The Battle of Monterey Pass: When Thunder and Lightning Came Crashing Down

The weather conditions during the Battle of Monterey Pass were described by many Civil War soldiers, and left a lasting impression upon them. Many first hand accounts describe a scene so horrific and so awful that it would seem as if the battle was fought inside of some abyss or near the gates of hell. Some accounts are difficult to believe, giving you a sense that their story may have been exaggerated. However, when the Union accounts match that of the Confederate accounts, and it was written by not one or two, but several soldiers, one has to think there is a lot of truth behind those stories.

The flash of lightning followed by a loud boom of thunder, intertwined by the screaming of soldiers clashing though the night, followed by flashes and sounds of small arms cracking, mixed with the roar of cannon must have been a Fourth of July to remember. No where in Civil War history can I recall the terrible conditions experienced by Civil War soldiers during the Battle of Monterey Pass. The closest that I could recall is the Battle of New Market, Virginia in May of 1864, when the battle was fought during a thunderstorm, but it occurred during the daytime hours.

I used to live on the Monterey Pass Battlefield, and for years I observed all movements of weather. On one occasion I was hunting in October when a thunderstorm moved in due to a cold front that clashed with the warm air of the atmosphere. Often times in the summer I would be working in the yard when a thunderstorm would crop up out of what seemed the middle of nowhere. Those storms that hit on a summer night left me thinking about how frightening it must have been to a soldier fighting during the Battle of Monterey Pass in those conditions. The boom of the thunder echoed among the steep walls of South Mountain, the pitch blackness between lightning strikes, and then the heavy downpours. Many times I have seen the blacktop road during an afternoon thunderstorm quickly become a muddy, water covered mess. These roads are on an incline and all of the water flowing to the bottom gave the same appearance as a raging flood.

During the late afternoon of July 4th seems to be when the weather turned really nasty. According to Luther Hopkins of the 6th Virginia Cavalry, “Dark ominous clouds came trooping up from the west with thunder and lightning, and it was not long before the whole heavens were covered and the rain was falling in torrents.” British Army Observer Colonel Arthur Fremantle recalled those who had just left Gettysburg moving toward Fairfield. He recalled “The night was very bad thunder and lightning, torrents of rain the road knee deep in mud and water, and often blocked up with wagons “come to grief.” I pitied the wretched plight of the unfortunate soldiers who were to follow us.” Cannoneer John Marye of the Fredericksburg Artillery recalled as he followed behind A.P. Hill’s Corps “Never shall I forget that night’s march. Their cries and appeals to their comrades to leave them by the roadside or else to shoot them and end their misery, ring in my ears to this day.”

Riding on to Emmitsburg and then turning west toward South Mountain, General Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division was ordered to get in front of the retreating Confederate wagon train. This would be no simple task. As the Confederate Army was in its beginning stages of their withdraw, both Kilpatrick’s cavalry and those Confederate forces guarding and escorting the wagon train all experienced the same conditions.

Captain James Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry recalled their line of march toward South Mountain that afternoon and toward evening. “It seemed as if the firmament were an immense tank, the contents of which were spilled all at once. Such a drenching we had! Even heavy gum coats and horsehide boots were hardly proof against it. It poured and poured, the water running in streams off the horses’ backs, making of every rivulet a river and of every river and mountain stream a raging flood.”

The storm soon began to pick up in intensity. As the 1st Vermont Cavalry was ordered from Monterey Pass to Smithsburg via Raven Rock Pass, they found the elements to be very severe. Henry Ide later recalled “The night was intensively dark, the rain was falling in torrents, the lightning flashed and then striking trees and rocks in our immediate vicinity.”

During the battle Kilpatrick attempted to turn the Confederate left flank at Fairfield Gap where the wagon train was entering, and from there it would travel about a mile and half to Monterey Pass where Custer’s Brigade was fighting elements of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, the 4th North Carolina Cavalry, and the 1st North Carolina Battalion of Sharpshooters. Captain Tanner’s single gun had stalled Custer’s advance. Fighting was desperate and hand to hand combat proved to be the only way to fight. Once the lightning flashed it illuminated the ground and troop’s positions were revealed.

In addition to the lightning flashes, the flashes of guns being discharged were another way to determine where the opposing troops were positioned. Captain Kidd recalled “It was too dark to distinguish objects at any distance.” Pushing further ahead, Kidd continued “The darkness was intense and in a few moments we plunged into a dense thicket… One had to be guided by sound and not by sight… Had it not been for the noise and the flashing of the enemy’s fire we should have wondered away in the darkness and been lost.”

The fighting continued through the night and as midnight approached, the battle was far from over. By three in the morning on July 5th, the fighting was fierce. The flank attack at Fairfield Gap was repulsed. The Vermonters who left around midnight would be approaching Leitersburg but they would fail to get in front of the wagon train. While back at Monterey Pass, the fighting was based around a wooden bridge that spanned a swollen Red Run. To make a fierce battle even worse, several cattle had gotten away from the wagon train. Luther Hopkins of the 6th Virginia Cavalry recalled “These [cattle] got loose in the mountains and hills covered with timber, and between their constant bellowing and the flashes of lightning and crashing thunder the night was hideous in the extreme.”

Soon Kilpatrick deployed two guns of Pennington’s Battery to assist the bogged down line. The case shot of those guns helped to illuminate the ground as it exploded in the air sending shrapnel spiraling to the ground. The Michiganers realized that a bridge spanning the flooded Red Run had not been destroyed, and Colonel Alger of the 5th Michigan Cavalry sent word back to Kilpatrick. Moments later reinforcements arrived. One unit in particular was that of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. Private Joseph A. Lesage of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry recalled “The darkness was so dense that we could not tell what kind they were [Confederate soldiers] but we took them in all the same. While we were forming up, seconds appeared like hours, but at last the order came. “Boys, draw sabers and prepare to charge; let everyone ‘yell’ as loud as he can.” Captain Kidd heard orders being given to the West Virginians that morning “Use the saber only; I will cut down any man who fires a shot. This was to prevent shooting our own men in the melee, and the darkness.”

As the West Virginians charged down the mountainside, Pennington brought his two guns up and deployed them at the intersection from which the wagons were coming from. Luther Hopkins of the 6th Virginia Cavalry recalled “The only light we had to guide us was from the lightning in the heavens and the vivid flashes that came from the enemy’s cannon.” Edward Moore of the Rockbridge Artillery recalled being with the portion of the wagons that contained a number of wounded, forage wagons and cattle. “All plodding gloomily along through the falling rain.” When Pennington deployed and fired upon the direction where the wagons were located, Moore continued “I could not tell what was before me in the dense darkness, whether friend or foe.” The wagons had already stopped their approach to the turnpike where the Union cavalry was located. As Moore rode ahead of the column to see what was going on, “Every other sound was drowned by a roaring waterfall on my right; then emerging from its noise, I was carried at a fearful rate close by dismounted men who were firing from behind trees along the roadside, the flashes of their guns whose speedy gleams the darkness swallowed.”

Jacob Hoke published a book in 1887 entitled “The Great Invasion of 1863 or, General Lee in Pennsylvania.” In it contains the correspondence from Dr. H.G. Chritzman, who rode with Colonel Huey’s Brigade during the Battle of Monterey Pass. Dr. Chritzman sums up this midnight battle perfectly during this furious thunderstorm. He wrote the following: “At once there rose so wild a yell. Within that dark and narrow dell. As if all the fiends from heaven that fell. Had pealed the banner cry of hell.”

“This, combined with the plutonic darkness made it one of the nights to be remembered. When we came up with the wagon train, Federal and Confederate cavalry, wagons, ambulances drivers and mules became a confused mass of pursued and pursuing demons whose shouts and carbine shots, mingled with the lightning’s red glare and the thunder’s crash, made it appear as if were in the infernal regions. Especially so as the cries of the wounded often rose high above the din of the conflicting forces.”

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how such a battle was fought. What a terrible, hideous night as echoes of thunder reverberated among the South Mountain gorges in such a frightful manner, followed by the flash of lightning and the torrential downpours “only to leave friend or foe enveloped in the greater darkness.” What a powerful combination of Mother Nature’s own fireworks mixed with the flashes of battle created by man.

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