“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe.” — Abraham Lincoln
Sunday 14 September 1862
Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th CVI were awaken at daylight by the sounds of battle coming from South Mountain. The regiment ate a breakfast of “bushmeal” before moving out toward the sound of battle in the late morning.
The regiment moved up the mountain toward the battle and deployed into a line of battle.[i]
Kanawha Division commander (and future IX Corps commander) Major General Jacob Cox described the scene and the route toward South Mountain:
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.[ii]
Rodman’s Division to include the 8th Connecticut takes a position on the right of the Old Sharpsburg Road (modern Fox Gap Road) and assumes a supporting role. Bullets fly over the heads of the soldiers and several times the regiment is ordered to its feet to prepare to fight only to be ordered back to the ground. Throughout the day no engagement with the enemy occurs for Harland’s Brigade. Silence settled over the area at around 9:00 pm and the 8th slept in their battle positions.[iii]
Disposition of IX Corps units at Fox’s Gap, September 14, 1862
The Confederate General D.H. Hill is defending Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap with about 5,000 men over a two mile front. Burnside uses Hooker’s Corps in the lead of the attack at Turner’s with Reno’s Corps (to which the 8th CVI is assigned) attacking Fox’s. The fighting is intense and the Confederates are forced to reposition units to support the defense of the gaps. However, at dark, the Confederates are still holding the line. General Lee orders the retreat of Hill’s forces because Crampton’s Gap has fallen to the Union forces. The battle is considered a success by Lee because he has delayed McClellan by a day allowing him more time to concentrate his forces that have been divided.
According to Croffut and Morris:
Early on the 14th the 9th Corps moved up on the left of the Hagerstown Pike, and by noon became warmly engaged; quickly driving the enemy half-way up the acclivity. By two o’clock, the 2d Corps arrived; but the 9th kept the lead. The Eighth and Eleventh Connecticut Regiments were held in reserve, and were under fire without being engaged. At four o’clock, the whole line advanced, after a fruitless artillery contest.
It was emphatically an infantry fight. Our column, pressing resolutely forward, met with strong resistance. Now the rebel line would be driven up almost to the summit; and, before the Union cheers died away, there would be a fresh crack of musketry, and our forces would recoil, while rebel yells echoed along the rocky hillside. The Union reserve was so near, that bullets chipped the branches overhead. Often the Eighth and Eleventh were called to their feet; but, when the wave of battle receded, they lay down again.[iv]
It is costly for the IX Corps as Major General Jesse Reno, considered one of the finest commanders in the Union Army, is killed at Fox’s Gap by a Confederate sharpshooter. His death will have a significant impact on the operations at the Battle of Antietam just three days later.
Major General Jesse Reno, Commanding Officer IX Corps, killed at Fox Gap on South Mountain and Brigadier General Jacob Cox who assumed command of IX Corps
[i] Diary of Charles S. Buell, 8th Connecticut, as published on Antietam on the Web, http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=369
[ii] “Forcing Fox’s Gap and Turner’s Gap,” Jacob D. Cox, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Volume I, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, The Century Co., New York, 1887-1888.
[iv] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868