The Skirmish of Braddock’s Gap on Catoctin Mountain

During the Maryland Campaign of 1862, many cavalry skirmishes were fought in Frederick County as a result of the Confederate army leaving Frederick, or occupying areas in the Middletown Valley. While the main Confederate army would march over the Catoctin Mountain at Braddock’s Gap (also known as Fairview Pass), detachments of Confederate cavalry would picket several roads that led into the Middletown Valley. One such pass was that of Hamburg, located near the Frederick City Watershed and Gambrill State Park. Hamburg overlooked the area north of Frederick, keeping an eye on Union General Alfred Pleasanton’s cavalry division and their movements.

During the night of September 12th, 1862, as the rear of the Confederate army marched toward Middletown, to concentrate their forces in the Cumberland Valley, the Jeff Davis Legion was left to guard Braddock’s Gap. The Mississippians were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William T. Martin who was ordered to picket the National Road, keeping an eye on Union troop movements that may come from the direction of Frederick.

During the evening of September 12th, Confederate Captain James F. Hart, commanding the Washington (South Carolina) Artillery was ordered to send two of the Blakely Rifles from his battery to support the Jeff Davis Legion picketing the Catoctin Mountain at Braddock’ Gap. Before daylight on September 13th, Captain Hart deployed his section across the National Road commanding the gap.

General Pleasanton was ordered by General George McClellan to locate the Confederate army by sending his division in several different directions to the south, north, and west to locate the rear of the Confederate army. Union General Alfred Pleasanton ordered Colonel John Franklin Farnsworth’s Second Brigade of cavalry and three batteries to scout the Middletown Valley and South Mountain.

Just after daylight, the Confederates guarding Braddock’s Gap opened fire on the Union cavalry. The Third Indiana cavalry was leading the advance, followed by the Eighth Illinois Cavalry, the First Massachusetts Cavalry, and the Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Captain Casper Crowninshield of the First Massachusetts Cavalry ordered his men to dismount and they quickly lowered themselves to the ground while holding the reins. The sporadic artillery fire sent shells every which way.

Captain Hart’s section fired upon the Union advance pushing them further back and forcing them to reorganize their advancing lines. As skirmishing broke out, the Jeff Davis Legion began to push the Union advance back, but only temporally. The Union troopers deployed on both sides of the National Road and attempted to advance on the mountain gap.

Soon, an order came to have a section from Captain James Madison Robertson’s and Lieutenant Peter Conover Hains’ batteries to deploy and return fire. Colonel Farnsworth then ordered some squadrons of the Eighth Illinois and Third Indiana to dismount as skirmishers and go up the mountain. Lieutenant Hains’ later recalled: “Brought forward the leading section and placed it in action on the right of the road. The other section was held in reserve. Captain Robertson took position on my left and somewhat nearer the enemy. The firing was thus kept up for some time.”

The fight became very hot as both sides were actively engaged for several hours. Union Lieutenant Hains’: “Being under Captain Robertson’s orders, I received orders from him to bring forward my reserved section and open fire. This section I placed in an orchard about 1,400 yards from the enemy. The other section was moved up closer on the right. The whole battery then opened a fire of case-shot and percussion-shell on the enemy, and after a sharp cannonade of several hours the enemy retired.”

During the afternoon, a brisk artillery fire was kept up by Captain Hart’s guns. Lieutenant Colonel Martin received additional reinforcements from Middletown. The First North Carolina Cavalry under the command of Colonel Lawrence S. Baker was the rear guard for their brigade. The troopers formed their lines next to the Jeff Davis Legion, and in a sharpshooter manner, the troopers became hotly engaged with the Union troops where they fought with “perfect satisfaction.” General JEB Stuart later wrote: “They were exposed to a severe fire of artillery and musketry, which they bore without flinching, nor was there the slightest confusion in the ranks.”

General Wade Hampton later wrote: “I beg to commend the conduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Martin and his command while he held the gap of the mountain. The men of Lieutenant-Colonel Martin fought with their accustomed gallantry, and they were able supported by a portion of the North Carolina Regiment, who had been detailed as sharpshooters. Lieutenant-Colonel Martin on this occasion, as on all others, conducted himself as a gallant and able officer.”

During the climax, the Union troopers were held in check until the arrival of two brigades of Union infantry. General JEB Stuart later wrote: “Which was the only force we were yet able to discover, so well did he keep his troops concealed.” Earlier in the day, General Ambrose Burnside received a message from General Pleasanton asking for additional support from the infantry. General Burnside detached a portion of General Isaac P. Rodman’s Division of General Jesse Reno’s Ninth Corps to Braddock’s Gap.

William N. Pickerell of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry recalled the moments before the Union break through of Braddock’s Gap: “Counted off by fours and the dismounted men crawled up the mountainside through bushes and over stone fences, and soon made it too hot for that battery to operate. In this fight Oliver H. Trestor, of Company D, was killed as he leaped a stone wall right into a bunch of Confederates in hiding behind it. The Confederate battery with its supporting cavalry limbered to the rear and broke into a wild flight down the National Road across the Middletown Valley pursued by the Third Indiana and Eighth Illinois into the village of Middletown”.

After a severe cannonading and several warm volleys with carbines, Lieutenant Hains’ stated: “Notwithstanding the inequality of position of our battery and that of the enemy, we drove them from their position with the loss of only two horses.” The Jeff Davis Legion began to fall back, having previously barricaded the road in several places. Captain Hart limbered up his guns, withdrew from Braddock’s Gap, and redeployed on the National Road, waiting for the Union troopers to appear. Lieutenant Hains’ recalled: “Upon their retiring, we followed with alacrity, and overtook them again near Middletown.”

As the Union cavalry began their decent down the Catoctin Mountain, trooper Pickerall recalled, “Encircled with forest crowned mountain ranges, I have seen no lovelier landscapes than the Middletown Valley, as it appeared to me.” Charles M. Smith of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry recalled: “Abandoned Confederate corpses lying motionless along the roadside and adjacent cornfields haunted me.”

Union Captain Horatio G. Gibson’s Battery then came up, and “soon in beautiful style induced another backward movement.” Farnsworth’s Brigade then advanced, and engaged the cavalry until they were driven beyond Middletown about 1,000 yards, to a third position. A few rounds fired from a section of Hains’ Battery positioned on the left, and Gibson’s Battery that was deployed on the right, “sufficed to silence” the Confederate Blakely rifles of Captain Hart’s Battery.

Buying enough time for the Confederate army, those Confederates engaged at Braddock’s Gap were ordered to withdraw to Boonsboro. General Pleasanton later wrote: “The Confederates retreated rapidly to Turner’s Gap of the South Mountain; but before doing so they blew up the bridge on the Catoctin Creek, and set fire to the barn and other valuables of the persons residing at that point.”

As Braddock’s Gap was overwhelmed by the Union cavalry, General Burnside ordered the rest of General Reno’s Ninth Corps to move at once to Middletown. After the Confederate cavalry retired, portions of Colonel Farnsworth’s brigade forded the Catoctin Creek and held the ground securing it for the Union infantry advance. Lieutenant Hains’ positioned one section of his battery on the National Road where he was supported by three squadrons of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. The fighting soon died down as daylight gave way to darkness. As Confederate Daniel H. Hill stood at the opening of Turner’s Gap, he knew by daylight of the 14th, a major battle would soon erupt.

The skirmishing that occurred on September 13th, 1862 set the stage for the Battle of South Mountain. While not a lot of information is known about the Braddock’s Gap skirmish, it was an important part of the Maryland Campaign. Because of this skirmish, it allowed portions of the Union army to march toward Middletown after it was discovered that the majority of the Confederate army was west of South Mountain. The Union army was now a day behind the main Confederate army and the focus would now shift toward South Mountain. It would be up to those Confederate defenders at South Mountain to hold back the Union tide and buy the Confederate army the time that it needed until it could reunite after the fall of Harper’s Ferry on the ground of Lee’s choosing.

Postcards courtesy of USGW Archives

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4 thoughts on “The Skirmish of Braddock’s Gap on Catoctin Mountain

  1. David Williams January 5, 2013 / 11:25 am

    Best information on this confrontation that I have found. Would like to see a bibliography. Many thanks.

    • John A. Miller January 5, 2013 / 3:06 pm

      Thank you for the comment. I gave this talk at the Chambersburg seminar this past year. Once I get time, I will dig up my notes.

  2. The Old General March 6, 2015 / 8:09 pm

    John,

    It seems on my Civil War life walk, I continue to come to your works for information. Thank you for filling in on some important missing pieces. Regarding the action north of Frederick, do you know was Gen. Fitz Lee present during this action? Second thought, what was the position of the 1st and 5th Virginia Cavalry from his Brigade? You mentioned High Knob pass, possible they were stationed at this Gap or maybe further north? Thanks, John

    • John A. Miller March 6, 2015 / 9:06 pm

      The brigade was all over the place. Several accounts have Lee as being in Westminster with Rosser and others have him positioned at Libertytown Maryland moving his brigade to Hamburg Pass. At Libertytown is when Lee received a message from Stuart about gaining the rear of the Union army at Frederick which would suggest that Lee was on site with the other units of his brigade. My new book coming out on the Catoctin Mountain, I spent several months going back from article format to adding footnotes and such into it. The 1st Virginia was assigned to Longstreet Corps during his movements in accordance with Special Orders No. 191. The 5th Virginia after leaving Westminster would basically move toward Middletown passing through MIddleburg and using other roads not noted made it to Stuart and assigned to Fox’s Gap late on September 13 with two guns of Pelham’s battery. They would open the South Mountain fight early in the morning and were almost fired upon by Garland’s Brigade early on the 14th. Hope this answers some of your questions. Thanks.

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