South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fighting Colonels: Fox's Gap afternoon phase

Following the horrific fighting on the morning of September 14 at Fox's Gap, the sounds of battle die away and a lull begins on the battlefield. The Confederate's managed to retain a foothold at the gap after Jacob Cox's Kanawha division managed to, for a brief time, capture the gap. Following a determined Confederate counter-attack, Cox pulled his men back to the stonewalls that are a dominant feature in Daniel Wise's South Field to await reinforcements from the Union 9th Corps that was rushing to the gap. On the Confederate side, the 2nd and 4th North Carolina, along with remnants of the 13th North Carolina await reinforcement coming in the form of 4 brigades under Roswell Ripley, Thomas Drayton, George T. Anderson, and the remainder of George B. Anderson's. Within the next several hours, both Union and Confederate, would experience some of the most intense fighting of the entire war. Two regiments, the 3rd South Carolina Infantry Battalion and the 17th Michigan would each stand out and suffer in the ensuing conflict as well as their commanding officers.

Lt. Colonel George Strother James, commanding 3rd South Carolina Infantry Battalion: By firing one of the most important shots in American History, Lt. Colonel James cemented his place in history as the one who ordered the first shot fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Flash forward a year and a half later, he is now in command of the 3rd South Carolina Infantry Battalion on it's march North across the Potomac into Maryland. As part of Thomas Drayton's brigade, James found his South Carolinian's near Hagerstown on September 14, 1862. After General Longstreet recieved reports of heavy fighting at South Mountain, he issues orders for a forced march to assist those Confederates at the mountain passes. As Drayton's brigade reached the crest of the mountain on the National Road, it was ordered to Fox's Gap and would take part in a Confederate attack that would push Union forces off the mountain. Drayton's brigade would be the hinge on which this attack would swing. James went into battleline along the Old Sharpsburg Road in the gap itself with the 15th South Carolina Infantry to his right and the Phillips (GA) Legion to his left. Going into this fight he would take just over 150 men, many of them would not see the next morning.
Drayton deployed skirmishes as he deployed his brigade. Drayton also ordered James to send a company on a reconnaisance into Wise's South Field to get a better handle on the situation. James selected Company F, under Captain D.B. Miller, to conduct the scouting mission. Miller moved his men through the field and came upon a large body of Union troops in their immediate front. Miller rushed back to report to both James and Drayton. Seeing that the immediate threat was to his front, Drayton orders his three lead regiments to attack. The Phillip's Legion, 3rd S.C. Infantry Battalion, and 15th South Carolina advance into the south field. Just as the advance begins, James' South Carolinians come under fire from the Ohioan's of Cox's division. As this firefight builds, Union forces from Thomas Welsh's Brigade attack into the flank of the attacking column forcing the Phillip's Legion to turn and face this threat leaving the flank of James' Battalion exposed as James continue to advance towards the Ohioan's. Eventually, the fire from the front and left at to much for the battalion to bear and James pulls them back into the Ridge Road to cover the retreat of the Phillip's Legion.
In this new line, the 15th South Carolina and James' Battalion make an 'L' around the Daniel Wise cabin with the 15th facing South and the battalion facing East. This position proved to be untenable and the casualties began to pile up. James refused to retreat despite repeated pleas from his second in command, Major William Rice. James held this line until nightfall when darkness caused the fighting to die down. His battalion had been decimated in the fight to the point where it was no longer an effective fighting unit. In one of the last volley's of the battle, James was struck in the chest and mortally wounded. He remained in command until he could no longer do so and finally order the retreat, which was executed by Major Rice, who was also severely wounded. Of the 160 who went into the fight, less than 30 would escaped. Lt. Colonel James would be left behind by his men and he would die early on the morning of the 15th and buried alongside his men. In the 1870's, an effort to collect the Confederate dead from the Maryland Campaign began. Lt.Colonel James was one of the bodies recovered and he is buried with the thousands of unknowns in the Washington Confederate Cemetery in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown.

Colonel William H. Withington, commanding 17th Michigan Infantry: One of the many Union soldiers captured following the debacle following the First Battle of Bull Run, William Withington, then a captain in the 1st Michigan, was held in a Rebel prison camp until January 1862 when he was finally exchanged. Withington was sent back to Michigan to recruit more men for the war and upon raising the 17th Michigan, he was appointed its Colonel. The 17th Michigan would train at Fort Wayne until late August 1862 when it was sent east to reinforce George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac and assist in pushing the Confederate army out of Maryland. The regiment would be assigned to the brigade of Colonel Benjamin Christ in the 1st Division, 9th Army Corps. The first battle this regiment would participate in would be at South Mountain. In the afternoon of the 14th, the 17th was deployed on the right of the Old Sharpsburg Road facing west across Wise's North Field. In front of them were the men of 50th and 51st Georgia of Drayton's Brigade and the Jeff Davis Artillery of Captain James Bondurant. Just before the Union attack was to commence, the Confederates themselves attack. The Georgian's were pulled out of their position and moved into the road uncovering Bondurant's battery. With orders to advance, Withington pushed his men forward against Bondurant's battery and into the left flank of Drayton's Georgians in the Old Sharpsburg Road. The attack surprised Drayton's men and with the advance of Union units on their left, the 17th Michigan got behind the Georgians trapping them in a 3-sided kill zone. The Georgian's returned fire the best they could but it was suicide to attempt to stand. The Michigan men had precipitated a Confederate rout. The regiment killed and wounded dozens of Confederate troops while capturing many more. The loss for the regiment in this fight was 27 killed and 114 wounded out of 500 who were taken into the fight. The regiment earned the "Stonewall Regiment" nickname following its capture and rout of those Confederates behind the stonewall in Wise's North Field despite the regiment recieving less than a months worth of training. Colonel Withington was breveted a Brigadier General for his leadership at South Mountain. He would be either mustered out or he resigned in early 1863. Following the war, he would serve several terms in the Michigan Legislature as both a representative and senator. He would recieve the Medal of Honor in the 1890's for his actions in tending and remaining with his superior officer, Colonel Orlando Willcox, after Willcox was wounded and the two came under heavy fire at the Battle of First Bull Run. He would pass away in 1903 at the age of 68.

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