Forcing Fox's Gap and
Jacob D. Cox, Major-General, U.S.V.
(From "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.")
ON the 5th of September, 1862, the Kanawha Division was ordered by McClellan to report to General Burnside, commanding the Right Wing of the Army of the Potomac. ^ We left Upton's Hill early on the morning of the 6th, crossed the river, and marched through Washington to Leesboro, Maryland, where the First Corps ^^ (Hooker's) and the Ninth Corps * (Burnside's, under Reno), constituting the right wing, were assembling. Our formal assignment to the Ninth Corps was made a day or two later. On the 8th, the division was ordered to take the advance and marched to Brookville; on the 9th to Goshen; on the 11th to Ridgeville, and on the 12th, shortly after noon, to Frederick City, being the first to enter that place, and driving out the Confederate rear-guard of cavalry under General Wade Hampton. The insignificant skirmish which occurred there had a considerable influence upon the battle of the 14th, in an indirect way. The enemy's cavalry had been driven from the banks of the Monocacy River and retired into the town. The division, consisting of two brigades (Moor's and Scammon's), had crossed at the stone bridge on the National road, and Moor's, deployed on both sides of the turnpike, advanced upon the city. Colonel Moor himself, with a troop of cavalry and a single cannon, was in the road. An impertinent criticism upon the speed of his movement, volunteered by a young staff-officer from corps headquarters,
^ For an account of the transfer of the Kanawha Division from West Virginia to the Potomac, p. 281. The division was not engaged in the second battle of Bull Run; but two regiments of Scammon's brigade were under fire at Bull Run Bridge, near Union Mills, August 27th. --EDITORS.
^^ Confusion in the numbers of the First and Twelfth Corps is found in the records and correspondence. In the Army of Virginia, Sigel's corps (Eleventh) had been designated as First, Banks's (Twelfth) had been Second, and McDowell's (First) had been Third. In the Maryland campaign Hooker was assigned to McDowell's, which was sometimes called First and sometimes Third. Mansfield was assigned to Banks's. The proper designations after the consolidation of the armies were First and Twelfth. Reno had been assigned to the First, but McClellan got authority to change it, and gave that corps to Hooker, sending Reno back to the Ninth ("Official Records," XIX., Pt. II. pp. 197,198,279,349).-- J.D.C.
* The Ninth Corps, created July 22d, 1862, was composed of the command that Burnside brought from North Carolina. -- EDITORS.
stung Moor into dashing ahead at a gallop, with his escort and staff, and the gun. Just at the outskirts of the town the road turns to the left among the houses, and cannot be seen. While we were wondering at the charge by the brigade commander and his escort, he came to the turn of the road: there was a quick, sharp rattling of carbines, and Hampton's Legion was atop of the little party. There was one discharge of the cannon, and some of the brigade staff and the escort came back in disorder. I ordered up quickly the 11th Ohio, of Scammon's brigade, which was in column in the road, and they dashed into the town at a charge with fixed bayonets. The enemy's cavalry had not waited for them, but had retreated out of the place by the Hagerstown road. Moor had been ridden down, unhorsed, and captured. The artillerymen had unlimbered their gun, pointed it, and the gunner stood with the lanyard in his hand, when he was struck by a rushing horse; the gun was fired by the concussion, but at the same moment it was capsized into the ditch by the impact of the cavalry column. The enemy had no time to right the gun or carry it off, nor to stop for prisoners. They forced Moor on another horse and turned tail as the charging lines of infantry came up on right and left, together with the column in the road, for there had not been a moment's pause in the advance. Those who have a fancy for learning how Munchausen could tell this story are referred to the narrative of Major Heros Von Borcke, of J. E. B. Stuart's staff. Moor's capture, however, had consequences, as we shall see. His brigade passed to the command of Colonel George Crook, of the 36th Ohio.
Frederick was a loyal city, and as Hampton's cavalry went out at one end of the street and our infantry came in at the other, while the carbine smoke and the smell of powder still lingered, the closed window-shutters of the houses flew open, the sashes went up, the windows were filled with ladies waving their handkerchiefs and the national flag, and the column with fruits and refreshments for the marching soldiers.
We encamped just beyond the town. Pleasonton's cavalry, which had advanced by a different road (the one leading through Urbana), was sent forward next morning (September 13th) to reconnoiter the passes of Catoctin Mountain, and Rodman's division of our corps went as his support. Through some misunderstanding, Rodman did not advance on the Hagerstown road beyond Catoctin Mountain, but moved toward Franklin's line of march upon Crampton's Gap (southward). About noon of the 13th, I was ordered to march with my division to Middletown, on the National road leading to Hagerstown. McClellan himself met me as my column moved out of town, and told me of the misunderstanding in Rodman's orders, adding, that if I met him on the march I should take his division also along with me. I did not meet him, but his division returned to Frederick that night. The other two divisions of our corps crossed the Catoctin in the evening, and camped near the western base of the mountain. My own camp for the night was pitched on the western side of the village of Middletown.
The Catoctin or Middletown valley is beautifully included between Catoctin Mountain and South Mountain, two ranges of the Blue Ridge, running northeast and southwest. The valley is 6 or 8 miles wide, and the National road, as it goes north-westward, crosses South Mountain at a depression called Turner's Gap. The old Sharpsburg road leaves the turnpike a little west of Middletown, turns to the left, and crosses the mountain at Fox's Gap, about a mile from Turner's. The mountain crests are about 1300 feet above the Catoctin valley, and the "gaps" are from 200 to 300 feet lower than the summits near them.^^ These summits are like scattered and somewhat irregular hills upon the high rounded surface of the mountain-top. They are wooded, but along the south-easterly slopes, quite near the top of the mountain, are small farms with meadows and cultivated fields.
In the evening of the 13th I was ordered to support General Pleasonton in his cavalry reconnaissance to be made toward Turner's Gap in the morning. He had already been reenforced by Benjamin's and Gibson's batteries from the corps. The notion that Pleasonton was authorized to put the infantry in position for an expected battle is wholly a mistake. No battle was expected at Turner's Gap. Lee's order, of which a copy had fallen into McClellan's bands, directed the concentration of the forces under Longstreet and D. H. Hill at Boonsboro', where they were to be joined by those under Jackson as soon as Harper's Ferry should be taken. McClellan's orders and correspondence show that he expected a battle at Boonsboro', but not at South Mountain Or east of it. Pleasonton had found a rear-guard at Turner's Gap, but the support of a single brigade of infantry was assumed to be enough to enable his cavalry to clear the way. Pleasonton asked for one brigade of infantry to report to him for the purpose stated, and I detailed the brigade under command of Colonel E. P. Scammon. At 6 o'clock in the morning of Sunday, September 14th, he marched out of camp at Middletown. His brigade consisted of the 12th, 23d, and 30th Ohio regiments; that of Crook, which was left in camp, was made up of the 11th, 28th, and 36th Ohio, and each brigade was nearly fifteen hundred strong. Two batteries of artillery and a squadron of cavalry also belonged to the division.
I was myself on the road when Scammon marched out, and was riding forward with him to learn how Pleasonton intended to use the troops, when, just as we crossed Catoctin Creek, I was surprised to see Colonel Moor standing
^^ These elevations are from the official map made by the U. S. Engineers.----J. D. C.
at the roadside. With astonishment, I rode to him and asked how he came there. He said he had been taken prisoner beyond the mountain, but had been paroled the evening before, and was now finding his way back to us on foot. "But where are you going?" said he. I answered that Scammon's brigade was going to support Pleasonton in a reconnaissance into the gap. Moor made an involuntary start, saying, "My God! be careful"; then, checking himself, said, "But I am paroled!" and turned away.
I galloped to Scammon and told him that I should follow him in close support with Crook's brigade, and as I went back along the column I spoke to each regimental commander, warning them to be prepared for anything, big or little,---it might be a skirmish, it might be a battle. Hurrying back to the camp, I ordered Crook to turn out his brigade prepared to march at once, I then wrote a dispatch to General Reno, saying I suspected we should find the enemy in force on the mountain-top, and should go forward with both brigades instead of sending one. Starting a courier with this, I rode forward to find Pleasonton' who was about a mile in front of my camp, where the old Sharpsburg road leaves the turnpike. I found that he was convinced that the enemy's position in the gap was too strong to be carried by a direct attack, and that he had determined to let his horsemen demonstrate on the main road' supporting the batteries, one of which at least (Benjamin's) was of 20-pounder Parrott guns, while Scammon should march by the Sharpsburg road and try to reach the flank of the force on the summit. Telling him of my suspicion as to the enemy, I also informed him that I had determined to support Scammon with Crook, and if it became necessary to fight with the whole division I should do so, in which case I should assume the responsibility myself as his senior officer. To this he cordially assented.
One of my batteries contained a section of 20-pounder Parrotts, and as these were too heavy to take up the rough mountain road, I ordered them to go into action beside Benjamin's battery, near the turnpike, and to remain with it till further orders. Our artillery at this time was occupying a knoll about half a mile in front of the forks of the road, and was exchanging shots with a battery of the enemy well up toward the gap. It was about half-past 7 o'clock when Crook's column filed off on the old Sharpsburg road, Scammon having perhaps half an hour's start. We had fully two miles to go before we should reach the place where our attack was made, and, as it was a pretty steep road, the men marched slowly with frequent rests. On our way up we were overtaken by my courier who had returned from Reno with approval of my action, and the assurance that the rest of the Ninth Corps would come forward to my support.
At about half a mile from the summit, at Fox's Gap, the enemy had opened upon Scammon with case shot from the edge of the timber above the open fields, and the latter had judiciously turned off upon a country road leading still farther to the left and nearly parallel to the ridge above. Here I overtook him, his brigade being formed in line, under cover of the timber, facing open pasture fields, having a stone-wall along the upper side, with the forest again beyond this. Crook was brought up close in his rear. The ascent and the formation of the division had occupied more than an hour, and it was now about 9 o'clock. Bayonets were fixed, and at the word the lines charged forward with loud hurrahs. The enemy opened with musketry and shrapnel; our men fell fast, but they kept up their pace, and in a few moments they were on and over the wall, the center of Garland's North Carolina brigade breaking before them. They hung on a little longer at right and left, and for some time it was a fierce melée, hand to hand, but the Ohio boys were the victors. We found that there was a country road behind the wall on top of the ridge, and the cover of the forest had enabled the enemy's guns to get away toward our right. The 11th Ohio was sent from Crook's brigade beyond Scammon's left, where part of the enemy's force held a hill and summit higher than the ridge at the stone-wall. This seems to have been held by Rosser's cavalry With a battery. The 36th Ohio was, in similar manner, sent beyond Scammon's right. The whole line again sprung forward. The high knoll on the left was carried, the enemy's center was completely broken and driven down the mountain, while on the right our men pushed the routed Carolinians beyond the Sharpsburg road, through Wise's fields, and up the slope of the crest toward the Mountain House at Turner's Gap. The regiment on the enemy's extreme right had been cut off from the others and retreated south-westwardly down the mountain toward Rohrersville. Those on their left had made such resistance as they could till they were supported by Anderson's brigade which hurried to their assistance. The cavalry also took refuge on a wooded hill west of the Mountain House. Although Garland's line had been broken in the first charge, the rallying and fighting had been stubborn for more than an hour. Our position was now diagonally across the mountain-top, the shape of the ridges making our formation a hollow curve with our right too much in the air, where it was exposed to a severe artillery fire, not only from the batteries near the Mountain House but from one on a high hill north of the turnpike. The batteries with Pleasonton did their best to assist us, and were admirably served. We had several hundred prisoners in our hands, and learned from them that D. H. Hill's division, consisting of five brigades, was opposed to us, and that Longstreet was said to be in near support. Our own losses had not been trifling, and it seemed wise to contract our lines a little, so that we might have some reserve and hold the crest we had won till the rest of the Ninth Corps should arrive. Our left and center were strongly posted, but the right was partly across Fox's Gap, at the edge of the woods beyond Wise's house, around which there had been a fierce struggle. The 30th and 36th were therefore brought back to the crest on the hither side of the gap, where we still commanded the Sharpsburg road, and making the 30th our right flank, the 36th and the 28th were put in second line. My right thus occupied the woods looking northward into Wise's fields. About noon the combat was reduced to one of artillery, and the enemy's guns had so completely the range of the sloping fields behind us that their canister shot cut long furrows in the sod, with a noise like the cutting of a melon rind.
Willcox's division reported to me at about 2 o'clock, and would have been up considerably earlier but for a mistake in the delivery of a message to him, in consequence of which he moved first toward the hill on the north of the turnpike (afterward carried by Hooker's corps), until he was recalled and given the right direction by Reno, who had arrived at Pleasonton's headquarters. As he went into position on my right, the artillery fire from the crest beyond the turnpike annoyed him, and to avoid being enfiladed by it, he formed with his right thrown back nearly at right angles to the front and facing toward the turnpike. We were not long left idle. Longstreet's divisions had been arriving on the field faster than ours, and made a most determined effort to push us back from the ridge we held. I sent two regiments of Willcox's to extend my left, which was in danger of being turned. Their strongest attack fell upon the angle of Willcox's command, and for a little while there was some confusion there, due to the raking artillery fire which came from the right; but Willcox soon reformed his lines, and after a very bloody contest, pushed across the Sharpsburg road, through Wise's fields, and into the wooded slope beyond. Along the front of the Kanawha Division the line was steadily maintained and the enemy was repulsed with severe loss. At nearly 4 o'clock, Sturgis's division arrived and relieved the left Wing of Willcox's division, the latter taking ground a little more to the right and rear. Rodman was the last to arrive, and as part of Longstreet's corps again threatened to pass beyond my left flank, I sent Fairchild's brigade to extend the line in that direction, the rest of that division going to the support of Sturgis and Willcox. During all this time there was sharp fighting all along the front, the struggle being on the part of the Confederates to drive back our center and left, where we held the highest summits of the mountain, and on our part to push forward our right so as to gain the one elevation they still held on our side of the National road, at the Mountain House. On the other side of the turnpike Hooker had by this time deployed, and fighting its way up the mountain side there.
McClellan, Burnside, and Reno had come, soon after Willcox's division, to the knoll in the valley which had been Pleasonton's position, and from that point, a central one in the midst of curving hills, had issued their orders. The Ninth Corps troops, as they came up the mountain, had reported to me for position, as I was senior on the line. Soon after the arrival of Rodman's division, the order came to advance the whole line, so as to complete the dislodgment of the enemy from the remaining summit at the Mountain House. At the center and left the advance was not difficult, for we held the ridge and pushed our opponents down the mountain. But the right had still to climb, and the ground there was rough and rocky, a fortress in itself and stoutly held. Good progress was made by both Sturgis and Willcox, but the fastness at the Mountain House had not been carried when darkness fell upon the field. A little before sunset, Reno came up in person, anxious to know why the right could not get forward quite to the summit. After a few moments, conversation with me he passed on to Sturgis; it seemed to me he was hardly gone before he was brought back upon a stretcher, dead. He had gone to the skirmish line to examine for himself the situation there, and had been shot down by the enemy posted among the rocks and trees. There was more or less firing in that part of the field till late in the evening, but when morning dawned, the Confederates had abandoned the last foothold above Turner's Gap.
On the north of the National road the First Corps under Hooker had been opposed by one of Hill's brigades and four of Longstreet's, and had gradually worked its way along the old Hagerstown road, crossing the heights in that direction after dark in the evening. Gibbon's brigade had advanced along the National road, crowding up quite close to Turner's Gap, and engaging the enemy under Colquitt in a lively combat. It has been my purpose, however, to limit any detailed account to what occurred under my own eye.
The peculiar character of the battle had been that it grew out of what was intended for a mere reconnaissance. The Kanawha Division had called the crest at Fox's Gap early in the forenoon, while the rest of the army was miles away. General Hill has since argued that only part of his division could oppose us; but his brigades were all on the mountain summit within easy support of each had the day before them. It was five hours from the time of our first charge to the arrival of our first supports, and it was not till 3 o'clock in the afternoon that Hooker's corps reached the eastern base of the mountain and began its deployment north of the National road. Our effort was to attack the weak end of the Confederate line, and we succeeded in putting a stronger force there than that which opposed us. It is for our opponent to explain how we were permitted to do it. The two brigades of the Kanawha Division numbered less than three thousand men. Hill's division was five thousand strong, even by the Confederate method of counting their effectives, which should be increased nearly one-fifth to compare properly with our reports. In addition to these, Stuart had the principal part of the Confederate cavalry on this line, and they were not idle spectators. Part of Lee's and Hampton's brigades were certainly there, and probably the whole of Lee's. With less than half the numerical strength which was opposed to it, therefore, the Kanawha Division had carried the summit, advancing to the charge for the most part over open ground in a storm of musketry and artillery fire, and had held the crests they had gained through the livelong day, in spite of all efforts to retake them. The Ninth and the First Corps were deployed about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and from that time till dark the proportions of the combat were enlarged to a battle which raged along two miles of mountain summits. The casualties in the Ninth Corps had been 889, of which 356 were in the Kanawha Division, which also captured some 600 of the enemy and sent them to the rear under guard. Reno on the National side and Garland on the Confederate were the officers of highest rank who were killed; but the wounded included a long list of distinguished men, among whom was Lieutenant-Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes (afterward President), who fell severely wounded in the early morning struggle on our left, where, also, Garland died, vainly trying to stay the rout of his brigade as our men covered the mountain-top. ^^^
On Monday morning our first duty was to bury the dead and to see that the wounded in our field-hospitals were sent back to Middletown where the general hospital had been established. During the forenoon we received orders to march toward Sharpsburg, but the road was already occupied by other troops, and when the head of my division reached it, at the place where the fight in front of Willcox's division had been most severe, we were halted for two or three hours till the corps which had the right of way should pass. Then we turned our faces toward the Antietam.
^^^ General Hooker, commander of the First Corps, in his report, thus described the action on the night of the Union Army, for the control of Turner's Gap:
"In front of us was South Mountain, the crest of the spinal ridge of which was held by the enemy in considerable force. Its slopes are precipitous, rugged, and wooded, and difficult of access to an infantry force even in absence of a foe in front. . . Meade moved forward with great vigor and soon became engaged, driving everything before him. Every step of his advance was resisted stubbornly by a numerous enemy, and, besides, he had great natural obstacles to overcome which impeded his advance, but did not check it. . . At this moment word was received that the enemy were attempting to turn Meade's right, when Duryea's brigade, of Ricketts's division, was dispatched to thwart it, and reached there in good time to render substantial aid in this, and also in assisting their comrades in crowning the summit with our arms. This was taken possession of in fine style between sundown and dark, and from that moment the battle was won... Meantime Hatch had pressed into the forest on the left, and after driving in their advanced pickets, encountered a heavy fire from the enemy massed in his front. The struggle became violent and protracted, his troops displayed the finest courage and determination.... Hatch being outnumbered, sorely pressed, and almost out of ammunition. Christian's brigade, of Ricketts's division, was ordered forward to strengthen him, and in this rendered good service. On this part of the field the resistance of the enemy was continued until after dark, and only subsided on his being driven from his position. It being very dark, our troops were directed to remain in position, and Hartsuff's brigade [of Ricketts division] was brought up and formed a line across the valley, connecting with Meade's left and Hatch's right, and all were directed to sleep on their arms".
The Confederate troops opposed to Meade appear t H. Hill's division, supported by Jenkins's, of D. R. Jones's division, while Hatch's advance appears to have been resisted by Kemper's and Garnett's brigades, of D. R. Jones's division, supported by Evan's independent brigade. Colquit's brigade, of D. H. Hill's division, held the main turnpike against Gibbon. -Editors.
This page last updated 12/17/03