This weekend at Boonsboro, about 1,500 Civil War buffs will re-enact the 1862 Battle of South Mountain.
Although South Mountain was the first major clash of the Civil War on Maryland soil, it was quickly relegated to a historical footnote by the fierce struggle at Antietam, three days later. Despite its quick exit from the spotlight, South Mountain was a significant battle.
In the summer of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was at full flower, having defeated Union forces in a series of defensive struggles in Northern Virginia, culminating in the second battle of Bull Run in August.
After Bull Run, Lee decided to cross the Potomac.
The idea of moving into Maryland and establishing a menace at least against Pennsylvania had long been a favorite with Lee's righthand man, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. It now seemed to Lee that the time had come when this might be attempted. The movement commenced on Sept. 3, and on Sept. 4 the army began crossing the Potomac at White's Ford, 30 miles above Washington. The crossing continued until Sept. 7. The entire force was not more than 60,000; casualties, exhaustion and desertion had cost Lee about 30,000 men in six weeks.
Lee's address to Maryland
On Sept. 7 the vanguard of the army reached Frederick, where Lee issued an address to the people of Maryland. The author of the address was a member of his staff, Col. Charles Marshall of Baltimore.
"The people of the Confederate states," Lee said, "have long watched, with the deepest sympathy, the wrongs and outrages that have been inflicted upon the citizens of a commonwealth, allied to the states of the South by the strongest social, political and economic ties. They have seen with profound indignation their sister states deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province. ...
"Believing that the people of Maryland possessed a spirit too lofty to submit to such a government, the people of the South have long wished to aid you in throwing off this foreign yoke. ... In obedience to this wish, our army has come among you and is prepared to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled. ... No restraint upon your free will is intended, no intimidation will be allowed. ... This army will respect your choice, whatever it may be; and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you have come of your own free will," Lee declared.
Col. Bradley T. Johnson, a Marylander in the Confederate service, called for recruits: "We have arms for you, and I am authorized to muster in for the war companies and regiments. Let each man provide himself with a stout pair of shoes, a good blanket and a tin cup. Jackson's men have no baggage."
Fewer than 500 Marylanders responded to this appeal.
On the Union side, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, named commander of the Army of the Potomac on Sept. 2, rapidly reorganized the army after the second Battle of Bull Run and in less than a week had 172,000 men of whom 100,000 were to form the movable force, the remainder to be retained for the defense of Washington.
On Sept. 7, McClellan moved toward Lee, whose force he estimated at 120,000, twice its actual number.
Special Orders No. 191
The federal army reached Frederick Sept. 12, camping on the same grounds the Southern army had camped on a few days earlier. Here two soldiers found a copy of Lee's Special Orders No. 191, a directive for the movements and operations of the next few days, which Lee had issued on Sept.9:
* Jackson's corps was ordered to capture or drive away the 14,000 federal troops at Harpers Ferry to clear the line of communications.
* Lee moved northwestward, arriving in Hagerstown Sept. 11. Since Maryland's response to his appeal had been disappointing, Lee intended to move into Pennsylvania, where he could replenish his supplies and perhaps cut Washington's communications with the north along the Susquehanna River.
* As a rear guard, Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill's infantry division was left with the Confederate army's trains near Boonsboro, and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry remained east of South Mountain to guard the passes.
McClellan availed himself of this information. "Here is a paper, with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home," he said. McClellan began moving toward the Confederates with the intention of engaging them while their army was separated.
Lee soon began to suspect that his plan had been betrayed to the Union army. Stuart's scouts were reporting the presence of the federal army near Frederick and Jackson had not yet captured Harpers Ferry.