Defending the Gap: South Carolina’s Role at Turner’s and Frostown Gaps

Early in the morning on September 14th, 1862, the Confederate defenses at South Mountain would be tested by a portion of the Union Army under the command of General George McClellan. The night before, just below Turner’s Gap on the National Road a brigade of Georgians under the command Colonel Alfred Colquitt took position at the eastern foot of South Mountain. Meanwhile at Fox’s Gap, Colonel Tom Rosser’s 5th Virginia Cavalry and two guns from Major John Pelham’s battery took position in an open field near a stone wall. Early in the morning Garland’s North Carolina Brigade was sent to Fox’s Gap. To reinforce Turner’s Gap, General Robert Rodes’ Alabamians were placed on the extreme Confederate left defending Turner’s Gap in an area known as Frostown. Their line spanned over two miles across the ridge of South Mountain to Turner’s Gap.

By noon Fox’s Gap looked as though it was going to be lost as the North Carolina troops were overwhelmed, but luckily two regiments from General George B. Anderson’s Brigade arrived, providing much needed reinforcements. During the next few hours the brigades of General Thomas Drayton and Colonel George Anderson were ordered to Fox’s Gap.

Up until this point all efforts were directed toward Fox’s Gap, until the evening when the Battle of South Mountain shifted to Turner’s Gap. As more Confederate reinforcements arrived from Hagerstown on a very long, forced march, they were sent to the left to protect any flanking movement from the Union Army, and to reinforce Rodes’ Brigade. Among the reinforcements to enter the Battle of Turner’s Gap were two brigades of Virginians and two brigades of South Carolinians.

By evening, Union General Joseph’s First Corps was in position and ready to attack. Union General George Meade’s Division would attack the extreme left where General Robert Rodes’ was positioned, while Union General John Hatch would attack the right towards Turner’s Gap. As Confederate reinforcements arrived at Turner’s Gap, General Nathan Evans’ Independent Brigade of South Carolina troops arrived, reinforcing the Alabamians that were being overwhelmed. Connecting to Evan’s Brigade was Kemper’s Brigade of Virginians, and to the right of Kemper was another brigade of Virginians under General Richard Garnett. Connecting Garnett’s Brigade to Colquitt’s Brigade was that of Jenkins’ South Carolina Brigade under Colonel Joseph Walker.

As Hooker’s Corps advanced, Evans’ Brigade arrived at the summit of Turner’s Gap just before dusk, where it was ordered to support Rodes’ Brigade to their left. Evans’ Brigade was made up of the 17th South Carolina under Colonel Fitz W. McMaster, the 18th South Carolina under Colonel William H. Wallace, the 22nd South Carolina under Major Miel Hilton, the 23rd South Carolina under Lieutenant E. R. White, and the Holcombe Legion under Colonel Peter F. Stevens. Colonel Stevens was ordered to take the brigade up a long and narrow road and report to General Rodes. Climbing the mountain, the enemy was seen below and the Holcombe Legion was ordered out as skirmishers. “From thence we were ordered to the left, climbing the mountain side in full view of the enemy to our right and in range of one of his batteries on a plateau to our right rear.” The skirmishers were soon driven in, battle lines were formed, and the fighting began.

Evans wrote about this portion of the battle: “On my arrival at the summit of the mountain, the skirmishers of the enemy were met, supported by several of his batteries that commanded my position. I directed Colonel Stevens, commanding brigade, to push over the summit and engage the enemy, then firing on General Rodes’ troops, retiring. Colonel Stevens soon became engaged with a much superior force, two columns of the enemy advancing rapidly upon his small command.”

Positioning themselves in the woods on Rode’s right, they quickly began to take on heavy fire. The South Carolinians began to ascend down the mountain toward the Union troops, but were met with an even greater resistance. The 23rd South Carolina Infantry met the retreating pickets of the Holcombe Legion. Captain Durham ordered the regiment to lie down, and as the Union troops advanced, the 23rd South Carolina Infantry soon fired into them. They held that position until the enemy almost surrounded them. The 23rd South Carolina was ordered to fall back to where the 22nd South Carolina was positioned.

The 17th South Carolina was ordered to move to the left, and the 23 and the 22nd South Carolina Infantry were driven back, but very quickly rallied. After engaging the Union troops for about a half an hour, the South Carolinians were ordered to fall back about thirty yards, creating havoc and some confusion. While the other South Carolina troops fell back, the 17th South Carolina moved forward, hitting the Union line while the rest of their force was still behind them. Meade’s troops poured deadly fire into them at almost point blank range. The 17th South Carolina fell back about 300 yards and reformed their battle line.

As the fighting ensued, the 18th South Carolina witnessed the skirmishers slowly being overwhelmed, and at the same time realized that Rodes’ Brigade to their left was also on the verge of being overwhelmed. Orders were issued for them to assist Rodes’ men and soon after Union troops pressed Rodes’ right and the 18th South Carolina, seeing that they may be cut off, fell back to the 22nd South Carolina’s position.

As darkness began to fall on the mountain, the two brigades of Virginians began to retire. Evans wrote: “The position [was] held until the troops on my right had retired, leaving my brigade nearly surrounded by the enemy. I then directed my troops to retire, firing, to the east side of the mountain, which was done in good order.” Eventually the 18th South Carolina retired and soon the enemy occupied the mountain. General Rodes was, at the same time, forced back. The 17th South Carolina was ordered to support the left of Jenkins’ Brigade, but was unable to do so due to the darkness. Fighting a retreating battle, Evans’ Brigade reassembled on the turnpike, and threw the Holcombe Legion on picket.

While Evans’ troops were hotly engaged supporting Rodes’ men, on the extreme right of the Confederate battle line was the Jenkins’ Brigade. Jenkins’ Brigade consisted of the 1st South Carolina under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Livingston, the 2nd South Carolina Rifles under Colonel Robert A. Thompson, 5th South Carolina under Captain Thomas C. Beckham, the 6th South Carolina under Captain E. B. Cantey, five companies of the 4th South Carolina Battalion under Lieutenant W. T. Field, and the Palmetto Sharpshooters under Captain A. H. Foster.

Jenkins’ Brigade arrived at the foot of the mountain, and began their ascent when they were ordered to throw up a line near the modern day South Mountain Inn. Meanwhile Garnett’s Brigade made their way to the left, up toward Frostown. About ten minutes later they were ordered to advance up the mountain and take up position at the foot of the hill. Soon the 1st South Carolina, the 6th South Carolina, and the 5th South Carolina advanced up the hill to a stone wall where they engaged until dark. Jenkins’ Brigade suffered three killed and 29 wounded during the fight at South Mountain.

With the Confederate troops barely holding on, the Battle of South Mountain subsided. General Robert E. Lee decided to concentrate his army, ordering all troops off of South Mountain, and instead heading in the direction of Boonsboro. As the troops marched off of South Mountain to the Mountain House, Jenkins’ Brigade was ordered to guard the rear. The 2nd South Carolina Rifles were ordered down the National Road, and were to throw out skirmishers, maintaining their location until four in the morning. Jenkins’ Brigade was ordered by the cavalry under the command of General Fitzhugh Lee to rejoin their command at Sharpsburg.

Around midnight, an order was given from General Robert E. Lee to scout the battlefield to determine if Union troops still occupied the area. Lieutenant Dubose of the 18th South Carolina, who was on picket duty at the time, was given the task. As the lieutenant and his detail moved closer to the battlefield, the lieutenant left his company and made his way into the darkness. All of a sudden a shot rang out. The small detail, fearing that Dubose may have been captured, retired very slowly and upon reaching their command, reported that Lieutenant Dubose became a prisoner of war.

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