Battle of South Mountain: September 14th, 1862

The Battle of South Mountain is obscured and ignored by history, so much so that it’s difficult to write about it.  The reason to bring it up in discussion of the Iron Brigade is that they earned their permanent moniker during the battle.  While that happened, men fought there, died there.  No small skirmish — large portions of both the Union and Confederate armies engaged throughout the day of September 14th in and around the three mountain passes named Fox’s, Crampton’s and Turner’s gap – the battle claimed over 2300 Union and 2600 Confederate casualties.

Unlike Brawner’s Farm, Antietam, or Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade’s battlefield at Turner’s Gap – the portion of South Mountain where they fought — is largely inaccessible today.  Well, that isn’t entirely true.  Many people “visit” the sight of the fighting every day as they drive through the area on highway U.S. 40.  The other locations of the battlefield are more accessible, and there are even a few monuments, such as one to General Reno, if you know where to look (or if you get lost  while driving a rental car on tiny mountain back roads.  That’s how I found it).  I don’t even have any photos of Turner’s Gap, as the farm houses, stone fences and fields of the 19th century are now simply four lanes of asphalt going over a summit.

Particulars of the battle are well covered by a recently released title, “The Battle of South Mountain”, by John David Hoptak.  It’s one of the few, if not the only, book to deal exclusively with the battle.  The fighting at the three passes: Fox’s, Crampton’s and Turner’s Gaps, is well covered, with hand-drawn maps of the action, as well as photos of participants and reproductions of battle field sketches.  It’s a very well done overall account.  The account of the Iron Brigade’s fight is covered, but no particular emphasis put on it, other than to say that they were put up against formidable odds, and fought mostly, once again, after the sun had set.

For more specifics on the unit at South Mountain, there are any number of sources, but for this instance I’m turning to Alan T. Nolan’s “The Iron Brigade”.  First printed in 1961, this book is considered by many to still be the definitive account of the unit during the war.  The chapter on South Mountain goes into great detail as to how the units were deployed, the difficulties of advancing up a mountain against an enemy hiding in woods, behind stone fences, houses, and boulders, and how heavy of a toll the casualties were, once again.  Fighting was so hot and heavy that nearly all of the soldiers ran low on ammunition, if not completely out, and units of the Sixth Wisconsin suffered from rifles so hot and so clogged with powder residue that they could no longer load their weapons.  It was during this fighting within sight of the Union commanding general McClellan, where the unit refused to give any ground despite these circumstances, that McClellan reportedly said “Those me must be made of iron”.

Did McClellan really say that?  Who knows.  And, as many people say about good historical stories: who cares?  Perhaps the true origin of the name is lost to history, as many things are, but what is known is that shortly after South Mountain and Antietam, members of the brigade started mentioning in letters home that McClellan had named them “The Iron Brigade”, and references to the unit as such also began to appear in the press, all of which Nolan discusses in the footnotes of his book.  Regardless of where the name had come from, they had earned it, and would continue to do so.

Union forces prevailed and seized South Mountain on September 14th, 1862, and opened the way for the rest of the army to move forward and take up position outside of Sharpsburg, on Antietam creek.  The fight there would make all that had come before in the history of the country pale in comparison.

This is of course in retrospect.  The men on both sides at South Mountain had no idea when the guns sounded that morning if they were in for a skirmish, or a battle that could potentially end the war.  Members of the Iron Brigade killed at South Mountain were just as dead as the hundreds who had died due to disease in camp the prior winter (the science of sanitation had a long way to go) and those who would be shot down in The Cornfield at Antietam only three days later.  Those locations are now housing developments, a highway, and a preserved national park, respectively, but at that time they were all the same: another battlefield in a war that had gone too far for the participants to allow it to end by anything other than further bloodshed.

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