By DAN DEARTH
7:32 PM EDT, September 5, 2012
Editor's note: It has been 150 years since the Civil War moved into Washington County and North and South met Sept. 17, 1862, on a battlefield along Antietam Creek.
The following story is part of a package of stories that look back at the Battle of Antietam and the Civil War's impact on Washington County, Md., and the surrounding area.
Seeking an opportunity to strike north of the Mason-Dixon line and seize provisions for his famished troops, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia forded the Potomac River into Maryland on Sept. 4, 1862.
John David Hoptak wrote in his book, “The Battle of Antietam: September 17, 1862,” that the Confederates were riding high on a string of victories, including Second Manassas, when they made the crossing.
By moving into Maryland, Lee wanted to draw Union forces away from Washington, D.C., and into battle on ground of his own choosing. Confederate officials also hoped that a successful invasion of the North would convince Great Britain to recognize the rebel government.
Lee believed his troops would be greeted with open arms when they crossed into Maryland, a border state where slavery was legal. Instead, they were met by a population that was mostly pro-Union.
“A lot of Southern sympathizers, once they saw the condition of Lee’s army, they turned their backs on them,” said John Miller, a historical interpreter at South Mountain State Battlefield.
During the Maryland Campaign, Lee split the Army of Northern Virginia into two branches commanded by Maj. Gens. James Longstreet and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
After crossing into Maryland, the Confederates marched to Frederick and rested there for a few days before the army moved out toward South Mountain on Sept. 10. The objective was to gather provisions as the army pushed west toward Hagerstown, which was to be followed by an invasion of Pennsylvania to the north.
“Virginia was war-torn,” Miller said. “In order to feed his army, he needed to give the Virginia farmers time to harvest their crops ... (the army) needed supplies. ‘Why not take the army north to get some of those supplies?’”
Before Lee made his move, he knew he had to rid the area of 13,500 Union troops who were stationed in federal garrisons in Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry.
Lee initially believed the federals would flee the two posts as soon as Jackson’s larger army approached, but he was surprised to find that they held their ground.
To deal with the problem, Lee issued Special Orders No. 191.
The orders directed Jackson and his men to continue the assault on the federal garrisons in Virginia. The second part ordered Longstreet to lead his troops across South Mountain, then gather at the western base of the mountain in Boonsboro.
After Jackson captured Harpers Ferry, he and his men were to join Lee and Longstreet in Boonsboro.
Lee’s plan was compromised when federal troops on Sept. 13 found a copy of Special Orders No. 191 on the ground. The orders, dated Sept. 9 and addressed to Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, a division leader in Jackson’s command, eventually made it into the hands of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Union forces.
The discovery handed McClellan the Confederate’s battle plan, including Lee’s decision to divide his army.
“It reassured McClellan that Lee’s forces were divided,” Miller said. “He sent a message to (President Abraham) Lincoln that said he can now destroy each element of Lee’s army.”
Before the document was found, the 85,000 men of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac were divided into three sections along a 25-mile line that stretched north to south.
Maj. Gen. William Franklin commanded the left of the Union line. He was tasked with guarding the southern flank along the north bank of the Potomac River.
Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s men made up the center. They were ordered to leave Washington and march directly to Frederick.
The Union right, or northern flank, was commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. His job was to move with the rest of the army and protect Baltimore in case the rebels decided to attack to the east.
After studying Special Orders No. 191, McClellan designed a plan to cross South Mountain from the west and drive a wedge through Lee’s divided army.
A natural barrier
A vast natural barrier, South Mountain offered four passable gaps for the Union army to cross: Crampton’s Gap on the southern end of the mountain; Fox’s Gap in the middle; Turner’s Gap to the north, where the National Pike crossed the mountain; and the lesser-known Frostown Gap, north of Turner’s Gap.
“There were a lot of reports that the terrain was very steep and hard to fight upon,” Miller said. “There were other reports of heavily forested areas ... It wasn’t pretty. There were a lot of steep gorges.”
McClellan ordered Burnside to take his men across the mountain at Turner’s Gap. When that mission was accomplished, Burnside was to continue west and attack the Confederate army at Boonsboro.
Franklin was to move south to end Jackson’s siege at Harpers Ferry. If Franklin was successful, he was ordered to drive farther west to cut off Lee’s escape across the Potomac River.
On the evening of Sept. 13, Lee received reports that McClellan was already in Frederick and advancing fast to the west.
Lee realized that his situation would turn unfavorable if McClellan’s forces crossed the mountain and got between Jackson at Harpers Ferry and Longstreet at Hagerstown, where Longstreet was sent with three divisions on Sept. 10.
As a result, Lee brought his forces closer together by ordering Longstreet to return to Boonsboro.
To slow McClellan’s advance, Lee sent D.H. Hill’s division to Turner’s Gap, and ordered the Confederate cavalry, under the command of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, to assist Hill and take up positions at the other three passes.
When Hill arrived at Turner’s Gap, he realized that Fox’s Gap to the south, and Frostown Gap to the north, were undefended. With only two of his five brigades on hand, he sent 1,100 men in Brig. Gen. Alfred Colquitt’s brigade to Turner’s Gap, and another 1,100 men in Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland’s brigade to Fox’s Gap. He then gave orders to send up the remaining three brigades of his division from Boonsboro.
“Hill realized that he was going to be fighting a bigger force,” Miller said. “He knew the importance of defending the mountain ... because Lee’s army was not united.”
As Hill prepared his defense of South Mountain, Union forces encamped near Middletown began to move west toward the gaps.
At 9 a.m. on Sept. 14, about 3,000 Ohio troops proceeded toward Fox’s Gap and were met by a barrage of Confederate artillery fire.
The Ohioans, under the command of Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox, exchanged fire with the rebel defenders for about two hours.
By 11 a.m., Union forces had taken Fox’s Gap. Among the dead was Confederate Gen. Samuel Garland Jr., who was mortally wounded as he rode to encourage his men.
After capturing Fox’s Gap, Cox turned his attention north to Turner’s Gap.
Cox waited to attack because he overestimated the Confederate troop size based on reports from captured rebels.
Three hours passed before Union Brig. Gen. Orlando Wilcox arrived with reinforcements. Cox’s delay allowed Hill to reinforce his positions. After arriving in Boonsboro from Hagerstown, Longstreet sent in additional troops.
Hill counterattacked with four brigades. The assault faltered, however, when a majority of Hill’s men veered off course and got lost. As a result, a brigade of Georgians and South Carolinians, commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Drayton, was left to fend for itself.
Miller said that of the 1,300 men Drayton led into battle, 65 percent, or about 845, were lost.
The counterattack at Fox’s Gap was saved when a division under Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Hood arrived from Boonsboro.
During Hood’s assault, Union Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno was mortally wounded as he rode among the ranks to rally his men.
As the fighting continued at Frostown and Fox’s gaps, a brigade of Federals moved down the National Pike from the west to strike Turner’s Gap head-on. The attack eventually was thwarted when Union troops ran into a strong rebel defense behind a large stone wall.
A continual wave of Union reinforcements caused the Confederates to withdraw from Fox’s and Frostown gaps. The Federals captured those two passes by the evening of Sept. 14, but the Confederates were able to hold on to Turner’s Gap.
Although Federal troops in Franklin’s command advanced toward the mountain on the morning of Sept. 14, fighting didn’t start at Crampton’s Gap until later in the day.
The delay was caused primarily by Franklin, who halted his army to wait for reinforcements despite being ordered by McClellan to make a speedy push forward.
At 2 p.m., 12,300 of his men were assembled and ready to attack 1,000 Confederates defenders at Crampton’s Gap.
“(Franklin’s) wait was really for nothing,” Miller said. “He could have smashed through the Confederate defenses much sooner than later.”
Heavy fighting didn’t erupt until 4 p.m.
While Franklin sent word to McClellan that he was engaged with a large number of Confederates and probably wouldn’t be able to break their lines, Franklin’s subordinates in the field gave the order to fix bayonets for a frontal assault.
“Once the Union got the momentum ... they basically smashed through,” Miller said. “(The Confederates) had no choice but to flee.”
As the Confederates retreated to the summit, pursuing Union soldiers from New York, Vermont and New Jersey took fire from Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb’s Georgia Legion.
Cobb decided to make a last stand but soon found his troops were surrounded on three sides.
By 6:30 p.m., Union troops controlled the field.
With only a handful of Confederates standing between the Union juggernaut and Jackson in Harpers Ferry, Franklin chose not to pursue the fleeing rebels. He spent the rest of the night moving his men across the mountain.
Realizing that the situation was futile, Lee withdrew his forces. But the Confederate delaying action bought the rebels enough time to consolidate a good portion of their forces before getting cut off by the Union advance.
Various historians estimate that total casualties ranged between 5,000 and 6,000 among the 28,000 Union troops and 18,000 Confederate forces who were engaged at South Mountain. The casualties were comparable on both sides.
On the next morning, Lee received a dispatch from Jackson that said the fall of Harpers Ferry was imminent. Lee believed that if that were the case, he could establish a strong defensive position near Sharpsburg along the banks of the Antietam Creek and wait for Jackson’s arrival. There, they could monitor the movements of the Union army coming from the east and pick a fight on ground of their choosing.
At 8 a.m. on Sept. 15, the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry capitulated. Among the spoils captured by the Confederates were 73 cannons, 200 wagons, 13,000 small arms and thousands of pounds of much needed food.
The siege cost the Confederates 300 casualties. The Union’s losses were 200.
Jackson rushed a majority of his men to Sharpsburg, leaving behind one of his ablest division commanders, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, to manage the surrender of 13,500 Union troops at Harpers Ferry.
McClellan intended to attack the Confederates on Sept. 16, but his plans were thwarted when a heavy fog engulfed Sharpsburg. While McClellan waited, Jackson’s men crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.
By Sept. 17, Lee had 40,000 men on the field near Sharpsburg. They were about to clash with 85,000 Union troops in what would become the bloodiest day in American history.
Material for this story was gathered from “The Battle of Antietam September 17, 1862,” written by John David Hoptak; and “At Twilight’s Last Gleaming: The Battle for Crampton’s Gap,” written by Len Riedel and Timothy Reese.
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