On September 14, 1862, Robert E. Lee's opportunistic first invasion of the North was turned back at the gaps of South Mountain near Boonsboro, Maryland. The fighting was desperate and for the numbers engaged rather bloody. It has become just a footnote in history, but it was here that the Confederacy reached it's high tide.
South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland
Saturday, February 5, 2011
They called them the "Stonewall Regiment"
Veterans of the 17th Michigan
The regiment had just been organized in Detroit, Michigan and arrived in Washington and were immediately attached to the brigade of Colonel Benjamin Christ in the First Division of the 9th Corps and ordered to march into western Maryland to drive out the rebel invader. Numbering nearly 1,000 men when the regiment arrived in Washington, little did they know that less than two weeks later, over half their number would become casualties.
Organized throughtout the summer of 1862, the different companies that would make up the regiment would be mustered into service throughout the month of August. It's commander would be Colonel William W. Withington, who would awarded the Medal of Honor in 1895 for actions performed during the Battle of First Bull Run. Withington's regiment would consist for Michigan men from Kalamazoo, Detroit, Battle Creek, Flint, and most of men enlisting in Company E would be from what is today Eastern Michigan University. Once the regiment was gathered at Detroit, it would be shipped to Washington on August 27, 1862. Arriving in Washington near the beginning of September, the regiment was assigned to Orlando Willcox's Division of the 9th Corps. The 17th Michigan, along with the rest of the 9th Corps, moved out of Washington on September 4th in search of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia that is reportedly marching into Maryland.
The regiment arrived in Frederick on September 12 and pushed on toward Middletown, bivouacing about a mile outside of town on the night of the 13th. On the morning of the 14th, the 17th Michigan marched through Middletown and was deployed to advance on Turner's Gap, but due to the nature of the fighting at Fox's Gap, Withington was ordered to countermarch his regiment back up the National Pike and onto the Old Sharpsburg Road and to deploy on the right of the road in support of Asa M. Cook's battery that was going into position. As Cook's guns deployed and the 17th came up, James Bondurant's Confederate battery opened up on the mass of blue clad men, demoralizing and chasing the Union artilleryman from their guns. The men from Michigan, however, remained holding their position despite being under a severe artillery fire.
Last Muster of the 17th Michigan
Not long after going into position, the men heard the sharp rattle of musketry off to the left-front. The Confederates had come out and were attacking. Orders were issued for the regiment to advance across the open field in their front, silence the Confederate artillery, and take the rebel line in the flank. The guns they were to assault were supported by a small contingent of Confederate infantry. At about 4 o'clock, the regiment is ordered to advance, with the 45th Pennsylvania supporting the regiment on the left. Immediately, the Confederate infantry men and Bondurant's battery unleash a devastating fire on the Michigan men, wiping holes in the lines of the "rookie" regiment. But, with the coolness of veterans, they pushed on. They captured the stonewall behind which the Confederate infantryman were taking cover. George C. Gordon of the 24th Michigan, recalled a story from a friend in the 17th that when the Confederates would peek over the wall to take aim, the bullet from the guns of the 17th would immediately strike the man in the head, killing him. This incredible fire shows the furosity of the assault by the 17th was.
With no infantry support, Bondurant's battery is forced from its position and Colonel Withington, seeing that his regiment had managed to position itself behind the Confederate positions in the Old Sharpsburg Road, He orders his regiment to left wheel. The Confederates in the road are surprised to see the Union battleline advancing on their rear, many attempt to turn and fire. When the regiment is aligned, Colonel Withington gives the order to advance at charged bayonets. The bloodsoaked regiment advances to within 30 yards of the roadbed when the order to halt is given and a devastating volley is unleashed on the Confederates in the road bed. With each successive volley, the rebel line wavers before it is completely routed. What was a stand-up slugfest turns into rout with the Confederates in the road bed becoming easy targets for the Michiganders.
By 5 o'clock, the fight is practically over. The 17th Michigan men had accomplished their given assignment of silencing the Confederate battery that was raining a steady does of shot and shell into the Union masses. The regiment than took advantage of their newly won position and attacked the Confederates who were savagely defending the Old Sharpsburg Road. After a brief firefight around dusk, the 17th Michigan was relieved by unit from Samuel Sturgis' division and the regiment was moved down the mountain for rest. The first fight for this regiment were a costly one, losing 27 men killed and 114 wounded of less than 500 actually engaged..
It was a heavy price to pay, but the regiment caught the attention of those units who witnessed it's fight. In their first combat, the regiment performed as if they were veterans. Reports of the regiments actions reached General Ambrose Burnside during the weeks that followed and during President Lincoln's visit to the army in October, according to recollections, the President visited the regiment and christened the regiment with the "Stonewall Regiment" nickname. The name stuck and for the rest of the war, the regiment was known as such. The regiment would go onto fight in some of the most severe engagements of the war at Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Siege of Vicksburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox.