Today a stalwart party of Civil War aficionados visited the South Mountain battlefields of Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap. Our guide was Antietam park ranger and author John Hoptak. John has a new book coming out on this often overlooked but extremely important battle in the summer of 1862. As John told us in his introduction, the casualties at South Mountain were comparable to those that were suffered at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Despite a temperature of only 11 degrees, nearly 30 hikers assembled at the South Mountain Inn at 10AM on this Saturday morning. There were a number of folks from Gettysburg National Military Park Battlefield including my friend John Nicholas and many friends and acquaintances from Antietam. It was a beautiful sunny day and we all were thankful that the winds of Friday night had abated.
We set off down the Appalachian Trail headed for Fox’s Gap. The trail was known at the time of the battle as the Wood Road. It is hard to imagine that this narrow, rocky “road” carried thousands of men and artillery from the divisions of D.H. Hill, D.R. Jones, and John Bell Hood . It was tough enough for our 30-person platoon to manage it today. As I walked along, I could see mountain views that are only possible in the barren dead of winter when all the leaves are off the trees. Looking back over my shoulder, the high ground looms to the north of the National Pike – a view not possible at any other time of the year. It was on these heights above Turner’s Gap that Confederate artillery harassed the advancing soldiers of the Ninth Corps throughout the day.
John used a very innovative technique that involved us all in the interpretation of the battle. On a snowy field near the Reno Monument, he positioned volunteers from his audience to represent the regiments of the fighting brigades that fought nearby. It was a very effective approach and personally gave me a much improved understanding of this complicated battle. He focused on the early morning confrontation between Samuel Garland’s North Carolina brigade and Eliakim Scammon’s Ohio brigade on the southern end of the Fox Gap field. I got to be Colonel Alfred Iverson’s 20th North Carolina. I couldn’t help but recall a quote that Iverson made later about his experience on the mountain that day. After his regiment was pushed back, Iverson recalled "I must have been the fastest runner for I caught up with him [McRae from the 5th North Carolina] and together we went to the foot of the mountain." John also discussed the deployment and fight of Thomas Drayton’s brigade that occurred later in the day using the same technique. We ended up this excellent hike at the North Carolina monument on the Lamb’s Knoll Road with a promise from John to do a similar excursion (when it is a bit warmer) to Crampton’s Gap.
This mid winter hike certainly fires me up to look forward to another season of interpretation, study, and tours at Antietam and the surrounding battlefields of the Maryland Campaign. And John’s command of the South Mountain battle as demonstrated today only means that his new book, The Battle of South Mountain which appears on March 8, will be a significant addition to the scholarship of an important battle but frequently passed over chapter in the history of the Civil War.