South Mountain by Rick Reeve

South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bathed in Blood: Afternoon fight at Fox's Gap

View of the afternoon battlefield at Fox's Gap. Wise's North Field is in the
foreground, the Old Sharpsburg runs just behind the tree in center, Wise's
South Field is beyond the road. The Wise Cabin in the right of this picture.

After an all morning fight that saw one general killed and hundreds of young men killed and wounded, the fight at Fox's Gap died down as Confederate reinforcements under Colonel Charles Tew, in command of the 2nd and 4th North Carolina regiments, stabilized the Confederate battle lines with a spirited counterattack that halted the advance of the Kanawha Division under Major General Jacob Cox. With this lull, both sides rushed in reinforcements and planned their next move.

With the inconclusive fighting of the morning done, Confederate General D.H. Hill called a war council to discuss the Confederate plan of attack in the afternoon. With reinforcements from James Longstreet's Command arriving at the mountain in the early afternoon, Hill devised a plan to flank and possibly crush the Union 9th Corps that was assailing his right flank on the mountain. With four brigades and remnants of Samuel Garland's (primarily the 13th North Carolina), Hill's planned called for a massive left wheel up the western face of the mountain catching the Ohioans of Cox's division in the flank and forcing the Union men off the mountain and securing Fox's Gap for the Confederacy. The four brigades to be involved in this attack would be Brigadier General Roswell Ripley's (1st NC, 3rd NC, 4th GA, 44th GA), Brigadier General George B. Anderson's (2nd NC, 4th NC, 14th NC, 30th NC), Colonel George T. Anderson's ( 1st GA Regulars, 7th GA, 8th GA, 9th GA, 11th GA) and Brigadier General Thomas Drayton's (3rd SC Infantry Battalion, 15th SC, Philip's GA Legion, 50th GA, 51st GA). The movement begins just after Noon when Roswell Ripley's Brigade files onto the Wood Road for its march to Fox's Gap.

On the Union side of things, the positive news was that the Kanawha Division had turned the flank and routed Samuel Garland's Brigade, killing Garland in the process and sowing confusion in the Confederate ranks early in the fighting. Only the timely arrival of Tew with his North Carolinian's stemmed a Confederate rout at the gap. The Ohioans are holding the stonewalls and fields just behind the border of Daniel Wise's South Field in support of a section of the First Kentucky Artillery (the only Kentucky unit with the Army of the Potomac). Early in the afternoon, the rest of the 9th Corps begins to arrive on the battlefield. The division of Major General Orlando Willcox deploys to the east of the Kanawha Division's battle line facing west. Samuel Sturgis' division deployed to the right and behind Willcox to support his movement towards the gap. The division of Issac Rodman deployed near Turner's Gap and would see very little fighting on this day. Major General Jesse Reno ordered that an attack be launched at 4 PM to capture the gap and push on towards Turner's Gap possibly cutting off any chance of a Confederate retreat off the mountain. To support the assault, the Massachusetts's battery of Asa Cook is deployed behind Willcox's division and the already mentioned section of Kentucky artillery would also play a supporting role.

Ripley's Brigade arrives at Fox's Gap about the same time that Willcox's Division deploys to the east of the Confederate position. Ripley is in overall command of the attack and he orders a march by the right flank down the Old Sharpsburg Road then into the woods on the western side of the mountain. Ripley's Brigade would be the Confederate right flank, next in line is George B. Anderson's brigade, then George T. Anderson's brigade, then the brigade of Thomas Drayton. Drayton's brigade deploys at Fox's Gap itself with the 50th and 51st Georgia regiments deploying along the eastern edge of Wise's North Field covering the position of James Bondurant's Alabama battery in the Northwestern corner of the field. To the right of the 51st is the infantry battalion of Phillip's (GA) Legion whose line ,upon reaching the Old Sharpsburg Road, turned abruptly to the west following the road bed. The Phillips' Legion would be the pivot on which the entire Confederate attack would hinge. The 3rd South Carolina Infantry Battalion and the 15th South Carolina would round out the deployment of Drayton's Brigade in the road.

As Confederate forces went into position, Ripley believed there was not enough room for Drayton to deploy his brigade and ordered a move by the right flank to create room. In actuality, Drayton had plenty of room and this movement only opened up a 300 yard gap between Drayton's right flank and George T. Anderson's left. This movement would prove disastrous for the Confederate assault. Ripley would end up marching his brigade clear off the mountain, George B. Anderson would follow Ripley but he would realize his brigade was out of position and make an attempt to move back to the gap only to do some skirmishing. George T. Anderson would make an attempt to link back up with Drayton's brigade but it would prove to be to late. Drayton's brigade had become heavily engaged and Union troops had swarmed across the Old Sharpsburg Road blocking Anderson's way.

At about 3 PM, Drayton, in an attempt to ascertain what was in front of his brigade order a small contingent from Company F, 3rd South Carolina Battalion to reconnoiter into Wise's South Field to locate Union positions. The group only advanced as far as the southern boundary before reporting back that the only threat was from Cox's Ohioans holding in position behind several stonewalls. Unknown to these men and Drayton, if they would have moved to the east a little bit, they would have seen the advance elements of Willcox's Division as they prepared for their assault. But with the knowledge of the threat in front of him, Drayton shifted his brigade. He redeployed the 15th South Carolina, 3rd South Carolina Battalion, and the Phillips' Legion all into the Old Sharpsburg Road with the 51st and 50th Georgia regiments pulling out of their original positions and deploying as support for these three front line units. Drayton was planning an assault against the Union troops to his front. The three units in the road would advance out of the road across Wise's South Field and the Georgians of the 51st and 50th regiments would move into the road in preparation to follow up the gains of the initial attack.

When Drayton's attack began, there was very little in the way of musketry. The Ohioans waited for Drayton's men to get into pointblank range before unleashing a devastating volley. Within minutes of this initial firing, musketry from the East startled and caused the men of Philips' Legion to recoil from is effect. Willcox's Division had made its presence known. Immediately, the men of the Legion attempted to face this new threat. The two Georgia Regiments still in the road cover the withdrawal of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion and 15th South Carolina as they pull back to the Daniel Wise Farm. The 15th South Carolina takes up position behind a stonewall in Wise's rose garden and the 3rd South Carolina Battalion redeploys in the Ridge Road between two stonewalls that would in the end prove to be a trap. The Phillips' Legion is holding its own but casualties and the threat of being surrounded in Wise's South Field cause the regiment to rout and retreat back towards Turner's Gap.

The 50th and 51st Georgia are still firing to the South and Southeast not knowing that to the immediate left and rear, the 17th Michigan, in service for less than a month, was preparing to attack Bondurant's exposed artillery. In full dress uniform, the Michigan men charged across the North Field driving off Bondurant's battery and several skirmishers that were left to cover the battery. Immediately, the regiment, seeing the backs of Confederate infantry in the road, advance and from within 30 yards put down a devastating fire into the backs of the Georgians. Some of the Confederates attempt to answer this new threat but are immediately mowed down by musketry. With men falling left and right, the Georgians abandoned their position and retreat to the North and west, their only avenue of retreat still open. Covering the rout of the Georgians, the 15th and 3rd South Carolina men were suffering heavily, especially the men of the 3rd. The 15th South Carolina managed to get off the field in an organized manner seeing that it was on the Confederate right and was easily able to withdraw, which it did under increased pressure from the Ohioans of Cox's Division. All that remained of Drayton's brigade, the 3rd South Carolina Infantry Battalion, put up a gallant stand against Thomas Welsh's brigade as it advanced across the South Field, Cox's Division bore down from the South, and the 17th Michigan poured fired in from the North. Fighting on three sides, the small battalion remained in position with its commander, Lieutenant Colonel George S. James, refusing to order the retreat. This stand may have bought time for Confederate troops to retreat and for more to possibly come up but it was costly and futile. Lt. Colonel James would be mortally wounded, Major Rice (the second in command) would be severely wounded, and of the 150 men brought into the fight, only about 30 would escape unharmed. Drayton's Brigade for all intent and purposes no longer existed as a cohesive fighting unit.

With Drayton's Brigade routed, the path was open for the Sturgis' fresh division to leapfrog over Willcox and push on towards Turner's Gap. Only the timely arrival and counterattack by John Bell Hood's Division halted the Union advance and ended the fighting. It was during this final burst of musketry that Major General Jesse Reno was mortally wounded while investigating the scene of the afternoon's fighting. Firing had completely ceased by 10 P.M. and by midnight Confederate troops began to pull off the mountain.

When September 15th dawned, the scene was ghastly. Confederate dead and wounded littered the area around Fox's Gap and the Daniel Wise cabin. Burial crews went to work burying the dead, any wounded that survived the night were carried to field hospitals, and the men of the 9th Corps and other Union Corps were put on the line of march in pursuit of the Confederates. It was reported in the Old Sharpsburg Road where the men of the 50th and 51st Georgia was piled thick with the dead. One soldier even counted nearly 20 dead Confederates piled up in on corner of the intersection of the Ridge and Woods Roads coining the spot "dead man's corner". Another wrote in his diary describing the scene when Union artillery and supply wagon's moved in the road, the Confederate dead were not moved but instead trampled and run over by the hooves of the horses, wagon wheels, and even the feet of passing regiments. But possibly the most gruesome practice to come out of the aftermath was the burial of nearly 60 Confederates in the well of Daniel Wise after they had become drunk from the excessive liquor given to the burial details to deal with the stench of the dead. Wise protested and would end up being compensated one dollar for each body buried in his well. They would remain their for the next 15 years before they would be removed to the Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.

All in all, the fighting in the afternoon was far more bloody and desperate than the morning action. Drayton's Brigade would lose upwards of nearly 50% of its effectives, about 600 men out of a reported 1,200 engaged. Of his 5 regiments, the 50th Georgia suffered the most with nearly 80% of its men becoming casualties and Company F of this regiment, being the far left flank of the entire brigade, was nearly wiped out with less than 10 men ,out of 40 entering the fight, answering the roll call the next morning. Union casualties from this fight totaled roughly half of those suffered by the Confederates.

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