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South Mountain.

Crossing over the Potomac with Longstreet to Fredericktown, Md., when our forces moved from that point south, General Hill was [129] ordered to occupy and hold a pass in the South Mountains, which, if gained by McClellan, would have enabled him to relieve Harper's Ferry and possibly to prevent the junction of our scattered army and destroy the divisions in detail, or drive them precipitately south of the Potomac with great loss of artillery and transportation.

General Lee's object in crossing the Potomac east of the Blue Ridge, afterwards avowed (Series 1, Vol. XIX, part 1, page 145), was to induce the enemy, by threatening Washington and Baltimore, to evacuate Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry, to establish his own line of communication through the Valley, and then by advancing towards Pennsylvania to draw the enemy away from his own base of supplies. General Lee had not contemplated making a stand at South Mountain-probably not at Sharpsburg, or at any point north of the Potomac. But the continued occupation of Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry made it necessary to move directly upon the former place and to invest the latter, where both garrisons ultimately united. In consequence of the delay in reducing the garrison it became essential to the safety of Lee's army that McClellan's entire force should be held in check for a whole day at the pass in the South Mountains by Hill's depleted division, now numbering only 4,000, as a glance at the map with a knowledge of the disposition of Lee's different divisions will show.

Longstreet with his whole force, estimated at 4,000, was at Hagerstown, while Jackson had disposed his own command, including Mc-Laws' and A. P. Hill's divisions, either with a view to an attack on Harper's Ferry or to cutting off the retreat of the force occupying it. Three days later McClellan, according to his own report, advanced to the attack at Sharpsburg with 87,000 men. Of this vast army probably 33,000 were in the force actually engaged in the assault upon the little Spartan band of D. H. Hill for five hours without cessation before Longstreet's advance brigade arrived at 3:30, and was followed by others coming up from that time till dark. The late Justice Ruffin, the Colonel of the Thirteenth North Carolina, standing by the side of the gallant Garland when he was instantly killed, discovered a moment later that the other regiments of the brigade had retired, leaving his command surrounded by the enemy. Facing to the rear in an instant, he ordered his regiment to charge, and embarrassed by a painful wound, performed the desperate feat of cutting his way through the serried ranks of the enemy. A few moments [130] later that gallant officer was astonished to hear his intrepid commander express his delight at the discovery that McClellan's whole army was approaching his front. (2 Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, page 564.) The explanation afterwards given was one that could have been safely disclosed only to a kindred spirit, such as Ruffin had shown himself to be. Hill then said that he had at first feared the movement upon his front was a feint, and that the main body of the enemy had passed through another gap, and might be thrown between Jackson and Lee. The situation was still further embarrassed by the fact that General Stuart had at daylight in the morning withdrawn his command, except the single regiment of Rosser, which afterwards did its duty so nobly, under the impression that but a small force was in General Hill's front.

It was ‘with the stern joy’ of an intrepid warrior waiting for the coming contest, that from an elevated pinnacle of the mountain he saw the four advance corps of the grand army of the Potomac, one of which was forming at the foot of the mountain. The hour and the man had met when Lee entrusted to Hill the duty of holding the approach against that army with his little band of 4,000. From Seven Pines to Malvern Hill they had never turned their backs upon the foe. They believed that their leader would require them to endure no sacrifice or face no danger that was not demanded by the inevitable exigencies of the situation. With God's help, Hill determined to save the army, as his chief ordered him to do at any sacrifice, and, if the emergency had demanded his own life, he would have met death, not as the degree of fate, but as the Providence of God, who had brought him face to face with a desperate duty. Captain Seaton Gales, the gallant Adjutant-General of George B. Anderson, on that memorable day, has summarized the important results of this battle so clearly that I prefer to reproduce his language rather than use an extract from report of history, or to make a vain attempt to improve upon it myself.

Of this battle ‘it may be safely said that in its consequences, in the accomplishments of pre-determined objects, and in the skilful disposition of small numbers to oppose overwhelming odds, it is without a parallel in the war. The division, unaided until a late hour in the afternoon, held in check the greater portion of McClellan's vast army, endeavoring with battering-ram impetus to force its way through the narrow gap, and thereby afforded time for the concentration [131] of our various corps dispersed in strategic directions in season for the bloody issue at Sharpsburg.’


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