Maryland Heights above Harpers Ferry, nine miles to the south. It was key to the entire operation.
Franklin got his attack underway around 4:30pm, long after the fighting started at the northern gaps. Confederate Col. William A. Parham’s brigade put up a stubborn defense behind a stone wall, while Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb rushed reinforcements to his beleaguered comrades. Union forces severely outnumbered them, however, and they eventually gave way. Lt. Col. Jefferson Lamar was mortally wounded while directing a desperate stand to buy time for the others to retreat.
Though, after hard fighting, the Federals gained possession of the mountain pass, it was too late in the day to follow up their success. Maj. Gen. McLaws sent several brigades to block Franklin’s path through Pleasant Valley. Franklin hesitated, convinced he was outnumbered, and the next day, Harpers Ferry surrendered to the Confederates. Lee slipped away, and the Northern army lost a huge opportunity. The two armies would slaughter each other to mutual exhaustion at the Battle of Antietam three days later.
In the fight at Crampton’s Gap, Union forces lost 538 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Confederates suffered 873 casualties.
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.
South Mountain was once listed as one of our nation’s most endangered battlefields, but progress has been made in preserving it for posterity. Crampton’s Gap is unique in that it features a prominent monument indirectly related to the battle that was fought there. In 1896, novelist and Civil War correspondent George A. Townsend erected a 50-foot tall memorial arch dedicated to war correspondents (now a National Historic Monument) on his property, which overlapped the battlefield.
Today, visitors can explore Townsend’s former estate, which since 1949 has been home to Gathland State Park. Additionally, American Battlefield Trust has preserved 298 acres at Crampton’s Gap with trails and interpretive signs. The trail is part of Maryland’s South Mountain State Battlefield.
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 Washington Monument State Park museum, 6620 Zittlestown Road in Middletown, Maryland. The Gathland State Park’s museum is only open seasonally. Call (301) 791-4767 before planning your visit.