Skirmish on South Mountain

Battle of Antietam and The Maryland Campaign: 150 years later

September 05, 2012|By DAN DEARTH |
  • This monument near Wise's Field honors Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr., who was mortally wounded during the Battle of South Mountain.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

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.”

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