A Silent and Sleeping Host

The Aftermath of the Battle of South Mountain

It is after dark on September 14th before the trading of rounds ceases atop the pass at Fox Gap. Confederate General D.H. Hill moved his troops away from the summit as the night becomes fully dark realizing that no reinforcements will be available for another defense tomorrow.  On the Union side of the line at the gap, it is a long and anxious night as wounded men are slowly moved back down the mountain and on to Middletown for treatment. It is also a night of uncertainty for those units that were not committed to the previous day’s fight. The officers and soldiers of the 8th Connecticut lie in their battle positions throughout the night with no idea of what the morning will bring.

The sun rises from behind the Union troops lying in their positions on east face of South Mountain as they wake early with orders to make coffee and prepare to assemble for movement. A significant logistical challenge is presented by the narrow mountain road leading through Fox Gap and the thousands of soldiers from IX Corps that will have to make the passage. As the generals attempt to determine the best method of moving the units through the narrow mountain road, the 8th Connecticut is ordered to move to the far side of the Old Sharpsburg Road and then returned to the eastern side of the road. Along with the rest of Harland’s Brigade, the 8th conducts a movement toward Fox’s Gap at the top of South Mountain in preparation for the passage. At the time, the strength and disposition of the Confederate forces is unknown. As a precaution, all of the regiments of Rodman’s Division form a line of battle and prepare for possible resistance from the Confederate forces. However, there will be no more fighting here this day because the Confederates are gone except those who now lie where they fell the day before among the rocks and trees.

The soldiers of the 8th Connecticut would never forget this ghastly scene as they passed through the Fox Gap and passed the area of the previous day’s fighting.

Croffut and Morris, official historians for the Connecticut Civil War regiments described it:

For miles, the fields on both sides were crowded; the waning fires at least revealing in quaint light and shadow the almost count-less bivouacs of a silent and sleeping host.[1]


The historian of one of the other regiments in Harland’s Brigade remembered that “the dead and wounded lay here and there on each side of the road, torn to pieces and mangled in all shapes, and left by the retreating rebels in their hasty flight.”[2]

Captain Marsh of the 8th remembered the day this way:

…we came out of our hideing[sic] place and we marched across road to left into another piece of woods and there waited 2 or 3 hours see attack but they did not make any. Then we marched back and on over mountain and such sights I never saw. Hundreds of dead rebels laid piled up in a small narrow lane and behind on rd stone wall. The victory was ours… we passed by hundreds of dead sccesh lying beside stone walls in narrow lanes and scattered through the wood.[3]

Sadly, many of the dead Confederates were hastily tossed down the well of Daniel Wise, a local farmer whose farm had been at the center of the fighting.

Wise Cabin and field at Fox GapThe Wise farm and cabinet at Fox Gap

Charles S. Buell of the 8th Connecticut recounted the movement over South Mountain:

The dead rebels were strewed all along the road in scores. Up to 12 ock all has been quite with the exception of a few random shots. We lay on our arms about 2 hours. Probably too allow the Artillery to change their position…the rebels are on the skedaddle our Reinforcements are coming[sic] up and we are persuing[sic] them right up to the handle. Afternoon and all is quite on the East side of the Blue Ridge. Troups[troops] are pouring on to a great rate.[4]

Another foot soldier of the 8th Connecticut recorded his impression of the scene years after the war:

Near the summit of the County road on our left, the slaughter was fearful. Our batteries were posted at the top and the rebels made repeated attempts to retake the position by charging straight up the road in face of a storm of grape and canister. The next morning before our artillery could pass down the road it was necessary to pile out dead rebels like cordwood on the sides of the road.[5]



[1] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[2] Allen, 1887.

[3] Marsh

[4] Buell

[5] Pratt.

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A Panoramic View of the Grave of Oliver Case

On January 6, 2012, I was fortunate enough to be contacted through this blog by John Banks who is, in my humble opinion, a phenomenal teller of the personal stories of the individual Connecticut Civil War soldiers. While my immediate interest was directed toward only one of those great soldiers, John has uncovered the stories of dozens of these soldiers, many hidden away from the public for 150 years. He has gone hither and yon gathering in the pieces to form their stories for all of us to enjoy on his outstanding blog.

John also takes great photographs and has kindly shared a few of those with me. These are all from his recent visit to the Simsbury Cemetery.

case1

This is the grave of Oliver Cromwell Case, my Connecticut soldier of interest, at the Simsbury Cemetery in Connecticut. Click on the photo to view the interactive panorama shot.

case2

case3

Thanks John for some great photos to remember Oliver!

…so near, that bullets chipped the branches overhead.

 Fox gap rd and sharpsburg rd (Reno Monument rd) (2)

 The intersection of Fox Gap Road and Reno Monument Road (Old Sharpsburg Road). The 8th Connecticut moved toward Fox Gap just to the right of this location on September 14, 1862.

 

Sunday, September 14, 1862 dawned clear as the call of reveille awakened Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th CVI at daylight in their Middletown, Maryland camp site. The 8th along with the rest of McClellan’s Army had been almost constantly on the march since leaving Washington one week ago today. Today, there will be marching, but it will be different than the seven previous days. The troops rose from their slumber to the sounds of battle coming from the direction of South Mountain. The regiment hastily consumed a breakfast of “bush meal” which was likely a type of cornmeal mush possibly cooked up over the fires of the individual messes of the soldiers. Cornmeal mush was a porridge-like dish commonly served at breakfast in the nineteen century. However, soldiers in the Civil War often prepared it in situations where a day of marching or fighting was imminent. It was a filling dishing with some redeeming nutritional value that could be hasty prepared and consumed holding the troops hunger pangs at bay for a considerable period of time.

With their stomachs chockfull of bushmeal and coffee, the officers of the 8th Connecticut prepared their soldiers to move out for what would surely be a day of battle judging by the intensifying cannon and rifle fire resounding through the Middletown Valley. Before engaging in battle, another road march would be required to ascend the South Mountain heights in search of the so far elusive Confederates. Throughout the morning, a heavy concentration of Union troops was moving along the National Pike and it would be late morning before Harland’s Brigade and the rest of Rodman’s Division was able to take their place at the rear of the other IX Corps units. As the regiments began to file out onto the pike, the unit and national colors snapped in the wind as rain clouds moved in from across the South Mountain range. Many of the soldiers surely thought these gathering clouds to be an ominous sign of what this day would hold in store. The rain clouds will give way to a hazy sky, but the looming reverberations of battle will only intensify as the sun rising high in the sky.

Old National Pike looking to Fox Gap

Looking northwest up the Old National Pike (modern U.S. Alt 40) with Turner’s Gap on the right and Fox’s Gap on the left. Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut marched out of Middletown on this road on September 14, 1862.

By mid-day, the march had carried the soldiers for only about one mile past the Middletown limits when General Rodman’s Division was ordered to turn left onto the Old Sharpsburg Road. The route continued to move the units in a more westerly direction diverging from the National Pike and heading in the direction of Fox Gap. The march was sluggish with numerous halts as units bottled up along the way creating a frustrating situation for commanders and their troops alike. To the northeast, a desperate fight was underway for Turner’s Gap as well.

Kanawha Division commander Brigadier General Jacob Cox described the scene along the track 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.[1]

Harland’s Brigade moved off the Old Sharpsburg Road and onto the modern-day Fox Gap Road. At this point, Oliver and his comrades could not only hear the fighting, but now they could see a great cloud of smoke rising from the woods and fields. As they moved further to the northeast and across a small stream, glimpses through the “irregular hills…meadows and cultivated fields” began to reveal a pronounced struggle between the Union attackers and the Confederate defenders at the crest. The troops of Rodman’s Division were placed into battle formations and ordered to lie down as the melee for the crest continued.

The Union force engaged in the bulk of the action is the Kanawha Division commanded by Brigadier General Cox. They were the first Union infantry force to move into battle formations and up the slopes toward Fox Gap meeting the southern troops. By 9 o’clock in the morning, as Rodman’s Division is assembling for movement six miles away in Middletown, the lead regiments of the Kanawha Division are beginning to engage the Confederates on the near slope. The hottest part of the early action involves the 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment which includes among its members two future Presidents of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley.

Defending both Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap are the 5,000 troops of Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill. Hill’s division is spread over a two-mile front, but a good road traverses the summit connecting the two gaps (Fox and Turner) and providing the ability to shift troops to meet developing threats. Because his forces are scattered and vulnerable, Robert E. Lee knows that he must buy time to reunited Stonewall Jackson and the other units at Harper’s Ferry with the troops of James Longstreet in Hagerstown. Lee has assigned Hill the task of fighting a delaying action that will hold McClellan in check at the South Mountain passes for at least one day. The ever-cautious George McClellan and his subordinate commanders will oblige Lee even in the face of solid evidence that the Army of Northern Virginia was divided and susceptible to being exploited.

By late afternoon, the 8th Connecticut has moved into thick woods on the right of the Old Sharpsburg Road into a position supporting of a Union battery that is shelling the Confederate positions on the summit.[2] On multiple occasions throughout the afternoon, the regiment is ordered to their feet to prepare for battle only to receive a stand down command shortly thereafter. The IX Corps commander, Major General Jesse Reno, tries to manage the employment of units at the gap to gain an advantage on Hill’s thin line of troops and it appears at one point that Harland’s Brigade used in an attempt to conduct a flanking maneuver.

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.[3]

 Fox Gap Map

 Disposition of IX Corps units at Fox’s Gap, September 14, 1862

 

Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut come close enough to feel the bullets buzzing overhead and see the Confederate solid shot bounding through the fields and woods. But, this day, they will not directly engage the enemy. Burnside and Reno will not commit the reserve to fight at the gap. Throughout the day no engagement with the Confederates occurs for Harland’s Brigade. Silence settled over the area at around 9:00 pm and the 8th slept in their battle positions.[4]

The light of morning will begin a sight to horrible to imagine for the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut.

The fighting at Fox’s Gap has been intense and both Union and Confederate soldiers have fought doggedly. On numerous occasions during the battle, Confederates are forced to reposition units to support the defense of the gaps. However, at dark, the Confederates are still holding the line at the summit. However, the rebels cannot hold the positions against one more Union attack. General Lee orders the retreat of Hill’s forces because Crampton’s Gap further to the south 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.

The victory of sorts is extremely 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.

Reno and Cox

 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

 ENDNOTES:


 

[1] “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.

[2] Diary of Charles S. Buell, 8th Connecticut, as published at Antietam on the Web, http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=369

[3] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868.

[4] Letters of Wolcott P. Marsh (unpublished), accessed from The Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers at Antietam website, http://home.comcast.net/~8cv/8cv-frame.html