Crampton's Gap falls to tardy Union attack

Encounter: The Union 6th Corps pushed a small Confederate force out of the way on South Mountain but not in time to save Harper's Ferry.

August 25, 2002|By Regina Puleo | Regina Puleo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the fighting raged at Harper's Ferry, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan sought to relieve the embattled garrison there by forcing his way through the Confederate screen at Crampton's Gap on South Mountain, splitting Gen. Robert E. Lee's invading army north of the Potomac in the process.

Union Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin's 6th Corps arrived at the pass about noon Sept. 14, finding it lightly defended by cavalry pickets from Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's division and infantry from Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws' division. McLaws' attention was focused on scaling Maryland Heights to dislodge the Union garrison there and attack Harper's Ferry from the northeast.

Knowing Lee had scattered his army, McClellan was in a position to drive a fatal wedge between the Confederate commander's forces. "My general idea is to cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail," McClellan wrote to Franklin, according to War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 19, Part I.

When the battle began about 4:30 p.m., Col. Joseph J. Bartlett's brigade led the charge against a thinly stretched line of Confederate soldiers protecting a half-mile of road in the center of the pass. The 27th New York Infantry led the brigade and was closely followed by the 16th New York and 5th Maine.

Knowing Bartlett would lead the assault, Franklin deferred to him and allowed him to choose the point of attack and construct the formation of the charge. In his official report, Bartlett wrote:

"It being decided that the attack should be made on the right and flank of the road leading over the mountains, I was ordered to lead the column, under cover from artillery fire as secretly as possible, to a large field near its base, where the column of attack was to be formed, each brigade in two lines, at 200 paces in rear."

Brig. Gen. John Newton's brigade soon arrived to support Bartlett on his right and Col. Alfred T. Torbert's brigade along with two remaining regiments of Newton's joined his left. After consultation with Torbert, commanding on the left of the line, the command to attack was given.

A single charge

Bartlett wrote: "Our whole line advanced with cheers, rushing over the intervening space to the stone wall and routing the enemy. The charge was maintained to the top of the mountain, up an almost perpendicular steep, over rocks and ledges, through underbrush and timber, until the crest overlooking the valley was gained."

Franklin, in his official report to McClellan, echoed Bartlett's words, adding, "This single charge, sustained as it was over a great distance, and on a rough ascent of unusual steepness, was decisive. The enemy was driven in the utmost confusion from a position of strength, and allowed no opportunity for even an attempt to rally until the pass was cleared and in the possession of our troops."

The advantage in numbers was overwhelmingly in the Union's favor. According to Timothy Reese in Sealed With Their Lives: Battle of Crampton's Gap, Burkittsville, Md.,, Sept. 14, 1862, published in 1998, more than 13,000 Northern troops faced barely 800 Confederate soldiers.

Stuart had left only Col. Thomas T. Munford's cavalry (about 275 horsemen) to cover Crampton's Gap as he advanced at dawn to Harper's Ferry. Convinced that morning that the approaching Union troops would most likely strike Brownsville Pass instead, Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes dispatched Col. William A. Parham's Virginia troops to cover Crampton's Gap.

Munford wrote, "The enemy first advanced his skirmishes and made a demonstration as if he intended attacking the gap held by General Semmes [Brownsville], but, as both his and my artillery played upon him with effect, he retired and moved his whole force upon me."

Aided by a few hundred men from Parham's force, Munford sent dispatches for reinforcement. "For at least three hours this little force maintained their position against [the Union] division," he wrote. Munford held Crampton's Gap until Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb arrived, and then turned over his command.

McLaws' view

McLaws wrote: "I was on Maryland Heights, directing and observing the fire of our guns, when I heard cannonading in the direction of Crampton's Gap, but I felt no particular concern about it, as there were three brigades of infantry in the vicinity, besides the cavalry of Colonel Munford, and General Stuart, who was with me on the heights and had just come in from above, told me he did not believe there was more than a brigade of the enemy."

When he discovered how severely outnumbered his troops were, McLaws sent more brigades to the site. He ordered Cobb "to hold the gap if he lost his last man doing it."

"When I reached the gap," Cobb reported, "I found both Col. Munford and Col. Parham active and energetic in the discharge of their duty, which continued to the end of the fight. Yet, it appeared McLaws had delayed too long."

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