When I find a great Civil War book, I highlight memorable quotes, circle unit strength and casualty numbers, write dates and times in the margins, underline biographical information, and sketch diagrams of the battle lines. My copies of books like Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood, and Tom Clemen’s edition of The Maryland Campaign of 1862 Volume One South Mountain by Ezra Carmen are like that – dog eared, marked up, and carried on my many treks to the sites of the Maryland Campaign. John Hoptak’s new book The Battle of South Mountain has joined my very select traveling library.
In their own right, the series of battles that occurred at Frosttown, Turners, Fox and Crampton’s Gaps of the South Mountain range on September 14, 1862 were significant military operations. On that late summer Sunday, Robert E. Lee’s scattered army was driven off the mountain heights by a resurgent Army of the Potomac and Lee’s plans to capture Harper’s Ferry, and force a decisive battle north of the Potomac River were seriously jeopardized.
Lasting over twelve hours with nearly 50,000 troops engaged, and around 5,800 casualties suffered, the fighting here ranks in scope with the war’s first battle at Bull Run in numbers involved and casualties suffered. Yet the Battle of South Mountain is nearly totally eclipsed by the epic Battle of Antietam, fought by these same armies three days later around the town of Sharpsburg. South Mountain is adequately treated in the classic Antietam campaign studies of James Murfin, Stephen Sears, and Joseph Harsh, but much detail and context is necessarily missing in these accounts. Antietam Battlefield ranger, historian and author John Hoptak has convincingly filled a critical need for a comprehensive, stand-alone study of this important battle.
The Battle of South Mountain, published by the History Press as part of its Sesquicentennial series is a crisp, concise but comprehensive account of the battles at the four passes or “gaps” across South Mountain on September 14, 1862. Beginning with an overview of the Maryland Campaign, the book then focuses a chapter on the fight at each of the four gaps. Chapter Two covers Fox Gap where Jesse Reno’s Ninth Corps battled most of General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division, and elements of D.R. Jones and John Hoods divisions in a daylong struggle for the critical southern flank of the Confederate line along the National Pike. Chapter Three is the story of Fighting Joseph Hooker’s fight for Turner’s Gap and the more northern Frosttown Gap. Union General John Gibbon’s Black Hat brigade of crack Midwestern soldiers contested the main road with Alfred Colquitt’s veteran brigade of Georgians and Alabamians. Further north at Frosttown, General Robert Rodes brigade of Alabama soldiers tenaciously defended that gap against George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division. After a daylong forced march from Hagerstown, Confederate reinforcements from Nathan Evans South Carolina brigade, and the other half of D.R. Jones division, arrived in time to blunt a final attack by three brigades of mostly New York troops in John Hatch’s division. Chapter Four is the story of the attack on Crampton’s Gap, undoubtedly the key element in George McClellan’s plan to rescue 11,000 beleaguered Union troops encircled by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s forces at Harpers Ferry. Here the two divisions of General Franklin’s powerful Sixth Corps are pitted against a small cavalry force under Thomas Munford and two weak infantry brigades from Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division.
The story is well told. It benefits from numerous battlefield tromps where Mr. Hoptak thoroughly researched the terrain, distances, vegetation, and road network. With that he paints a clear picture of this mountainous field of battle. Using many commander’s reports and the letters and diaries of individual soldiers, he recounts a stirring story of the desperate fighting that raged along a front of nearly seven miles. His descriptive style allowed me to always maintain a clear situational awareness of units, and leaders at all times and I came away with an increased understanding of the ebb and flow of this battle. There are also excellent biographical sketches of many of the regimental, brigade, and division commanders that fought the battle.
The book is rich in photographs and drawings of the soldiers and the battlefield. With eight fine maps rendered by fellow Antietam Ranger Mannie Gentile, a detailed order of battle, a bibliography with over seventy primary sources, and many other secondary references, the book is a truly scholarly effort that will satisfy both serious Civil War students and the general reading public. For Maryland Campaign aficionados, it is a must have addition to your library and is now the definitive account of the battle. It surely further secures John's place as a premier Maryland Campaign scholar.
The final chapter of the book concludes with McClellan’s pursuit of Lee’s defeated army to the banks of the Antietam. And if the story had truly ended there, with Lee retreating across the Potomac without giving further battle, the Battle of South Mountain would have been accorded a much higher standing in Civil War historiography. At long last, this book goes a long distance toward according the battle the scholarship and undivided attention that it deserves. You can read my review and more information about the book here at Amazon.