South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Captain James Bondurant and the Jeff Davis Artillery

Providing the only immediate artillery support to the Confederate defenders at Fox's Gap, Captain James Bondurant and his Alabamians of the Jeff Davis Artillery helped keep back the Union onslaught despite the Confederate defenders being stretched thin.

The Jeff Davis artillery was organized in Selma, Alabama in May 1861 under the command of Captain James T. Montgomery and was sent east where it was assigned to the brigade of Jubal Early at Manassas. James Bondurant would rise to command of the regiment following the resignation of Captain Montgomery and his election as the new Captain of the Battery.

Captain Bondurant
James William Bondurant was born in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1835. Shortly before the war, his family migrated to Alabama. When war broke out, he enlisted as a sergeant in Montgomery's JEff Davis Artillery. He would eventually rise to command of the battery and lead it through some of its most horrific fights. Bondurant would lead the battery in fighting at Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, and Gaines Mill suffering numerous dead and wounded.

Following the Confederate "victories" on the Peninsula, Bondurant's battery remained in Richmond with the division of Daniel Harvey Hill as the remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia moved north to deal with the Army of Virginia under John Pope. Pope was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Second Manassas/Bull Run setting the stage for the Confederate invasion of Maryland.

Bondurant moved with his battery northward to join up with the Confederate forces massing at Leesburg in preparation for the inevitable advance across the Potomac. The battery crossed the Potomac with the rest of D.H. Hill's artillery on September 4, 1862. The unit would enter Frederick on 6th and remain here until the 10th. On the 10th, the Confederates moved out of Frederick in an effort to capture the vital transportation hub of Hagerstown and to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry that was sitting just miles from the proposed supply and communication route for the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania. Attached to Samuel Garland's brigade of Hill's Division, Bondurant's battery went into camp near Beaver Creek outside Boonsboro, MD on the 13th to await developments. The wait would not be long. Word reached General Hill at Boonsboro, that Union infantry and cavalry were pushing back Confederate troopers holding Braddock's Gap on the National Pike. Hill ordered Alfred Colquitt's brigade to take up defensive positions at Turner's Gap and Garland's brigade to move in the direction of South Mountain in close support.

On the morning of the 14th, Hill was on a personal reconnaissance down what was called the Wood's Road by locals in the direction of Fox's Gap when he heard noises to his front. Believing this was the Union Army crossing the mountain, Hill quickly turned to go back to his Turner's Gap when he came under artillery fire. Bolster in his belief he was being outflanked, Hill returned to his headquarters at Turner's Gap to find Garland and Bondurant's battery coming up the mountain. He immediately ordered them to Fox's Gap and to hold at all cost. Arriving at Fox's Gap, Garland found that he noises were in fact the 5th Virginia Cavalry who were posted there by J.E.B. Stuart. Quickly, Garland deployed his line and Bondurant was deployed in a field to the south of the Daniel Wise Cabin with the support of the 90 men of the 12th North Carolina under Captain Shugan Snow.

Just before 9 A.M., the men of Bondurant's battery and Bondurant himself could vaguely see the movement of blue shadows in the woods to their immediate front. Bondurant's men and guns were fully exposed in the field where they were deployed and their only escape route was to their immediate rear along a mountain road leading back to Fox's Gap. After some time, several Union soldiers appeared in a valley that had allowed the Union men to advance uncomfortably close to the battery and Confederate infantry, who had their arms stacked believing that action was not soon at hand. Bondurant requested the skirmishers be sent out to ascertain what was going on in the woods to his front. The infantry commanders in immediate support of the battery refused to oblige Bondurant's request because orders had not come down from General Garland.

Rebuffed not once, but twice, Bondurant decided he was to meet coming Union attack himself. Almost immediately, a Union line appeared with in yards of the batteries right flank and began to quickly advance against the unsupported battery. A Union volley cut the silence and the Battle of South Mountain had begun. Amazingly, no men from Bondurant's battery fell during this initial volley. Garland, hearing the firing, quickly appeared and ordered the the infantry to advance to meet this line and ordered Bondurant to commence firing. Bondurant, with the situation in hand, ordered his battery to change front to the right to meet this Union threat. Unfortunately, his battery could only fire one gun at a time from this position and he ordered each gun to fire once then withdraw. Firing point-blank into the Union line throwing it into confusion. Each gun successfully got one round off before withdrawing to their waiting limbers and caissons in the road. Bondurant withdrew his battery all the way back to a position near the Daniel Wise cabin before re-deploying and opening up a steady barrage against the Union forces. Bondurant's men would hold this position for the better part of the morning and would witness the disintegration of General Garland's brigade and the removal of General Garland's limp body from the field.

Just before 11, a portion of General George B. Anderson's brigade, under Colonel C.C. Tew had arrived on the field and with the help on Bondurant's battery, they held back the Union assault and managed to maintain a slim foothold on Fox's Gap and the vital intersection.  During the course of the late morning action, a Union battery began raining shells down on Bondurant's position. To protect his men and guns, Bondurant was forced to move a section of his battery to the crest of Wise's North Field just east of the Woods Road. 

During the mid-day lull of the battlefield, Asa Cook's Massachusett's battery deployed a few hundred yards from the summit at Fox's Gap and opened fire on Confederate batteries to the right at Turner's Gap. Unknown to them, less then two hundred yards away, Captain Bondurant had his men quietly loading canister. After the Union battery fired a few rounds, Bondurant unleashed his guns on the surprised Union artillerymen. Fearing for their lives, some of the Union artillerist ran from their guns and others sought out cover wherever they could find any. Bondurant's battery had a devastating effect on the Union battery killing and wounding several men and horses. The batteries fire also stirred up a panic within the ranks of General Orlando Willcox's division that was deploying astride the Old Sharpsburg Road. Taken in the flank by the shell and canister of the Confederate, the infantrymen panicked before eventually sorting themselves out and seeking cover from the artillery fire.

This devastating fire from Bondurant's guns made them a target for Union commanders. Orders quickly came from General Jesse Reno, commanding the 9th Corps, to General Willcox to "silence the the enemy's battery at all cost." Just as the Union infantry began it's advance, Confederate infantry from General Thomas Drayton advanced out of the Old Sharpsburg Road and a bloody standoff ensued. During this savage fighting, the section of Bondurant's guns that had remained at the Daniel Wise Cabin withdrew and rejoined the section in Wise's North Field. The climactic moment of the battle for Fox's Gap had arrived.

From the North Field, Bondurant's battery continued supporting Drayton's infantry to the best of their ability. Bondurant's men, in position in the northwestern corner of Wise's North Field, rained shot and shell down on the Union infantry pressing Drayton's men. From their left, a new threat emerged from the woods in the form of the 17th Michigan Infantry that fell on the flank and rear of Drayton's brigade. Their primary mission was to silence Bondurant's guns but their advantage over the Confederate infantry quickly became the more relevant attack. Bondurant, seeing that the battle was out of control for the Confederates, unleashed canister on the Michigan men in a vain attempt to halt their advance but the tactic was to no avail. Bondurant was forced to withdraw from the battlefield and Drayton's men were left without artillery support. Fortunately for the Confederates, John Bell Hood's division arrived to shore up the sagging Confederate hold on Fox's Gap.

Bondurant pulled his men back down the mountain to the reserve trains to replenish their ammunition but upon arriving, they found that the armies artillery ammunition had been depleted drastically due to the severe fighting of the day. Bondurant ordered his men to get what they could and after doing so, they greatfully settled down for some much needed rest. The Jeff Davis Artillery had been in action for the better part of 10 hours on September 14th and amazingly, not a single man was lost despite the battery being in close proximity to the main battlelines. The battery would go on to fight and ,suffer heavily, at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the 1864 Overland Campaign, and the Siege of Petersburg. The battery would surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1862 only able to muster 1 officer and 26 men. 

1 comment:

  1. thanks for posting great info on the 17th Mich, and the pix. My great great grandfather Charles Rockenstyre was in Co. A. Just got out the magniying glass to see if he's among the vets!

    B. Bennett