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Chapter 18: the battle of South Mountain

Could the reader have seen with Mr. Lincoln's eyes-sad, earnest, deep, penetrating as they were — the condition of the Republic on September 2d and 3d, when the Union army with broken ranks and haggard looks came straggling and discouraged to the protection of the encircling forts of Washington, he would have realized the crisis. Divisions in councilenvy and accusation among military leaders, unsatisfied ambition struggling for the ascendency-waves of terror gathering force as they rolled from Washington through Maryland and Pennsylvania northwarda triumphant, hostile army, well organized, well officered, and great in numbers, under a chief of acknowledged character and ability, within twenty miles of the capital-these served to blow the crackling embers, and fan the consuming flame.

But Abraham Lincoln, who cried to God for strength, was equal to this emergency. He brought Halleck over to his mind. He checked the secret and open work of his ministers which he deemed too abrupt; he silenced the croakings of the war committees of Congress; he stirred all truly loyal hearts by cogent appeals to send forward men and money; he buried his personal preferences and called back McClellan, his former though fretful lieutenant. from the position of [272] helplessness and semidisgrace to which he had recently been consigned by having his army turned over to Pope piecemeal. He gave McClellan command of all the scattered forces then in and around the District of Columbia. A vein of confidence in McClellan as a safe leader ran through the forces — in fact, just the commander for that tumultous epoch, and Mr. Lincoln's good judgment was sustained by the army.

McClellan accepted the trust without remonstrance and without condition, and at once went to work. He refitted and reorganized, moving each division with caution by short marches northward; and this time he made proper provision for the defense of Washington. Slowness was wise then.

It gave proper supplies. It arranged order, which soon replaced an unparalleled confusion and brought cheerfulness and hopefulness to us all. Hooker became commander of McDowell's old First Corps. Sumner retained the Second. One division of the Fourth Corps was present under Couch. Porter still had the Fifth, and Franklin the Sixth. The Ninth was commanded by General Cox after Reno's death. The Twelfth Corps was commanded by General Mansfield; the cavalry by Alfred Pleasonton.

After Chantilly, Lee, whom we left in force not far from Centreville, after one day's delay for rest and refitting, marched to Leesburg, near the Potomac, in Northwestern Virginia. He was beginning an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, for he could there obtain more supplies than Virginia, denuded by the war, could furnish. Such a movement also transferred the theater of the war beyond the borders of the Confederacy. Confederate hopes were based on Maryland. Would not a victory on her soil aid her downtrodden [273] and oppressed people to set themselves forever free from Northern domination?

By September 7th the Confederate army had crossed the Potomac above us at different fords between Poolesville and Pdint of Rocks and bivouacked in the neighborhood of Frederick City, Md. The Confederate political leaders were disappointed with Maryland. It was too late for a few fire eaters to carry by storm the hearts of the Union Marylanders. So Lee, though in a slave State abundant in resources, with here and there a sympathizing family, found himself virtually in a land of lukewarm attachments to his cause. But few recruits joined him. The Confederate currency was not willingly received as money. The stars and bars flying over some of the public buildings gave the people no satisfaction. General Lee, though aided and encouraged by a few secession citizens, soon ceased his futile efforts, and gave his attention to the military problems before him.

Harper's Ferry, with an outpost at Martinsburg, eighteen miles to the west, was commanded by a veteran Union officer of the regular army, Colonel Dixon S. Miles. He had under his authority about 13,000 men, including artillery and cavalry, while General Julius White had a small force at Martinsburg.

The Confederates, after crossing the Potomac, below Harper's Ferry, had completely turned Miles's position. McClellan then asked Halleck to have Miles move from Harper's Ferry up the Cumberland Valley. Halleck being unwilling, for he had much wrongheadedness concerning that historic place, McClellan then requested the withdrawal of Miles to Maryland Heights; but even this was denied him.

At this time the Potomac, between Harper's Ferry [274] and Maryland Heights, was not too deep to ford. The country is rugged, and the Shenandoah entering the Potomac there from the south makes with it a right angle. The two rivers after confluence break through the mountain chain and roll on eastward. Between this increased torrent and the Shenandoah are Loudon Heights. Crossing from the Maryland side the village of Harper's Ferry is on a lower level than any of its environment. The old armory and its dependencies were already in 1862 in ruins, and there was little else there. A well-pronounced ridge called Bolivar Heights, two miles out toward the southwest, extended from the upper Potomac to the Shenandoah. To an unpracticed eye these heights signified a line of defense. Colonel Dixon Miles, not realizing how completely Loudon and Maryland Heights commanded every nook and corner of his position, remained at Harper's Ferry to defend it.

By September 12th our Army of the Potomac, well in hand, had worked its way northward to Frederick City.

Lee, after he was north of the Potomac, had pushed off westward, crossing the Catoctin Range, seizing and occupying the passes of the South Mountain, with the intention to take Harper's Ferry in reverse and pick up the garrison of Martinsburg, that he might have via the Shenandoah clear communications with Richmond, and gain the prestige of these small victories, while he was making ready to defeat McClellan's large army. All the while this rich region of Maryland gave him abundant supplies of animals and flour. From the mountain passes Stuart's cavalry was watching our slow and steady approach.

On the 13th inference and conjecture became a certainty. [275] D. H. Hill lost one copy of Lee's order of march and it was brought to McClellan. That order sent Stonewall Jackson west from Frederick City, through Middletown, to recross the Potomac near Sharpsburg, choke the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, capture Julius White at Martinsburg, and then close in on Harper's Ferry, and be sure not to permit the Union troops of Colonel Miles to escape west or north. McLaws, adding Anderson's division to his own, was to branch off southward from the Middletown road and, keeping north of the Potomac, hasten to seize and hold Maryland Heights, and thus to do his part in capturing Harper's Ferry; while Longstreet would halt at Boonsboro, west of South Mountain, and delay our westward march. To make assurance doubly sure Lee sent Walker's division to hurry south to Cheek's Ford, cross the Potomac there, and turn back by Lovettsville, Va., and seize Loudon Heights. Lee kept the new division of D. H. Hill for his rear guard, to be gradually drawn in till it should join Longstreet at Boonsboro.

These instructions of the Confederate leader were plain. They were dated September 9th, and their execution began the morning of the 10th. Three days and a part of another passed before McClellan had in his hand the hostile plan; he was three days too late for its prevention; yet if our troops at Harper's Ferry could make a reasonably successful defense, two important things might follow: First, Lee might be caught, as was McClellan on the Chickahominy, with an army worse divided, and be overwhelmed in detail; and second, the Harper's Ferry force might be saved.

This view of the situation became current among us; the hope of officers and men was an inspiration as [276] our columns marched off. The soldiers pressed forward eager to fulfill their new instructions.

Stonewall Jackson, having good roads, quickly led his noted marchers from Middletown to Williamsport, and September 11th crossed the Potomac into Virginia. Getting wind of this, General White during that night withdrew from Martinsburg to Harper's Ferry, but did not assume command over Dixon Miles. Early on.the 13th Jackson encamped just beyond the range of Bolivar Heights, near the village of Halltown, in full view of Miles's skirmishers.

Our Colonel Ford, of the Thirty-third Ohio, with a brigade was across the river on Maryland Heights. McLaws drove in Ford's farthest outpost the evening of the 11th, and on the 13th deployed his command for severer battle.

Colonel Ford gave up, with practically no fight at all, the vital point — the very citadel of Harper's Ferry --spiked his four cannon, and crossed the river to swell the force already there. His alleged excuse was that his own regiment refused to fight.

The Confederate division under Walker had performed its part. The morning of the 13th found them at the base of Loudon Heights; a few hours later cannon, supported by sufficient infantry, had crowned that convenient mountain. Before night Walker had concerted with McLaws and closed up every eastward escape on the Potomac.

At sunset of the 13th Miles's garrison was completely invested. The whole story of the defense is a sad one--more than 13,000 of as good troops as we had were forced to surrender.

One would have thought that any army officer, one even as feeble as Dixond Miles, would have placed his [277] strongest garrison on Maryland Heights and defended it to the last extremity; and, indeed, while he ventured to remain at Harper's Ferry, how could he have failed to fortify Loudon Mountain and hold its summit and nearer base? Had this been done there would have been some reason for facing Jackson along the Bolivar Ridge.

Sunday evening my friend and classmate, Colonel B. F. Davis, had obtained Colonel Miles's permission, and with 1,500 Union cavalry forded the Potomac and passed off northward. He captured some of Longstreet's wagons on the Maryland shore, made a few prisoners, and, avoiding the Confederate columns, joined McClellan, the 16th, at Antietam.

The Army of the Potomac was still en route westward toward Lee. On September 13th McClellan simplified his organization. The right wing was assigned to Burnside, the left to Franklin, and the center to Sumner. Burnside had two corps-Hooker's and Reno's; Franklin two-his own and Porter's; Sumner two-his own and Mansfield's. As each corps commander had three divisions, except Mansfield and Porter, who had two each, there were sixteen divisions, giving forty-seven brigades of infantry, the brigades averaging 1,800 strong.

Our cavalry division then counted five brigades of cavalry and four batteries. We had, all told, some forty batteries of artillery generally distributed to the divisions for care and support in action.

Franklin with the left wing was sent from his camp south of Frederick City, the 14th, past Burkittsville, and on through Crampton Pass into Pleasant Valley, aiming for Maryland Heights. Three requirements were named: To gain the pass, cut off, destroy or capture [278] McLaws's command and relieve Miles. “I ask of you,” McClellan added, “at this important moment all your intellect and the utmost captivity that a general can exercise.”

Skirmishing began with the enemy before reaching Burkittsville, and Franklin's men swept on, driving the Confederate pickets up the mountain defile until his advance came upon a force of Confederate artillery well posted.

General Howell Cobb, of Georgia, was left back by McLaws to defend this defile. It was a strong position; but Franklin came on with vigor and carried the first position by storm.

Cobb and his main force fell back, ran hastily to the top of the ridge, and there made another stand.

Our men after rectifying their lines followed on over rough ground on both sides of the narrow road till they approached the summit. The crest was soon carried and Franklin warmly congratulated his men for their sturdiness. He took one piece of artillery and three Confederate flags. Of our men 110 were killed and 420 wounded, while Franklin buried 150 Confederate dead and held 300 as his prisoners.

Franklin camped in Pleasant Valley the night of September 14th, only five miles from Maryland Heights. Had that position not been deserted, Franklin could have drawn off the garrison at Harper's Ferry from the grasp of Jackson. Of course, Franklin was disappointed by Miles's surrender and McClellan chagrined, yet they had done their best.

In our march to attack Lee's divided forces my small brigade belonged to the center in Sedgwick's division. We pushed our way northward a few miles up the valley just east of the South Mountain, and skirmished [279] with Stuart's watching force, backing up our own cavalry in that direction.

Meanwhile, Burnside's wing, followed by the remainder of Sumner's forces, hurried straight forward to Turner's Gap on the direct road from Frederick to Hagerstown. This part of the South Mountain is a mountain indeed, much wooded, very rugged, and steep. The National road leads from one side straight up through the natural depression, which is named Turner's Gap. A road to the right, called the old Hagerstown road, after leading to the north, comes back into the National road at the summit. Another highway crosses the mountain a mile or so to the south of the National road, and is called the old Sharpsburg road. Should we ascend by the one to the right of the turnpike, we would wind around a spur and find a small valley between this spur and the main ridge. This valley was occupied by the enemy. The Confederates found a crossroad near the crest. Along this crossroad D. H. Hill arranged his brigades. Both to the north and south of the National road fine locations for cannon were selected and occupied by him. Some were placed so as to sweep a high point well to the north, rather too commanding to admit of possession by an enemy. This, a sort of peak, every engineer called the key of the position. From it two distinct mountain crests coursed off southward for a mile or more with hardly a break. These crests protected the little summit valley and D. H. Hill's Confederates held them.

The evening of the 13th Pleasonton followed Stuart to the mouth of the gap. Feeling instinctively that the Confederates would occupy and defend such a defile he dismounted half of his men and sent them up the old Hagerstown road. They were soon stopped by [280] a heavy fire. That night Pleasonton contented himself with reconnoissances for information. Early, the 14th, Burnside having sent him an infantry brigade he so located a battery as to cover an advance, and sent the brigade up the National road. It had just started when Cox, the division commander, arrived with another brigade and pushed it on to help the other. They made a lodgment near the top of the mountain to the left of the National road. General Cox now brought up artillery and two brigades to the points gained, when Garland's successor commanding that part of the Confederate field undertook by desperate charging and rapid firing to regain the important crest. But he could not. During the first part of the engagement when our men cleared the crest and made the first break, General Garland lost his life. D. H. Hill denounced that success of Cox as a failure, because it did not secure the extensive crossroad behind him, and he gave the credit of its defense to Garland, alleging that “this brilliant service cost us the life of that grand, accomplished, Christian soldier.”

The battle thus far had consumed five hours; there came then, as is usual, a mutual cessation from strife --a sort of tacit understanding that there would be some artillery practice and skirmishing only while each party was getting ready to renew the conflict.

Meanwhile, Rosser had come to replace Garland, and several Confederate brigades had been brought up and located for a rush forward, or for an effectual defense.

On our side Reno's division had closed up to Willcox's, Sturgis's, and Rodman's divisions.

The men of the South, possessed of American grit, were wont to exhibit all the elan of the French in action. [281] They were ready sooner than Reno and charged furiously upon our strengthened line, aiming their heaviest blows against our right, upon which they had brought to bear plenty of cannon. Though not at first prepared to go forward, Reno's men stood firmly to their line of defense. At last, not being satisfied with this, though volley had met volley, and cannon answered cannon, Reno ordered his whole line to advance. These orders were instantly obeyed and the forward movement started with enthusiasm. Our charge, however, was checked here and there by countercharges, the Confederates putting forward desperate efforts to break and hold back the advancing line. After all, at dark, it seemed but a drawn battle to those in immediate contention on this front. While examining his new line, General Jesse L. Reno was killed. Reno was one of our ablest and most promising commanders. D. H. Hill's comment, considering his passion, was a compliment, when he said: “The Yankees lost on their side General Reno, a renegade Virginian, who was killed by a happy shot from the Twenty-third North Carolina.”

As Reno was never a secessionist, and as he was always true to the flag of his country, to which several times he swore allegiance, no stretch of language could truthfully brand him as a deserter. He was a true man, like such other Virginians as Craighill, Robert Williams, John Newton, George H. Thomas, and Farragut.

The most decisive work was on another front. Hooker was at the head of his corps. McClellan in person gave him orders on the field to press up the old Hagerstown road to the right and make a diversion in aid of Reno's attack. That movement was undertaken [282] without delay. Hooker's corps took on this formation: Meade's division to the right, Hatch's to the left; Ricketts's in the center a little back in reserve.

Pleasonton sent two regiments of cavalry to watch the flanks. Naturally expecting slow progress from Reno, Hooker thought the best diversion would be an immediate assault on whatever was before or near him.

The high peak before named, the key of the field, did not appear to be strongly occupied by Confederates; there was a battery discovered and thin lines to sweep the height, but that was all that was apparent. So Meade and Hatch with their deployed lines went forward as fast as men could in climbing such a rough mountain. They soon encountered an enemy; probably at first there were but three opposing brigades and a few pieces of artillery, but the resistance increased. It was a rugged place where the Confederates could and did take advantage of every obstacle to disable or hold back Hooker's soldiers.

Longstreet, hastening up from Boonsboro, was ascending the mountain about this time. His brigades, as they came to the western crest, weary though they were from the march, were rushed into position and into hot battle; but our Ricketts dispatched thither a brigade which, by a prompt change of front, stopped that danger, while Meade had the satisfaction of crowning the desired peak. That key was taken and batteries drawn up before sundown. To cover the guns by barricades and arrange them to enfilade the two crests, artillerymen were not slow to accomplish. They saw at once that they had a plunging fire upon the little mountain valley.

Meade had the summit peak, but lest it be retaken, Hatch, to his left, struggled over the uneven ground [283] through the forest, fighting his way forward. He was so hard pressed that Hooker sent him a brigade from Ricketts to thicken his lines. This help came when most needed; but while Hatch during the rain of bullets was riding along and encouraging his soldiers to charge and take a fence line held by the enemy, he himself was severely wounded by a shot from behind that fence. Doubleday then took Hatch's place while the firing was still frequent and troublesome. He tried a ruse: he caused his men to cease firing. The Confederates, thinking they had cleared their front, sprang forward a few paces to receive from Doubleday's ambush a sweeping volley-this broke up their alignments and they were chased back from the battle ground. The woods which Meade and Doubleday had fought through, the minor combats continuing in the darkness of the night, resounded with the cries of wounded and dying men; while the many dead, especially on Hatch's route, at dawn of the next day, showed the severity of the struggle.

Burnside had detached General John Gibbon from Hooker to keep up a connection with Reno, but near night Gibbon was sent up the National road. He kept a battery in the road well forward. The Confederates from their crest began to fire as they got glimpses of this bold move both upon the brigade and the battery. But Gibbon's men by strengthening their skirmishers and steadily moving on pushed everything before them; they ran from tree to tree, or rock to rock, till the battery thus covered by them had worked ahead enough to be effective. Then Gibbon's battery began its discharges straight upon the Confederate guns,. which had hitherto annoyed his march. By its effective help the battery aided the regiments abreast of it [284] to stretch out into lines as good and regular as the ragged, rocky slope would permit. The men, taking a fresh impulse, clambered up over the rocks, driving their enemies-two regiments of them — from woods, crags, and stone fences. The two Confederate regiments were then helped by three more, and our men were clogged for a time. But Gibbon in the end secured the gorge and slept on his battlefield.

I came to the scene of the conflict near the close of the contest. The triumph was evident and welcome, but much tempered by our severe losses and by the presence of the wounded men who with fortitude were suppressing the evidences of pain. Burnside was riding around among his troops. They generally looked pleased and hopeful, but very weary. They did not cheer.

About midnight Hill and Longstreet had drawn off their commands, leaving their dead and severely wounded in our hands. The Confederates had here the advantage of position, of course. We put more men than they into action. We lost 325 killed and 1,403 wounded and 85 missing. The Confederate loss was about the same as ours in killed and wounded. We took 1,500 prisoners. In spite of the Harper's Ferry disaster our army took heart again, on account of our victory in the battle of South Mountain, and reposed confidence in McClellan.

The spot where Reno fell is marked by a stone monument, erected to his memory by Daniel Wise. Friends and foes in that beautiful mountain valley fell asleep together. Would that they awake in the likeness of the Man of Peace!

Very early in the morning of the 15th our division passed the troops of Reno and Hooker, and pressed [285] forward down the western slopes of South Mountain, through Boonsboro in pursuit.

As we descended the mountain road thus early, I could see little puffs of smoke from many rifles and sudden clouds rolling up from cannon, yet, strange to say, could hear no sound. The air was very clear, and the distance greater than it appeared. Our own division's advance brigade and Pleasonton's cavalry were skirmishing with Lee's rear guard.

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