Buying time at Turner's Gap

Delaying action: For 13 costly hours, Southern troops held a superior Union force at bay in Turner's Gap, enabling Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to reassemble his army for the Battle of Antietam.

August 25, 2002|By Moira Curran | Moira Curran,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I could see dimly through the dense sulphurous battle smoke, and a line from Shakespeare's Tempest filtered through my brain: `Hell is empty and all the devils are here.'" Such was the scene, as described by Pvt. Frederick Foard, of the 20th North Carolina Infantry, at Turner's Gap, on South Mountain that Sept. 14, 1862.

From the early morning until long after sunset, the fighting there involved skirmishes and repeated attacks, through which neither side could gain a true advantage.

The struggle at Turner's Gap, within the larger Battle of South Mountain, resulted in a victory for the Union army, which suffered far fewer casualties than its enemy. But it gave a psychological lift to the Confederates, who were able to hold off an army 10 times their size for nearly 13 hours.

On the afternoon of Sept. 13, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee learned that several Union brigades would be traveling by the Boonsboro Road. As a defensive measure, Lee instructed Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill and his troops, through a dispatch delivered by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, to "hold the gap."

Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, the message assured, would be sent from Hagerstown to provide additional Confederate support. So Hill saw Turner's Gap as a routine assignment.

Hill made immediate plans to move. Stuart's dispatch, making mention of only two Union regiments, provided him a false sense of comfort. As a result, Hill sent in only two of his brigades, those of Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland and Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt, as well as the batteries of Capt. J.W. Bondurant and Capt. John Lane.

Rough and narrow

Hill and Colquitt conducted a brief ground examination that evening and discovered that the gap, situated in 1,000-foot-high South Mountain, was a rough and narrow terrain, covered with timber.

The area encompassed dense forests, open fields, steep slopes, and high ridges, making it difficult for the Confederates to develop a general defensive strategy. The inspection did, however, force Hill to realize that he would need additional troops.

While the Southern leaders struggled to familiarize themselves with the terrain, their enemy was also preparing for battle.

Union Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who was entrusted with the advance of Maj. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno's 9th Corps on the south side of the pike, had investigated the area a day before. And the Union commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, had recovered Lee's instructions for his generals (Special Orders No. 191) providing a detailed outline of the Confederate plans. Armed with such crucial information, the Union forces were confident of success.

McClellan ordered a counterstrike by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. As morning broke on Sept. 14, Hill arrived from Boonsboro to make his reconnaissance for the Confederate forces. He was shocked by the vast number of Union troops before him.

In an 1886 magazine article, Fighting for Time at Turner's and Fox's Gap, Hill recalled that "the marching columns extended back as far as the eye could see in the distance; but many of the troops had already arrived and were in the double lines of battle, and those advancing were taking up positions as fast as they arrived."

`Glorious spectacle'

"It was a grand, glorious spectacle, and it was impossible to look at it without admiration. I had never seen so tremendous an army before, and I did not see one like it afterward."

Upon discovering that Stuart had moved on to Crampton's Gap, Hill knew he was vastly outnumbered. How, he wondered, could he cover so much ground with so few troops?

He positioned Col- quitt's brigade near the mountain summit and the 23rd and 28th Georgia regiments on the northern pike. The three remaining regiments, the 13th Alabama and the 6th and 27th Georgia, were assigned to the south side.

The skirmishing at Turner's Gap began about 9 a.m. on Wise's field. The day was filled with charges and counter-charges, but neither side could secure a lasting advantage. From morning until after 3 p.m., Hill held the gap, entirely unaided, against a combined assault from two Union corps.

During the afternoon, Col- quitt's brigade held the line's center, between Hagerstown Pike and the mountaintop, along the National Road, against the brigade of Union Brig. Gen. John Gibbon.

Gibbon's troops, who won the name "The Iron Brigade" at South Mountain, launched strong, repeated offensives against the Georgia regiments. Yet not an inch of ground was yielded by the Confederates. Thus, Colquitt also earned a title that day: "The Rock of South Mountain."

To Colquitt's right were positioned the forces of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Drayton, Col. George T. Anderson, Brig. Gen. Roswell S. Ripley and Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson; to his left, Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes, Nathan G. Evans, James L. Kemper, George E. Pickett (under Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett) and Micah Jenkins (under Col. Joseph Walker).

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