The morning of September 14, 1862 dawned crisp and cool. Unknown to either side, the men of Jacob Cox's Kanawha Division or Samuel Garland's Confederate brigade, they would be the spark that ignited the first major battle on northern soil during the American Civil War.
On the morning of the 14th, the Kanawha division of the IX Corps under the command of Brigadier General Jacob Cox is encamped near Middletown, Maryland after assisting Alfred Pleasonton's cavalry breakthrough at Braddock's Gap and advance to the base of South Mountain along the National Pike before being ordered back to Middletown. Cox's men awake to the sound of reveille early in the morning and many manage to prepare a quick breakfast before they are ordered onto the National Pike in preparation for their march on South Mountain. At 6 AM, Cox's men are underway. They are the support for a reconnaisance by Pleasonton's Cavalry against Turner's Gap, the main thouroughfare over the mountain. As he accompanies his lead brigade under Colonel Eliakim Scammon up the National Pike, he comes across Colonel Augustus Moor of the 36th Ohio, who had been captured in Frederick as the vanguard of the Union Army entered the city on September 12. Moor had been released on parole and was walking towards Frederick to await exchange. Cox is surprised by Moor's appearance and the two strike up a conversation. Cox tells Moor that he is advancing against the mountain, and Moor exclaims, " My God! Be Careful!". Knowing he had said to much, Moor quickly moves on towards Frederick but the warning is enough for General Cox, he orders up the brigade of Colonel George Crook and sends for reinforcements from the remainder of the IX Corps. Jacob Cox is preparing for a heavy fight.
Colonel Moor's warning to Cox dealt with the division of Major General Daniel Harvey Hill. Hill had been in position with his division around Boonsboro, Maryland watching the passes in the mountain, watching the roads to the south for any Union forces that may escape from Harpers Ferry, and protecting the armies reserve artillery and supplies. On the 13th, as Confederate Cavalry under the command of Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart are pushed back to South Mountain, Stuart requests that Hill send an infantry brigade to support his cavalry against what he believes is only some Union cavalry and infantry. Hill orders up two brigades under Brigadier General Samuel Garland and Colonel Alfred Colquitt. He also brings up the artillery battalion of Colonel Allen S. Cutt's. Colquitt was ordered down to the eastern base of the mountain. On the night of the 13th, Colquitt would move his men up and down the mountainside in an attempt to find the perfect position for defense. Cutt's Artillery was position in the fields opposite the Mountain House, D.H. Hill's headquarters, and pointed towards the Fox's Gap area. The Sumter Artillery under the command of Captain John Lane was detached from Cutt and ordered into position to support Colquitt, going into a position straddling the National Pike near the Mountain House that commanded the National Pike as it approached Turner's Gap. Garland's brigade would encamp at the western base of the mountain, within easy distance to support Colquitt if he comes under pressure from Union forces. Later that night, Hill is standing at Turner's Gap and he can see the numerous camp fires of the Union Army and he immediately knows he faces more than just a couple brigades of infantry and cavalry.
On the morning of the 14th, as Cox's men begin preparing for their march, General Hill is doing his own personal reconnaissance at Turner's gap. He moves with his staff down the Wood Road, an farm lane along the crest of the mountain connecting Turner's and Fox's Gap. After he goes about 3/4 of a mile down the Wood Road, he hears wagon wheels, orders being shouted, and and hoof beats. As Hill continues along the road, a shell explodes nearby and Hill quickly retreats to the Mountain House with his staff. Upon arriving at his Headquarters, Garland's brigade is arriving and Hill immediately orders Garland to move down the Wood Road and retake Fox's Gap. Garland moves his brigade as quickly as possible towards Fox's Gap. Hill also ordered the battery of Captain James Bondurant to support Garland. Garland arrives at the gap roughly between 8 and 8:30 that morning and finds the 5th Virginia Cavalry, Thomas Rosser commanding, and John Pelham's battery of Horse Artillery. General Stuart had not reported to Hill about the placement of cavalry at the gap and fortunately for the Confederates, a friendly fire situation was avoided. Garland deploys his brigade in the fields of the Daniel Wise Farm. He post the 5th Virginia and Pelham's artillery to cover his extreme right. He placed the 5th North Carolina as his right flanks and at intervals he placed the 12th North Carolina, in support of Bondurant's battery, the 23rd North Carolina, 20th North Carolina, and he placed the 13th North Carolina on his left, resting his line along the Old Sharpsburg Road. Garland was in position and waiting the Union advance.
The division of Jacob Cox has been marching since 6 AM and as it reaches the small hamlet of Bolivar, Confederate Artillery from Turner's Gap begins firing upon the column. Cox's moves his division to the left up the Old Sharpsburg Road in an attempt to outflank Turner's Gap. His division, with Eliakim Scammon in the lead, is now on a direct route towards Fox's Gap. As he nears the gap, Cutt's battalion of Confederate artillery opens upon the column and again Cox is forced to move his division again to the left. He pushes Scammon's brigade a mountain trail called the Loop Road. The 23rd Ohio, Lieutenant Rutherford B. Hayes commanding, is in the lead with, in order respectfully, the 12th Ohio, and 30th Ohio.
Scammon moves his brigade up the steep incline for about a mile when he orders them into battlelines. He orders his regiments to through out skirmishers and prepare for an advance. Captain James Bondurant notices the Union forces and requests that the 5th and 12th North Carolina to put out a skirmish line to support his battery. The 12th, number barely 100 men, refuses to do so but the 5th, under Colonel Duncan McRae, does deploy skirmishers. The skirmish lines of the 23rd Ohio and 5th North Carolina collide at about 9 AM and the Battle of South Mountain is under way.
McRae moves his regiment to support his skirmishers but as the 23rd Ohio is advancing, the weight of Union numbers begins to push the North Carolinians back. Many of the men in the 5th North Carolina were new recruits and with this being their first taste of battle, many begin to flee. McRae seeing these recruits fleeing pulls his regiment back to its original position. This opens up the front of Bondurant's battery to the fire of the 23rd Ohio and Hayes orders his men to fix bayonets and charge. With minie ball's filling the air, Bondurant orders each one his guns to fire one round and retreat by prolong to the Ridge Road. This move is done successfully and Bondurant gets his guns safely to a position near the Daniel Wise farmhouse. The 12th North Carolina, Captain Shugan Snow commanding, moves to support the McRae and the two regiments manage to hold against the successive attacks of the 23rd Ohio. During one of these assaults, Rutherford B. Hayes is wounded rather severly in the left arm. He would remain in command of his regiment until loss of blood causes him to faint.
To the left of this intense firefight, the 12th Ohio, Colonel Carr B. White commanding, begins its attack against Colonel Daniel H. Christie's 23rd North Carolina. Christie had advanced his regiment forward out of the ridge road to take up a position along a stonewall in his front. White formed his regiment in line of battle and immediately advanced against the 23rd. The fire from the Confederates stalled the Union advance. The last regiment of Scammon's brigade, Colonel Hugh Ewing's 30th Ohio, deployed on the right near the Old Sharpsburg Road and opposed the 13th North Carolina, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ruffin, Jr. By 10 O'Clock the fighting at Fox's Gap is well under way and the Union assault has been stalled by Garland's brigade.
General Garland is confident that his right will hold off the heavy Union attacks and he moves to his embattled left where the 13th North Carolina is beginning to waver. As Garland arrives, Lt. Colonel Ruffin tells Garland that this is no place for him to be. Ruffin rememebers telling Garland that, "It is my duty to be here with my regiment, but you could better superintend your brigade from a safer position." Just that moment, a minie ball slams into Ruffins hip and he requests that Garland find a suitable commander for his regiment. Garland turns to give the order when he two his struck by a minie ball. He falls mortally wounded and he is taken to the Mountain House where he would succumb to his wounds later that day. Command of the brigade falls to Colonel Duncan McRae, but he would not be able to get a handle on this situation.
At this point, Cox orders in brigade of George Crook. He moves the 23rd Ohio, now under the command of Major James Comly, towards the left flank of the 12th Ohio. The 11th Ohio of Crook's Brigade, commanded by Lt. Colonel Augustus Coleman, is ordered to the left of the 23rd Ohio. The 11th attacks the faltering 5th Virginia and the 5th North Carolina breaking the Confederate line by 10:30 that morning.
The 36th Ohio, under Lieutenant Melvin Clarke, is ordered to close the gap between the 12th Ohio and the 30th Ohio. At the same time, a section of Union artillery under Lieutenant George Crome is ordered into position on the right of the 36th and it opens fire upon the 20th North Carolina under Colonel Alfred Iverson. Iverson hand picks several sharpshooters who take up a position to the right of Crome's guns. They systematically pick off the Union artilleryman to the point where Crome must help service his guns. While in the act of loading, Crome his mortally wounded and his artilleryman flee from their guns leaving them open for the taking. The sharpshooters attempt to capture the guns, but the fire from the 30th and 36th Ohio is to much for them to bear and the guns are never captured.
It was at this point in the fighting that the 23rd and 12th Ohio charged into the 23rd North Carolina shattering the regiment and forcing it to flee in confusion. After this was accomplished, they turn their attention to Iverson's 20th North Carolina who is pinned down by fired from the 36th Ohio. Iverson's men stood their ground defiantely before they two were routed. It was at this point that a Private Frederick Foard remembered:
" As I pulled my trigger with careful aim throwing a musket ball and three buck shot into them at not more than twenty yards distant I could see dimly through the dense sulphurous battle smoke and the line from Shakespeare’s Tempest flitted across my brain: Hell is empty and all the devils are here"
All that was standing now between the the Ohioan's and Fox's Gap was the regiment of Thomas Ruffin. Colonel Ruffin had managed to retain command of his regiment. By this time, the 30th, 36th, and 12th Ohio had converged against Ruffin's small regiment and were threating to cut them off from Confederate reinforcements that were arriving. Ruffin, with the support of his subordinates, orders three successive charges agains the three Unio regiments. Amazingly, these charges prove to be successful and Ruffin's men safely escape the trap they were in.
The 13th links up with a portion of Brigadier General George B. Anderson's brigade, the 2nd and 4th North Carolina under the command of Colonel C.C. Tew, as they come up the Wood Road. By 11, Cox's men are in possession of the gap and advancing along the ridgeline towards Turner's Gap. The combined force under Tew counterattacks towards Cox's men halting their advance and even making Cox believe that a large Confederate force has arrived in front of him. The Ohioan's repulse the attack but Cox pulles them back to Wise's South Field to await reinforcements from the remainder of the IX Corps. By 12, the fighting at Fox's Gap has died down and a lull occurs as both sides rush reinforcements to the gap.
The morning action at Fox's gap is remembered by some of the men who took part in it as some of the most severe and savage combat of the entire war. One Confederate rememebers that it was the only time during his service, that he witnessed a man bayoneted by the enemy. The confusion that was caused by the terrain and smoke created by the musket and artillery fired added an even more terrifying aspect to the fighting that took place that morning. Union losses in this early morning fight number roughly 100 killed, over 300 wounded, and 86 missing. Confederate losses were General Garland killed and no more than half his brigade killed, wounded, or missing out of 1,000 men who initially went into the battle. The afternoon phase of the fight would prove to be just as savage and even more blood would be spilled..