(VI Corps assault at Crampton's Gap, Harpers Weekly)
Monday, August 16, 2010
Crampton's Gap: Twilight Assault
(VI Corps assault at Crampton's Gap, Harpers Weekly)
In the late afternoon and early evening of the 14th of September, Major General William B. Franklin's massive VI Corps, numbering roughly 12,000 men made the attack that would prove to be the tipping point in Lee's invasion of Maryland. Opposing him was a ragtag Confederate force of infanry, cavalry, and artillery that numbered at the most 2,000 men but unfortunately for the Confederates, these men were not all present at the gap at any given moment.
In the early morning hours of the 14th, with orders in hand from the Army of the Potomac's commander George B. McClellan, the VI Corps under the command of Major General William B. Franklin breaks camp about 3 miles east of Jefferson, Maryland and begins the march towards Burkittsville, Maryland at the base of South Mountain. The orders in Franklin's possession call for him to lead his corps against Crampton's Gap with the goal of capturing it, advancing on Rohrersville, and advancing into the rear of Confederate General's Lafeyette McLaws division on Maryland Heights lifting the siege situation at Harpers Ferry.
Franklin's Corps numbers about 13,000 men of all arms and it is divided into two divisions under Major General's Henry Slocum and William F. Smith and a third division under Major General Darius Couch that has been attached. The division's of Slocum and Smith arrive in Jefferson about mid-morning and Franklin orders a halt to allow Couch's division a chance to catch up with the rest of the corps. After a waiting a couple hours, Franklin recieves word the Couch is to far to the rear to hold up the march any longer so he orders the corps to advance on Burkittsville where they'll arrive around noon. Once the VI Corps reaches Burkittsville, Franklin allows his men to have lunch while he confers with his division and brigade commanders about the plan for the assault.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain, a small Confederate brigade under Brigadier General Paul Semmes was in position at Brownsville Pass about a mile south of Crampton's Gap. It was here the Semmes believed the main effort to relieve Harpers Ferry would be attempted and with this think he placed his brigade here along with Light Battery A, 1st North Carolina Artillery under Captain Basil Manley, the Richmond Fayette Artillery under Lieutenant William Clopton, and the Magruder Light Artillery under Captain Thomas Page, Jr. Semme's artillery support consisted of 8 pieces. Semme's posted the 10th Georgia Infantry on the Rohrersville Road as a picket and on the 13th, the brigade of Colonel William Parham was ordered by General McLaws to report to Semmes. Upon arriving, Semmes order Parham, along with his artillery support, to Crampton's Gap to support the cavalry brigade of Colonel Thomas Munford and Captain Roger Chews battery of Horse Artillery. To finish out the Confederate forces that would participate in the defense of Crampton's Gap, McLaws ordered the brigade of Howell Cobb to encamp on the western base of South Mountain to support Semmes and Munford if called upon.
At Crampton's Gap, Colonel Thomas Munford was in command of the 2nd and 12th Virginia Cavalry, two extremely undersized cavalry regiments and the battery of Captain Roger Chew's Horse Artillery. Munford had set up pickets along the road leading from Jefferson, Maryland and has the VI Corps advanced, Union Cavalry pushed Munford's pickets back to Burkittsville and eventually Munford pulled his men, numbering 200 at the most, back to a stonewall along the Mountain Church Road at the base of South Mountain to face the coming Union attack. Chew's horse artillery and the artillery posted at Brownsville Pass fired upon the Union forces as they began to move out of Burkittsville. The arrival of Parham's brigade, the 6th, 12th, and 16th Virginia and the Portsmouth Artillery helped raise the Confederate number to 800 along the stonewall but it was still woefully to few to combat an entire corps of Union infantry. Munford sends out couriers to Semmes and Cobb calling for their assistance.
In Burkittsville, Franklin's men are under the fire from Brownsville Pass and this fire causes Franklin to believe that the mountain is heavily fortified by the Confederates. With the elevation of the mountain, the use of artillery against the gap is futile and he resorts to a head-on infantry assault. He plans to use the division of Henry Slocum as the spearhead for the assault while the division of William F. Smith will be in support. Slocum is uncertain about how to go about the assault so he calls upon one of his brigade commanders, Colonel Joseph Bartlett, to devise the plan of attack. Bartlett becomes frustrated with his superiors because of their lack of initiative in planning the attack but, Bartlett is given the final decision on the attack plan. His plan calls for Slocum's division to attack up the right side of the Burkittsville Road leading to the mountain with the divisions three brigades aligned one behind the other. In the front will be his own brigade consisting of the 5th Maine, the 16th, 27th, and 121st New York, and the 96th Pennsylvania regiments, in the second line will be Brigadier General John Newton's brigade (the 18th, 31st, and 32nd New York regiments and the 95th Pennsylvania. In the final line will be the New Jersey Brigade under Colonel Alfred Torbert. To support the assault, Captain Emory Upton's First Division artillery would bombard the Confederate positions along the base of the mountain.
Bartlett's assault kicked off at about 4 o'clock and almost immediately it came under fire from Confederate artillery on the mountain and the Confederates behind the stonewall. Bartlett's brigade's advanced ground to a halt about 300 yards away from the stonewall and the contest just turned into a slugfest between the opposing lines. The brigades of Newton and Torbert were moved to Bartlett's left and right flanks respectively allowing for more firepower to come to bear upon the Confederates. Munford, seeing his men falling all around him, again sent couriers to Semmes and Cobb requesting support. Once General Cobb recieved the Munford's request, he immediately put his brigade ( 16th and 24th Georgia, Cobb's Legion, 15th North Carolina, and Troup (Georgia) Artillery) on the road to Crampton's Gap, about 2 miles from his encampment in Pleasant Valley. The deployment of the two remaining brigades into the front line began to put more and more pressure on Munfords weakening line. The brigade of Colonel Parham began to falter under the Union pressure. Cobb's brigade arrived at the gap a little after 5 o'clock and many of the men let out the high pitch Rebel Yell. Cobb reported to Colonel Munford who informed of him the situation and promptly pulled his cavalry out of the fight. The situation as Cobb arrived was one of extreme peril. The Confederate line had halted the advance of the Union center but, the deployment of Newton's and Torbert's brigades extended the Union flanks and allowed the Confederate flanks to be overlapped. Immediately, Cobb ordered the Cobb Legion and 16th Georgia down the Burkittsville road to support the faltering Confederate Right. He send the 24th Georgia straight down the mountain side to support the center and put the 15th North Carolina into position along the Arnoldstown Road towards the Confederate left. With the arrival of Cobb's men, it seemed the Confederates could hold the gap until nightfall but, Bartlett had different plans for the attack.
At the base of the mountain, Bartlett heard the terrifying sound of the Rebel Yell over the musketry and knew that Confederate reinforcements had arrived at the gap and the issue needed to be pressed at once. He ordered his brigade to fix bayonets and charge the stonewall. With a loud, prolonged shout, as one Union private remembers, Bartlett's brigade rushed forward to the stonewall and instantly, the Confederate line disintegrated. Parham's Brigade broke and retreated back up the mountain. Bartlett's men, along with the Newton's and Torbert's, pushed up the mountain side.
The Cobb Legion under the command of Lieutenant Jefferson M. Lamar, with the 16th Georgia in support, advanced down the mountain side and came upon the men of Parham retreating up the mountainside. Lamar immediately saw Union troops in pursuit and cried to his men to follow him in a counterattack against them. Lamar charged his horse forward and promptly found the maneuver had been foolish and the steep grade of the hillside caused rider and horse to fall to the ground. Lamar, unphased, leapt to his feet and continued leading his men. He put his men into position on the flank of the Union attacking column and unleashed volley after volley into their ranks. Unknown to him, Torbert's brigade had collapsed the Confederate left and was advancing up the Burkittsville Road, right into the right flank and rear of the Cobb Legion. Out of nowhere, the New Jersey Brigage unleashes a volley into the Legion's flank. Lamar knows that he is in a situation that his men cannot stand long against but he must hold because if he retreats, the only way out is through the ranks of the 16th Georgia on his left. A movement back up the mountain would cause further panic and the Confederates would not be able to hold the gap. Lamar is shot in the leg, a severe painful wound, but he refuses the pleas from his subordinates that they should withdraw. Eventually, Lamar agrees to a withdrawal but only on the condition if he could be help to his feet so he could give the order. His staff helps him but just as he's giving the order, he is mortally wounded in the chest. His men gather around him and begin to retreat back up the mountainside taking with the the 16th Georgia. The Confederate grip on the gap is faltering.
Back up at the Gap, Cobb has placed the Troup Artillery in the gap itself with one gun pointed down the Arnoldstown Road and the other down the Burkittsville Road. Also, the 24th Georgia that had advanced straight down the mountainside and run into the same Confederates retreating up the mountain has the Cobb legion. The Georgians retreated in an orderly manner back up the mountain and took up position along the Burkittsville Road. With the 15th North Carolina along the Arnoldstown Road, the Confederates had created a crossfire zone that Union troops would be advancing through. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the New Jersey Brigade, having just routed the Cobb Legion, continued advancing up the Burkittsville Road. They slam into the right flank of the Georgians causing them to panic and break. The 15th North Carolina withdrawals also back to a line forming in a field directly behind the Arnoldstown Road.
With the Confedrates streaming down the mountian, Cobb is frantically attempting to rally what men he can as the Troup Artillery pours double and triple canister into the oncoming Union forces, now nothing but a disorganized mob. Cobb manages to pull together a line but the weight of the Union attack proves to much and it too his routed and pushed down the mountain side. The Troup Artillery retreats frantically down the Burkittsville road into Pleasant Valley but one of their axles on a gun carriage snaps and they are forced to leave it to Union infantry who are right behind them.
By 6:30, the battle is over. Franklin's Corps has captured Crampton's Gap but this only completes a part of McClellan's orders. Franklin was to advanced to Rohrersville cutting off McLaws from Longstreet and Lee in Boonsboro and essentially relieving the siege at Harper's Ferry. Franklin orders his men to go into bivouac at the gap. McLaws recieving word that the gap has fallen, throws up a defensive line across Pleasant Valley awaiting Franklin's attack. It would never come. The next day, Franklin throws out a strong skirmish line to oppose McLaws and Harper's Ferry falls as a result of Franklin not pushing the issue to completion. When Lee recieved word the Confederates had lost the gap, he becomes depressed and sends out orders to his commanders in Maryland to retreat back into Virginia as quickly as possible. In effect, he has ended the Maryland Campaign. Only a messenger from Stonewall Jackson later on the night of the 14th informing Lee that Harpers Ferry will fall does he regain his composure and issue orders for his army to concentrate along the Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Three days later, Lee and McClellan would fight the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War.
The losses at Crampton's Gap were not as heavy as at the two northern gaps near Boonsboro, Maryland but the fight was more decisive. Franklin's VI Corps lost 530 men in the attack up the slopes. The Confederates losses are uncertain but it is estimated their loss totaled 873 men.