Defending the Gap: Garnett’s and Kemper’s Evening Fight at South Mountain

During the afternoon on September 14th, 1862, Union General Joseph Hooker’s First Corps was about to attack a small band Confederate soldiers on the heights north of Turner’s Gap, in an area known as Frostown Gap. As Rodes’ Alabamians saw the long line of blue in the distance, they knew a major fight was about to occur. At the town of Bolivar, west of Middletown, General Hooker filed off of the National Road to the left, taking Mount Tabor Road. With Hooker’s Corps was the divisions of General George, General John Hatch, and General James Ricketts.

As Hooker’s men were marching to the north, Confederate soldiers, after a very fatiguing march from Hagerstown, arrived at Turner’s Gap. Once there they followed a side road, modern day Dahlgren Road, northward to where Rodes was positioned. One brigade in particular was that of General George Pickett under the command of General Richard Garnett. General George Pickett was still recuperating from the wounds he received during the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. Garnett’s Brigade consisted of the 8th Virginia Infantry under the command of Colonel Eppa Hunton, the 18th Virginia Infantry under the command of Major George C. Cabell, the 19th Virginia Infantry under the command of Colonel John Strange, the 28th Virginia Infantry under the command of Captain William Wingfield, and the 56th Virginia Infantry under the command of Colonel William D. Stuart.

As Garnett’s Brigade reached the mountain summit above Turner’s Gap, Garnett deployed his brigade as follows: the 8th Virginia to the right, next to them, on their left is the 18th Virginia, in the center is the 19th Virginia Infantry, to their left is the 28th Virginia Infantry, and to the extreme left was the 56th Virginia Infantry. According to General Garnett, the right of his brigade, which was the 8th Virginia Infantry “rested in a thick woods, which descended quite abruptly in front, and my left in a field of standing corn.” As the evening continued, General Kemper’s Brigade moved to the left of Garnett’s men and to the right of Garnett was Jenkins’ Brigade. Together these brigades would try and stop Hatch’s Division from gaining control of Turner’s Gap.

Upon reaching the top, Colonel Hunton’s 8th Virginia Infantry was thrown into the line of battle, about 50 yards from Union troops who were maneuvering around boulders in the woods. While forming their battle line, the Bloody Eighth Virginia, with only thirty-four men, took on overwhelming musket fire from the men in blue. The 8th Virginia returned fire and stalled the advancing Union troops. The 8th Virginia kept it hot, maintaining their ground until the rest of Garnett’s Brigade had begun to fall back. Seeing the danger with no reinforcements to his left or right, Colonel Hunton fell back to the rear by a fence and prepared to make a stand there until orders came to fall back.

While the 8th Virginia was fighting, Major George C. Cabell commanding the 18th Virginia Infantry recalled forming a battle line under the same circumstances. The Union skirmishers quickly got to work and right behind them was the main Union battle line. Getting into position, the 18th Virginia fired, forcing the Union skirmishers back to the main body. The deadly fire from the Confederates forced many Union troops to fall back and take refuge behind trees and rocks. From there the Union soldiers were able to pour deadly fire into the Confederate battle lines, while being shielded from any return fire. After about forty-five minutes other regiments in Garnett’s Brigade began to fall back, leaving the 18th Virginia Infantry and the 8th Virginia Infantry to fend for themselves.

Soon orders came to fall back and as they did so, the 18th Virginia Infantry halted in a ravine about 100 yards to the rear of the position they had just occupied. The 18th Virginia Infantry was ordered to the edge of the woods and across a fence some 200 yards distant. With the ground being uneven and covered with bushes and briars, the 18th Virginia Infantry soon became scattered.

Holding the center of Garnett’s Brigade was the 19th Virginia Infantry. Captain Brown recalled that the sun had just began setting behind the mountain when the 19th Virginia formed their battle line. There, in an open field, many Union troops had taken refuge behind a stone fence and they poured a deadly fire into the Confederates. Within an hour, the soldiers of the 19th Virginia were being thinned out, and soon over a third of the men were unable to fight. Colonel Strange was eventually hit and left on the field as the 19th Virginia Infantry began to fall back. Captain Brown said that Colonel Strange yelled out to his men to stand firm and “he commanded with that coolness and daring that is found only in the truly brave.”

Next to the 19th Virginia Infantry was the 28th Virginia and they fought in the same manner as the rest of the brigade did. The 56th Virginia became detached from Garnett’s Brigade in order to render assistance to General Kemper’s Brigade, plugging a gap between the left of Garnett’s Brigade and the right of Kemper’s Brigade. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when the 56th Virginia formed their line.

As Colonel Stuart repaired the gap between the two brigades, the 56th Virginia Infantry was positioned in a cornfield. It was reported by Colonel Montgomery Corse of the 17th Virginia Infantry that Union infantry was approaching. After some time had passed Union soldiers began making an appearance on their right flank. To meet that threat, Colonel Stuart adjusted his regiment’s alignment. As darkness began to fall upon the battlefield, and seeing that the 28th Virginia had retreated back and the firing began to die down, the 56th Virginia fell back to a stone wall. With the stone fence protecting them, no longer would the 56th Virginia be forced to make a stand in an open field and cornfield.

Kemper’s Brigade consisted of the 1st Virginia Infantry under the command of Major William H. Palmer, Major Arthur Herbert’s 7th Virginia Infantry, Major Adam Clement’s 11th Virginia Infantry, Colonel Montgomery D. Corse’s 17th Virginia Infantry, and Colonel William Terry’s 24th Virginia Infantry. Upon deployment the 24th Virginia Infantry held the right of Kemper’s Brigade, to their left was the 17th Virginia, followed by the 1st Virginia, and holding the left was the 24th Virginia.

During the Battle of South Mountain Kemper’s Brigade was more or less held in reserve. From the position Kemper was in, and hearing the firing on his right from Garnett’s Brigade, when Garnett began to fall back so did Kemper. For Kemper, the main portion of the Battle of South Mountain had occurred to his right, and as a result Kemper’s Brigade did not see much action with the exception of those who were his skirmishers. Colonel Montgomery D. Corse of the 17th Virginia Infantry recalled that his regiment, once taking position, was under fierce shelling of a Union battery 600 to 800 yards away. Colonel Corse ordered Lieutenant Lehew’s company forward and to deploy as skirmishers into the woods in directly in front of them.

According to Private David Emmons Johnston “the brigade was in a body of open timber, among stones and large boulders with some fallen timber along the line, behind which, lying down, the men took shelter as best they could; the enemy occupying a skirt of woods with a strip of open land between their position and ours. For two or more hours the battle raged, or until darkness fell, the enemy making repeated but unsuccessful efforts to dislodge our men.”

After darkness fell upon the battlefield, several shots were still being fired into the darkness as Union troops were slowly advancing on the Confederate’s position. By midnight orders were given to the Confederate troops that were occupying this area of South Mountain to fall back. Kemper’s Brigade as well as Garnett’s Brigade stood their ground nobly, and as a result they kept Union General John Hatch’s Division from breaking through and getting behind the Confederate battle lines drawn near Turner’s Gap in an area known as Frostown Gap.

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