The Bloody Sunken Road at South Mountain

The Afternoon Battle of Fox’s Gap, September 14th, 1862
After the Union advance of Fox’s Gap during the morning of Spetember 14th, 1862, the Confederate troops as well as their artillery support fell back to the area of the Wise house. The 28th and the 30th Ohio pressed on, but were forced to fall back when elements of General George B. Anderson’s Brigade were found lying on the ground in front of Bondurant’s Battery. Bondurant’s Battery withdrew from the Wise Farm and redeployed at the crest of Wise’s north field. As noon approached the Union troops, waiting for reinforcements, were exhausted and low on ammunition. The 28th Ohio commanded by Colonel Gottfried Becker and the 30th Ohio under the command of Colonel Ewing fall back to the crest of Wise’s south field. A section of Captain Seth Simmonds 1st Kentucky Artillery under the command of Lieutenant Glassie deployed behind a wooden fence that separated Wise’s south field from the woods.

Upon the arrival of reinforcements, General Daniel Hill ordered General Roswell Ripley to take charge of the afternoon defenses of Fox’s Gap. In case of a Union assault, General Hill wanted the deployment to act as a hinge with Drayton serving as the pivoting point of the attack. The brigades of General George Anderson and Roswell Ripley moved further south in order to make room for Colonel George T. Anderson’s brigade who was told to file off to the west following Ripley. At around 3 o’clock, General Thomas Drayton was ordered to hold Wise’s farm while the other three brigades extended the Confederate battle line. Colonel George Tige Anderson’s Brigade took position along the Old Sharpsburg Road near the intersection; the brigades of General Ripley and George B. Anderson extended further west.

Upon his arrival at Fox’s Gap, General Drayton ordered his men into position in an “L” like shape. The extreme left of Drayton’s Brigade was the 50th Georgia [230 rifles] under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Kearse to their right was the 51st Georgia [220 rifles] under the command of Colonel William Marion Slaughter. Next to the Georgians was Phillip’s Legion [300 rifles] under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomas Cook and to their right in the old Sharpsburg Road was the 3rd South Carolina Battalion [160 rifles] under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George S. James (Who ordered the first (probably single round) shot on Ft Sumter at 4:30 am, 12 April 1861). The final regiment in place on the right in the old Sharpsburg Road was the 15th South Carolina Infantry [390 rifles] under the command of Colonel William Davie DeSaussure. A total of about 1300 men.

After realizing that he had a 300 yard gap to his right between his own brigade and the brigade of Colonel George T. Anderson, General Drayton ordered the 15th South Carolina into the Sharpsburg Road, extending their right flank down the western side of South Mountain, a move that these soldiers would later be thankful for.

Colonel Benjamin Christ’s Brigade was the first to deploy of Wilcox’s Division. Trying to deploy his brigade, it was hit by cannon fire from two batteries of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Cutts’ Confederate Artillery Battalion positioned on the heights of Turner’s Gap just north of the National Road. Christ amended his original orders sending the 79th New York to the left of the Sharpsburg Road and the 17th Michigan to the right of the Sharpsburg Road. Colonel Welsh’s Brigade formed on Christ’s left and connected with the remainder of Cox’s Division. Colonel Welsh then ordered two companies, A & K up the hill as skirmishers.

Arriving to the east of Fox’s Gap, Cook’s Massachusetts Battery deployed on the angle of the Sharpsburg Road. Not knowing that Bondurant’s Battery was about 400 yards from their position, Cook was ordered to silence Colonel Cutt’s guns. Cook’s Battery consisted of four 12-pound James Rifles and two 12-pound smoothbore howitzers. Surprised by Captain James Bondurant’s Alabama Battery positioned at the crest of Fox’s Gap, just north of the Wise family house, most of Cook’s Battery fled the field during the artillery duel, when shots of canister and shell caused Cook’s men to seek shelter. The drivers of the limbers hurried to the rear down the narrow road and they cut right through the 17th Michigan Infantry. Cook was forced to abandon his battery and take cover in the woods. His guns became disabled.

Before 4:00 pm, General Wilcox’s battle line was reformed. The Union divisions of General Orlando Wilcox and Jacob Cox were deployed just to the south and east of the Daniel Wise farm and were forced to lie concealed from artillery fire that was raking the landscape from the direction of Frostown Gap as well as Wise’s north field. The lead brigade of General Wilcox’s Division under Colonel Thomas Welsh was to lead the attack. Welsh’s Brigade consisted of the 46th New York Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gerhardt, who were to deploy to the left. The 45th Pennsylvania under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Curtin was positioned to the right of the 46th New York and to the left of the Old Sharpsburg Road. The 100th Pennsylvania was held in reserve to the left of the Sharpsburg Road behind the 45th Pennsylvania’s right flank. To the right of the old Sharpsburg Road was the 17th Michigan Infantry, supported by Captain Asa Cook’s 8th Massachusetts Battery. A portion of the 79th New York was then deployed onto the Old Sharpsburg Road and to the left of the 17th Michigan Infantry. The 8th Michigan Infantry was held in the rear as reserves and then was ordered to follow up General Cox’s line. The Union advance was planning an attack to gain Fox’s Gap. Captain George Durell’s Battery D of Pennsylvania Artillery placed his guns between those of Captain Cook’s.

Drayton sent skirmishers out in front to try to drive the Federal skirmishers off. Drayton ordered a company of the 3rd SC Battalion southeast across Wise’s south field, south of the Old Sharpsburg Road to reconnoiter. Captain D. B. Miller’s Company F spotted a large number of Federals and scrambled back to advise Drayton. Knowing that he had orders to attack, Drayton launched his three units into the Old Sharpsburg Road southward across Wise’s south field with the 15th SC on the right, the 3rd SC Battalion in the center and Phillip’s Legion on the left.

Just as the 800 soldiers in the Old Sharpsburg Road moved south and southeast to meet the attack, General Drayton, having observed no Federal activity to the east, ordered the 51st and 50th Georgia to execute the same movement that had previously been performed, a shift from the stone wall facing east into the Old Sharpsburg Road facing south. This would provide Drayton with either a second attack wave to launch south or a defensive line should the attack of the South Carolinians and Phillip’s Legion be repulsed.

At around 4:00 pm Welsh’s Brigade attacks Drayton’s men from the east. Phillip’s Georgian Legion was forced to attack the 45th Pennsylvania and elements of the 46th head on in Wise’s south field along a wooden rail fence. The 3rd and the 15th South Carolina continued to push forward toward the 30th and 28th Ohio Infantry position. The 51st and 50th Georgia Infantry Regiments were ordered into the Old Sharpsburg Road where they received a volley of gunfire to their left. Within minutes, the Georgians became trapped in the road. The embankment to their front was eight feet high while to their rear was a four foot stone fence on an embankment. The firing became fierce as the Georgian’s were forced fight in the road for survival. Company F of the 50th Georgia was the last company in line and bore the brunt of the Federal attack coming up the Old Sharpsburg Road. Company E also suffered out of sixty-five effectives, only five came out untouched. They would later be wounded at Antietam.

Within twenty minutes of the Georgians taking their positions in the Sharpsburg Road, the 17th Michigan was ordered to attack the Georgians caught in the sunken road. The 17th Michigan split their regiment sending the left flank up the Old Sharpsburg Road and the right flank marched to the right on the road and headed toward Wise’s north field. From about 80 yards away, the officers of the 50th Georgia Infantry heard the Federal command to charge and the right flank of the 17th Michigan Infantry wheeled left and fired several deadly volleys into the backs of the 50th Georgia.

Volley after volley, the bodies of the Confederate soldiers began to pile up on Sharpsburg Road. Struggling to make a counter attack with what few men still stood, they fired at the 17th Michigan. The Georgia troops, trying to run a gauntlet in the middle of Sharpsburg Road over the their dead and wounded comrades where still receiving volleys of gun fire from the 17th Michigan Infantry, earning them the nickname of the Stonewall Regiment.

At approximately 4:30 pm, Phillip’s Legion was pushed back toward the Wise Cabin as the advance of the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry poured deadly fire into them. The 15th South Carolina was pinned inside the fences that surrounded Wise’s farm while the 3rd South Carolina Battalion was pinned in between two stonewalls along Wood Road.

Lt. Colonel George James of the 3rd Battalion refused to retreat and kept his unit between the stone walls of Ridge Road. This proved to be a fatal error, as 136 of his 160 man unit became casualties. James himself, was shot in the chest and died on the field later that evening. Many Confederate soldiers were taken prisoner.

By 5:00 pm Drayton’s last stand had failed as the Union reinforcements of General Sturgis’ Division arrived on the field in support of General Wilcox’s Division. Drayton’s brigade, badly tore up was forced to retreat from South Mountain. Bondurant’s Battery limbered up and retreated using Wood Road.

A few hours after Drayton was completely routed, General John B. Hood’s Texan’s arrived using Wood Road. As darkness began to set in, a musket fired mortally wounding General Jesse Reno commander of the 9th Corps. The fighting soon stopped. Fox’s Gap was barely held by the Confederate Army. At around 10:00 pm that night, General Hill received orders to pull his command off of South Mountain. The road to Sharpsburg was now cleared for the Union Army to use.

No post battle account was ever written by Drayton. It is believed that Drayton’s Brigade suffered over 50% casualties within the hour they fought. The 50th Georgia Infantry lost about 80% of their regiment, 51st Georgia lost about 60%, Phillip’s Georgian Legion lost about 40%, the 3rd South Carolina lost about 85% and the 15th South Carolina lost about 25% since they were fighting on the western side of Fox’s Gap.

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