A fight to remember

History: Thanks to a small group of Civil War buffs, recognition for South Mountain battlefield may be near.

November 02, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- The granite pillar on South Mountain is modest, as battle monuments go. No charging steeds, no heroic figures with swords. Just a simple 8-foot obelisk marking where a Union general was killed during an overlooked clash in the Civil War.

On this "wild and lonely mountain," as one soldier described it, the tide shifted Sept. 14, 1862, in the fratricidal conflict, which nearly destroyed the nation. Union troops, who had known little but defeat and frustration until then, stopped the South's first invasion of the North in its tracks.

Long regarded by historians as a prelude to the bloodiest day in U.S. history, when nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded at nearby Sharpsburg, South Mountain is on the verge of gaining the recognition it has lacked.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has named a task force to look into creating a state battlefield park here. The panel's recommendations could fulfill a decadelong quest by a small group of Civil War history buffs to honor those who fought and died on the mountain.

"This is an opportunity for the state to protect its heritage," says George Brigham Jr., a cabinetmaker whose two-story brick home served as a field hospital for wounded Union soldiers.

Named chairman of the task force, Brigham also is a founding member of the Central Maryland Heritage League, a private land trust dedicated to preserving the battlefield.

The league has bought about 40 acres in the three mountain passes where the battle was fought and has helped the state acquire conservation easements on another 1,500 acres.

"We're losing a lot, but we're saving a heckuva lot, too," Brigham says.

Development

Driving up the eastern slope of the mountain in his van, Brigham points out a nearby hilltop. The Union army's commanding general, George McClellan, watched the battle unfold where three homes stand.

"You can see the pressure of development just chewing up the battlefield," Brigham says.

Altogether, nearly two-thirds of the 25,110-acre battlefield has been protected by the state and federal governments, though mostly for other purposes.

The Appalachian Trail, a national park, runs along the mountaintop, and Gathland State Park encompasses much of Crampton's Gap, the southernmost pass where fighting occurred.

Gathland is a former estate whose owner erected a towering stone monument to Civil War news correspondents.

Brigham, 51, says he had no idea that his home was on the edge of a battlefield when he moved here 25 years ago.

Prelude to Antietam

Growing up in Gaithersburg, he says the only Civil War clash in Maryland he learned about was Antietam, named for the creek that runs through the battlefield by the Washington County town of Sharpsburg.

That one-day battle Sept. 17, 1862, is famous for the record casualties suffered by both armies -- and for the encouragement it gave President Abraham Lincoln to later issue his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves held in rebellious Southern states. Antietam has been a national battlefield park since 1890.

When they mention South Mountain at all, most historians treat it as a warm-up for the blood bath at Antietam.

"It has never received the acknowledgment and recognition it deserved," says Dennis Frye, who is working to develop a Civil War museum at Hagerstown. "It has been completely overshadowed by Antietam."

But the Union and Confederate armies might never have fought at Antietam if they had not clashed first on South Mountain, or if that battle had turned out differently, argue Brigham and friends.

"We like to think of Antietam as the sequel to South Mountain," says Steven R. Stotelmeyer, the league's vice president and de facto historian. Stotelmeyer is writing a book about the battle.

Lee's invasion

The South was riding high when Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River into Maryland in early September 1862.

Lee's army had just routed a badly led Union army near Manassas, Va., and Southern leaders hoped a foray into the North would persuade European countries to aid their cause.

South Mountain was the turning point. The Union Army of the Potomac set out from Washington to find Lee's invading army and surprised its rear guard just west of Middletown.

McClellan's army captured three key mountain passes -- Crampton's, Fox's and Turner's gaps -- but only after a bitter daylong struggle. It prompted one North Carolina soldier to write: "Hell is empty and all the devils are here."

"Antietam was the bloodiest battle, but South Mountain had some of the fiercest fighting," Brigham says.

At Fox's Gap, the most hotly contested pass, Union Gen. Jesse Reno was mortally wounded when he went up to direct a counterattack. Earlier in the day, a Confederate general, Samuel Garland Jr., had been cut down in the same field.

Turned back

The battle effectively halted Lee's march through Maryland. The Confederate leader ordered his army to regroup at Sharpsburg, and after that conflagration it withdrew across the Potomac. Hopes of help from Europe faded.

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