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Article Archive >> Winter Tourism

South Mountain State Battlefield-Little Known War

Winter in West Virginia

South Mountain State Battlefield-Little Known War

Today South Mountain is known as one of Maryland's State Forests and Parks--home to a rich variety of cultural and historical resources. But many do not know that one of the areas of South Mountain was the site of a Civil War battle. Gathland State Park, nestled in the first ridge of the Appalachians just west of Frederick, Maryland, was where a little known yet quite noteworthy conflict occurred--the Battle of South Mountain.
"South Mountain is often overlooked by the Civil War novice, overshadowed by the atrocities of the Battle of Antietam (near Sharpsburg), which took place three days later and resulted in a loss of 23,000 men."
This battle was not one of the larger battles during the Civil War. In fact, approximately 13,000 Confederates and 36,000 Federals were involved. Nor was it labeled as one of the ones with the largest number of fatalities; roughly, there were about 2,900 casualties for the South and 2,340 for the North. The battle's significance is in the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia's first campaign north was stopped not at Antietam, but rather in the rugged mountain gaps of South Mountain.
Late during the summer of 1862, following a shocking Federal defeat at Second Manassas, General Robert E. Lee decided to carry the war into the North. He hoped to take advantage of the region's weakening outlook toward the war and possibly sway Northerners to pressure their government for peace.
With crops ravaged by the conflict in Virginia, General Lee desperately wanted to feed and outfit his poorly supplied army. He found the luscious and fully grown crops in Maryland a delight. Further, he knew that if he was able to sustain a campaign in the North, perhaps even gaining a major victory there, the foreign powers of England and France might finally recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.
When General Lee and his army crossed the Potomac into Maryland borders on September 4, he knew they had everything to gain. Camping in and around the small town of Frederick, Lee prepared and issued Special Order 191, which detailed his plan of dividing his army into five parts.
The Battle of South Mountain was actually two separate battles that broke out on September 14 in the Fox's Gap and Turner's Gap areas after Confederate gunners opened fire on Federal forces moving toward the base of the mountain.
As the battle began, fighting in these areas continued most of the day. By evening, the ends of the Confederate line had been turned and were in danger of being flanked. Recognizing this, General Lee ordered his forces to withdraw during the night.
The following day, after pulling his army back behind the Antietam Creek, Lee learned that the Union stronghold at Harper's Ferry had fallen. With those units now available and able to partially reorganize, he decided to hold his ground. It was there that McClellan found him waiting when the Federal army attacked on the morning of September 17. The horrific conflict that resulted would go down as the single bloodiest day in American history.
The Battle of South Mountain was significant in several respects. For the Confederate forces, it marked the temporary end of Lee's hopes of a sustained campaign in the North.
So as you see...South Mountain played a small, but significant role in the Civil War.
"Recent legislation has been passed and signed by the Governor to preserve, protect and interpret South Mountain Battlefield as a state park. The Battle of South Mountain has finally receive the recognition it deserves as a critical part of the 1862 Maryland Campaign and ultimately, in the history of the American Civil War."

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