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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The SHAF South Mountain Harpers Ferry Tour Part One


On July 31st, I had a rare opportunity to participate in a tour lead by two of the world’s foremost experts on the Maryland Campaign. Dr. Tom Clemens, editor of the recently published first volume of the Carmen Papers, and Dennis Frye, Park Historian for the Harpers Ferry National Battlefield, were our guides. It was a great group including many friends and Maryland campaign aficionados to numerous to mention. The subjects of the tour were the Battles of South Mountain and Harpers Ferry. The tour coincides neatly with the publication of Volume One of the Carmen Papers, which focuses on these two battles. This post will cover the stops at Turners, Fox, and Frosttown Gaps. Next time, I will address Harper's Ferry and Crampton's Gap.

I greatly anticipated this tour and was not disappointed. It was a caravan ride and I rode with my good friends Jim Buchanan, fellow Antietam volunteer and West Woods blogger, Brian Richardson another of the Antietam battlefield guide, and Ron Dickey, a long time student of the Maryland campaign and a frequent companion on many a battlefield hike.

We were not disappointed. This was not a standard “vanilla” tour. Tom and Dennis took us along “roads less travelled”. We started at Monocacy National Battlefield. Across the road from the Visitor’s Center is the Best Farm, Lee’s Headquarters and birthplace of Special Order 191. Dennis and Tom encouraged us to challenge our assumptions and look at the situation as Lee and McClellan saw it during that first half of September. Unlike those of us who know the rest of the story and have 148 years worth of interpretation, analysis, and perspective, we have to appreciate as much what they did NOT know versus what they knew or thought they knew.

In the summer of 1862, Burnside was a highly regarded commander flush from a successful campaign against Confederate forces along the North Carolina coast. As the Maryland Campaign unfolded, Burnside commanded the right wing of the Army of the Potomac consisting of Jesse Reno’s Ninth Corps and Joseph Hooker’s First Corps. He was charged with covering the approaches to Baltimore. With the discovery of Lee’s Special Order 191, McClellan assigned Burnside’s force with the mission of advancing against the “main body” of the Confederate forces believed to be near Boonsboro. Known as the Battle of Boonsboro by the Confederates, this was Ambrose Burnside’s battle. He plan would evolve into a complicated double envelopment of an enemy position manned by veteran troops commanding the high ground. Superior numbers would be balanced by difficult terrain.

Leaving Monocacy, we took a circuitous route through Frederick; passed through Middletown on the National Road, and made our first stop at Turner’s Gap. From a vista across the road from the South Mountain Inn, we had the view that Confederate defender D.H. Hill likely had as the Battle of South Mountain unfolded. Hill’s attention had been initially more focused on preventing Federal forces from escaping from Harper’s Ferry. However as a Union advance against the South Mountain passes became evident, Hill positioned himself at the South Mountain Inn to defend against the advancing Federals. On the morning of September 14, 1862, Hill had only Colquitt’s brigade protecting Turner’s Gap with Samuel Garland’s brigade at the South Mountain Inn. Hill assumed he could count on J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry for support but on arrival at the Inn, he learned by a note from Stuart that he was heading south to Crampton’s Gap and taking all his cavalry. Unbeknownst to Hill, Stuart in fact left Tom Rosser’s 5th Virginia Cavalry and a section of guns under John Pelham at Fox Gap forgetting to mention this to Hill. As he beheld the advancing blue masses, clearly visible from his perch, Hill felt very much alone. His first move was to send for the brigades of G.B. Anderson, Robert Rodes, and Roswell Ripley who were then deployed around Boonsboro and to dispatch Garland’s Brigade down the Wood Road to Fox Gap – our next stop.

Garland would arrive at Fox Gap, no doubt grateful to find Rosser’s cavalry and Pelham’s guns there instead of the Yankees. However, they would soon confront Eliakim Scammon’s advancing Ninth Corps brigade led by Rutherford B. Hayes’ 23rd Ohio Infantry. Samuel Garland would fall early in the fighting. The Ninth Corps was the southern element of Burnside’s plan to outflank Turner’s Gap. Fighting would last the entire day as both sides fed more and more troops into the fight. By evening, Reno’s entire Ninth Corps confronted elements of the three Confederate divisions of D.H. Hill, David R. Jones division, and John Bell Hood’s. The Confederates generally had the worst of it, but Reno ignored an opportunity to advance west down the mountain along the old Sharpsburg Road into Pleasant Valley and focused instead on Burnside’s strategy of flanking Turner’s Gap to the north. Reno would be killed at the end of the day not far from where Garland was killed that morning.

Later in the day as Hooker’s Corps moved up, Burnside sent it to the north to flank Turner’s Gap by advancing through the Frosttown Gap. In the center, Burnside and Hooker advanced Gibbon’s Black Hat Brigade up the National Pike toward Turner’s Gap where the western soldiers battled Alfred Colquitt’s Brigade to a standstill. We had a grand view of where the fighting along the National Road took place from a point on Fox Gap Road. We also learned more about the naming of the Iron Brigade and the fact that Gibbons was one of several Federal brigades with that moniker. Hooker’s troops turned right off of the National Road at the crossroad at Bolivar, clearly visible from our overlook at Fox Gap. Hooker would move up Mt. Tabor Church Road and make his headquarters at the church. George Meade, recently elevated to command the Pennsylvania Reserve Division had the lead. North of the church, the road would turn west and branch off in two directions. The southern route, now known as Dahlgren road headed west and south rejoining the National Road near the South Mountain Inn. The northern route would first head northwest before turning west and then southwest rejoining the National Road at Zittlestown. Today, this road is known as Frosttown Road. Meade’s men would head for the more northern route and there confront Robert Rodes brigade of Alabamians. Earlier in the day, Hill sent only Rode’s brigade to the north while feeding the rest of his division (Garland, Anderson, and Ripley’s brigades) to the apparently more threatened southern flank at Fox Gap, and holding Colquitt in the center. Rodes was in an isolated position. He had deliberately moved to defend the more northern road properly considering it more of a dangerous approach to the Confederate positions. For the rest of the afternoon, he skillfully fought a delaying against Meade’s advancing brigades.
In the afternoon, three brigades of D.R. Jones division and “Shanks” Evans separate brigade arrived, “fresh” from a forced march from Hagerstown and a hike up the National Road from Boonsboro. Moving up Dahlgren Road, they were in time to confront the advancing troops of Hatch’s Division. It was along Dahlgren Road near these positions where we made our stop. From our vantage point on Dahlgren Road looking south and west, it was possible for us to see in succession Lamb’s Knoll and Fox Gap, Elk Ridge, Red Hill, and in the distance, North Mountain. Fighting ended here with the arrival of nightfall. Well after dark, the Confederates pulled back from the entire Turner’s Gap leaving the field to the Federals.

Next Time - Harper's Ferry and Crampton's Gap

4 comments:

  1. Jim, just great! I always enjoy your postings. I really like your comment, "a circuitous route through Frederick." That understatement brought a chuckle....
    Ron Dickey

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  2. It was fun riding with you Ron. Are you going to wade the Potomac in September?

    Regards
    Jim

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  3. Jim,
    Plan on wading! I signed up for the late sesion this year. I figured there would be a lot going on at Antietam on the 18th, and maybe I could just make it a long day. See you there?
    Ron D.

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  4. I have an afternoon private tour but will try to work it out to get over there one way or the other.

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