On the morning of March 19, I was amongst a group of thirty-eight Civil War scholars and aficionados who attended an in-depth tour of the Civil War’s South Mountain Battlefield conducted by Antietam National Battlefield Park Ranger John Hoptak. Meeting at the War Correspondents Memorial in Gathland State Park outside Burkittsville, Maryland, John opened the program with an overview of the Antietam Campaign and the ensuing carnage for the control of central Maryland. As Confederate General Robert E. Lee became aware that Union General George B. McClellan was in pursuit of his forces, he positioned a segment of his army in three defensively crucial passes in the South Mountain range: Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Turner’s Gap. Meanwhile, Lee attempted to reconnect the scattered portions of his command and, if necessary, prepare to abandon or revise his campaign in the face of possible defeat.
The major player in the fight for Crampton’s Gap was perhaps General William Franklin, commander of the Union’s 6th Corps, an admirer of McClellan, and an accomplished architect who helped construct the then-uncompleted capitol dome in Washington. Franklin’s road to the Battle of South Mountain was repeatedly marked by delay and indecision. In a mission where his force was to move with the utmost speed to attack the enemy and reconnect with his own army, the general largely did the exact opposite. His force first halted for several hours in the town of Jefferson and rested there for over two hours. This delay contradicted McClellan’s orders for Franklin to connect with Darius Couch’s 4th Corps, but not to wait for his arrival to push forward.
Later that morning, vedettes in Pennsylvania’s Rush Lancer’s scouted the rim of Burkittsville and reported their encounter with Colonel Thomas Munford’s 2nd VA Cavalry to Colonel Henry Cake of the 96th PA Infantry. With word of this, Cake ordered his men to sweep into the village of 200 inhabitants and push out Munford’s pickets. What ensued was one of the first instances of street combat in the Civil War. In the meantime, Franklin inched his way toward the outskirts of the town. There, on the property of the Martin Shafer House, where he and other officers of the 6th Corps including Winfield Scott Hancock, Henry Slocum, and William “Baldy” Smith, prepared a lunch and smoked cigars. With his troops already engaged, Franklin failed to advance once again. Even after a courier rode in to inform Franklin only 1,500 Confederates held the gap, the commander continued his lunch.
Munford too realized he was numerically outmatched in this scrap for the gap. In wake of this, he urgently called upon the force of Lafayette McLaws for reinforcements to advance through Pleasant Valley. By this time, George McClellan was sending forth orders for Franklin to seize Burkittsville at all costs. But with the passing of each hour, McClellan’s hopes of fatally crushing Lee’s army quickly dissipated.
In the ensuing assaults on the towering heights, Henry Slocum’s first division bore the brunt of the devastation. After pushing out many of the Confederates seeking cover in the town, the 96th PA moved around the village and continued their attack from Burkittsville’s small cemetery as Hancock looked on and prepared for an assault of his own brigade. Surprisingly, many of the townspeople refused to take shelters in their homes and stood on their porches defiantly, cheering on the Union troops. Robert Westbrook of the 49th PA noted, “regardless of the shells which were crashing through their houses, welcomed us heartily, brining water to fill the canteens, Patriotic ladies cheered the Union boys and brought them food” (Hoptak, 147). The Federals hoped to mass their fire effectively and implement a battering ram mentality to dislodge the southern defenders. However, rebel troops were well protected and dispersed as far as eight feet apart along the length of their Mountain Church Road line. The large scheme of things, the Battle of Crampton’s Gap can be numerically summed up as five or six Confederate regiments against the entire Union 6th Corps – overwhelming numbers indeed.
By approximately 5:25 p.m., the final Federal assaults over the Mountain Church Road commenced. At this point, Franklin believed all was lost, perhaps not realizing how under-strengthed and spread out his southern foes were. As the 96th PA and 10th GA engaged in a bloody slugfest, rarely seen hand-to-hand combat commenced as sharpshooters were flushed out of the Tritt House. Slocum’s assaults were sent in piecemeal for the most part. At the David Arnold Farm, the dismounted horsemen of the 2nd VA Cavalry spread themselves out behind the refuge of a sturdy (and still standing) stonewall as Vermonters and New Jerseyans advanced up the hill and crashed into the right flank of Howell Cobb’s Georgia and North Carolina brigade. (Amongst them men of this brigade was Oliver Hardy of the 16th GA, father of the future comedic film actor of the same name. He was wounded two days later at the Battle of Antietam.)
As the Union onslaught continued to push uphill, additional reinforcement under Cobb arrived on scene. Colonel Munford, realizing the desperateness of the situation, almost immediately turned command over to Cobb. Although the rotund Georgian attempted to rally his men, he was unable to fully stop the withdrawal. Seventy percent of his men became casualties that day.
Robert E. Lee, realizing the gravity of the situation, had originally intended to fall back to Virginia in response to the loss of South Mountain. However, he perhaps felt the disorganization within the large Army of the Potomac offered him another opportunity. His forces retreated to the small village of Sharpsburg, Maryland only a few miles away and awaited Federal attack. At that point, William Franklin was ordered to push through Pleasant Valley beyond South Mountain, remove the Confederates from Maryland Heights, and reconnect with the other Union corps – a daunting task. However, as Franklin at last reached the top of the mountain, he saw scores of retreating southerners in the valley below, making their way to Sharpsburg where, only two days later, the bloodiest battle in American History would occur. The fighting at Crampton’s Gap and the larger Battle of South Mountain was perhaps the first mountain combat in the Civil War and earned the Army of the Potomac a much needed military and psychological victory.
John Hoptak’s program was an ideal battlefield tour resulting from a balancing emphasis on strategy, geography, and compelling human drama. His ability to present the wide scope of battle made for an entertaining and enlightening perspective of this important battle and the people shaped by it. Luckily for we aficionados, John's book is as good as his tour!
Hoptak, John David. The Battle of South Mountain. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.
Special thanks to John, Mannie, and all the other experts who made it a memorable day!