Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862)

Updated: July 01, 2017

The Battle of South Mountain was fought in Frederick and Washington counties, Maryland, on September 14, 1862, during Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign.

Emboldened by the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28 to 30, 1862), Confederate commander Robert E. Lee decided to take the war to Northern soil in the late summer of 1862. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River from west to east near Poolesville, Maryland.

Beyond Lee's military goals, the invasion was driven by economic and political motives. The Southern armies were in need of provisions. Taking the war north would allow Virginia farmers to harvest their crops, unmolested by Union troops. Additionally, the invasion would enable Southern troops to commandeer supplies from Northern farmers. Lee also hoped that giving Northerners a taste of war would diminish their resolve, possibly bolstering the prospects of Peace Democrats in the upcoming 1862 Congressional elections. Finally, a victory on Northern soil might induce European powers to lend support to the South.

Upon entering Maryland, Lee proceeded to Frederick, where he rested his men and met with his generals to devise a campaign plan. By September 9, Lee drafted Special Order Number 191, which outlined his course of action. Assuming that the Federal forces near Washington were still in disarray following their stinging defeat at the Battle of Bull Run II, Lee believed that it was safe to temporarily divide his army. He ordered three columns under the command of Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson to march west and capture Harper's Ferry, thereby securing his supply lines. Lee then ordered a column commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet to follow Jackson to the vicinity of Hagerstown, Maryland to guard against any potential Union resistance coming south from Pennsylvania. Finally, Lee ordered Major General D.H. Hill's command to follow the invasion force up the Hagerstown Road as far as Boonsboro and serve as a rearguard for the army's stores and artillery.

Lee's assumptions about the Union forces were justified; the federal armies around Washington were in disarray. Sensing the vulnerability of the nation's capital, President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reinvigorate the federal forces and stop Lee's advance. On September 2, 1862, Lincoln placed McClellan in command of "the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital." Known for his organizational skills, McClellan merged the Army of the Virginia with his Army of the Potomac and quickly transformed the demoralized Union soldiers into a formidable force.

Lee's plan got underway on September 10, 1862, when Brigadier General John G. Walker's Division headed west out of Frederick toward Harpers Ferry. Around noon on September 12, the last of the Confederate troops left Frederick. Only four hours later, advance elements of McClellan's army marched into Frederick and occupied the same campgrounds that the Rebels had just evacuated. The next day, members of the 27th Indiana found a copy of Lee's plans. The document was quickly passed up the chain of command where Union officials soon verified its authenticity. Upon receiving the copy of Lee's orders, McClellan crowed, " Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."

After becoming privy to Lee's plans, McClellan became uncharacteristically brisk in his pursuit of the Rebel army. The only major obstacle preventing him from overtaking Lee and defeating his army while it was splintered was D.H. Hill's division guarding the passes through South Mountain.

Despite the impression engendered by its name, South Mountain might be more accurately described as a seventy-mile-long range of mountains that separates the Appalachian Plateau from the Piedmont Region in Maryland. South Mountain enters Maryland from Virginia in the southwest and leaves the state at the Pennsylvania border to the northeast. Several passes provide access through the mountain from east to west. Most notable of these are Turner's Gap to the north, Fox's Gap in the center (through which the National Road passes), and Crampton's Gap to the south. Hill stationed troops at each of the gaps to protect Lee as his army moved west from Frederick.

As McClellan moved against South Mountain, he temporarily organized his army into three wings.

  • The right wing, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, consisted of Major General Joseph Hooker's 1st Corps and Major General Jesse L. Reno's 9th Corps. McClellan sent the right Wing to Turner's Gap and Fox's Gap in the north.
  • The left wing, commanded by Major General William B. Franklin, consisted of his own 6th Corps and Major General Darius N. Couch's division of the 4th Corps. McClellan sent the left wing to Crampton's Gap in the south.
  • The center wing, commanded by Major General Edwin V. Sumner, consisted of the 2nd Corps and 12th Corps. McClellan held the center wing in reserve.

The action at South Mountain began on the morning of Sunday, September 14, when Reno's men moved against the Confederate defenders at Fox's Gap, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel Garland. During the early fighting, Union Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox's Kanawha Division secured much of the land south of the gap, but the Confederates did not crumble. Reinforced by Brigadier General John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade, the Rebels withstood three spirited Union assaults over the course of the day. During the brutal fighting, Garland and Reno were mortally wounded, and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes was severely wounded. Also participating in the fighting was another future U.S. President, William McKinley. Although the Confederate defenders conceded ground, they stubbornly held the pass as the fighting subsided at nightfall.

The story at Turner's Gap was much the same. Late in the afternoon, under Burnside's directive, Hooker ordered his three divisional commanders, Brigadier General John Hatch, Brigadier General James Ricketts, and Brigadier General George G. Meade, to launch an all-out assault against the Confederate defenders. Meade and Ricketts gained considerable ground on the north side of the gap until being stalled by Brigadier General Robert Rodes’s brigade. On the south side of the gap Hatch's assault was led by Brigadier General John Gibbon's brigade. Gibbon's men performed so superbly that their assault earned them the nickname of the "Iron Brigade." Equally as impressive were Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt's Confederate defenders. Colquitt's staunch defense earned him the nickname of the "Rock of South Mountain." Despite their spirited stand, the Rebel defenders on both sides of the gap were gradually driven back until reinforcements from James Longstreet's division arrived. When darkness fell, the Confederates still held Turner's Gap.

Six miles south of Fox's Gap, at Crampton's Gap, events unfolded much more favorably for the Federals – but not as favorably as they could or should have. On September 13, McClellan ordered Franklin to seize Crampton's Gap and then head west to relieve the garrison at Harpers Ferry, which was under siege. Instead of departing immediately, Franklin chose to move on the morning of September 14. His troops did not reach Burkittsville, near the mouth of the pass until around noon. Franklin then spent three hours deploying 12,000 Union soldiers to dislodge between 500 to 1,000 Confederate defenders commanded by Colonel William A. Parham. When the action finally started, the Yankees quickly seized the gap and sent the Rebel defenders scurrying down the western side of the mountain. By the time Franklin rounded up about 400 prisoners and reassembled his forces it was after 6 p.m. The victorious general determined that it was too late in the day to move west and relieve the Union soldiers who were holding out at Harpers Ferry.

When the sun set on South Mountain on September 14, Lee still controlled two of the three passes, if only precariously. More than 51,000 troops had engaged in the fighting that day, some of it brutal hand-to-hand combat. Actual totals vary widely, but the Confederacy suffered more than 3,500 casualties, compared to roughly 2,500 for the Union. With Crampton's Gap lost and the Rebel defenders barely holding on at Turner's Gap and Fox's Gap, Lee ordered Hill to withdraw his troops overnight.

Lee's withdrawal from South Mountain provided McClellan with an opportunity to get between Longstreet and Jackson and crush Lee's army before it could be reunited. Characteristically, McClellan did not strike while the iron was hot. While Lee hastened to reassemble his army, McClellan spent most of the next two days devising plans and deploying troops as they poured through the South Mountain passes. The garrison at Harpers Ferry surrendered to Jackson the day after Franklin belatedly seized Crampton's Gap. Their surrender enabled Jackson to march east and join Longstreet and Lee near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Encouraged by the reunification of his army, Lee decided to stand and fight, rather than retreat to Virginia. With McClellan's army in close proximity, however, Lee did not get to fight on ground of his choosing. Instead, the two armies clashed along Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, in what would be the bloodiest single day of battle during the American Civil War.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of South Mountain included:

Infantry units:

11th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

12th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

23rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

28th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

30th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

36th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cavalry units:

3rd Ohio Independent Cavalry Company

Artillery units:

1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery

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"Battle of South Mountain," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 21 Sep 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1037>

APA Style

"Battle of South Mountain." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 21, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1037

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