During the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain, September 14, 2012, I led several tours of Fox’s Gap. I broke Fox’s Gap down into three phases, morning, afternoon and finally I ended the 150th with the evening phase. The tours I led had more than 100 participants and was one of the highlights of my career in Parks. Going through my notes from the state of Maryland, I came across the notes of my final tour that I gave as a Historian at South Mountain and I wanted to share these notes with my followers and friends. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed researching this topic.
The Texas Brigade was organized on October 22, 1861, in Richmond, Virginia. It was initially commanded by Brig. Gen. Louis T. Wigfall. After February of 1862, Wigfall resigned command of the brigade and in early March Colonel John Hood was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command. Because of his daring leadership the brigade adopted the name of Hood’s Texas Brigade, despite his brief service of only six months as commander.
The Texas Brigade pulled out of Richmond on August 7, 1862. Reflecting on what would become the Campaigns at Manassas and Maryland, John Stevens of the 5th Texas Infantry reflects on the hardships of company. “August the 7th – we left Richmond on this campaign. In all these days we have never changed our clothes, for the reason that we have had no chance to do so-no chance to draw new clothing and clothing as all old soldiers will tell you, we could not carry any extra with us. One blanket, gun and accoutrements, haversack and canteen was all that any soldier could afford to carry. Now for nearly two months we have worn the same shirt, pants and jacket-sleeping on the ground, anywhere we could find a place, and the opportunity to lie down. Dust, mud, hot weather, rain and sunshine, we take it as it comes. Also the wading of creeks and rivers—the water often waist deep—no chance to clense ourselves from the unavoidable accumulation of filth.”
J.B. Polley also confirms the same feelings – “It [Hood’s Division] marched light, each man having by this time learned what weight he could comfortably carry, and therefore, dispensing with all superfluities. Still, we could not reduce the weight to be carried less than about thirty-six pounds. A gun weighed about ten pounds, the cartridge box, cap-box, bayonet and the belts and straps to which these hung, another ten, and the roll of the blanket and tent, or oil-cloth, still another ten. Add to these the weight of the haversack, in which not only provisions but under-clothing and many other necessities were carried, and the total, on a fair estimate, was never less than thirty-six pounds, and often went a little beyond forty. A canteen full of water weighed at least three pounds… “
By late August, the Texans fought at Manassas, Virginia, were they faced off again against the 5th New York. Alfred Davenport’s “Camp and Field Life of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry” wrote about that battle. “And the men were receiving deadly volleys from an unseen enemy on their left and rear, at close quarters, as well as on their front, into their faces, by Hood’s brave but ragged barefooted, half-starved Texans…”
As General Robert E. Lee moves northward toward the Potomac River, the Second Manassas Campaign has already taken a toll of the Texans. John Stevens of the 5th Texas wrote, “Now, remember this is about the 6th or 7th of September, and we have been out of Richmond a full month and we have on the same clothes: pants, jacket and shirt, nothing more…We also have some kind of head cover, either an old piece of a hat or an old cap and if we have not worn them out, we have some sort of footwear, in the shape of old army shoes, butt many of us are bare- footed.”
As the Confederate army beings to concentrate in Frederick, a Frederick resident recalled his experiences with the Confederate army. “They are on the broad grin all the time. Oh! they are so dirty! I don’t think the Potomac river could wash them clean; and ragged! — there is not a scarecrow in the cornfields that would not scorn to exchange clothes with them; and so tattered! — there isn’t a decently dressed soldier in their whole army. I saw some strikingly handsome faces though; or, rather, they would have been so if they could have had a good scrubbing. They were very polite, I must confess, and always asked for a drink of water, or anything else, and never think of coming inside of a door without an invitation.”
General John B. Hood would find himself marching at the rear of his division, under arrest for insubordination as a result of a dispute over the rightful ownership of captured Union ambulances following the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run with Brigadier General Nathan Evans. Hood was ordered to Culpepper for court martial but, General Lee rescinded that order and Hood remained with the army as it marched into Maryland. As a result of his arrest, according to Hood in his post-war memoirs, his division, upon its arrival in Hagerstown would demonstrate a certain degree of insubordination and Hood advised his subordinates that the issue of his arrest would be decided in a short time.
On September 9, General Lee issued his famous Special Orders No. 191 that divided his army into several sections. The Texas Brigade would be ordered to march to Hagerstown with General James Longstreet’s Wing of the army. J.B. Polley recalled marching toward Hagerstown: “The three days’ rations issued to the division on the 13th [September] included no meat, and were therefore the sooner exhausted. No clothing or shoes had been furnished it since it left Richmond, and in a month and a half of hard marching and harder fighting hundreds of the men had become ragged and barefooted, while lack of provisions forced them to subsist on green corn and green apples.”
The Battles of the Catoctin Mountain on September 13 was a sign of things to come the following day. By dawn of September 14, the first shots of the Battle of South Mountain were fired at Fox’s Gap. Throughout the day, the Union army that managed to catch up with Lee’s Confederate army tried desperately to penetrate South Mountain and punch through the mountain gaps in order to destroy each divided element of the Confederate army. By the afternoon, the Union army had come close to breaking through Fox’s Gap. Finally, Hood’s Division was ordered to move to Fox’s Gap and hold the Union army back until after nightfall.
Hood’s Division would begin ascending the mountain at about 3:30 pm and Hood, still at the rear of his division, faintly heard the cry’s from his Texas brigade demanding of General Lee, “Give us Hood!” Lee requested that Hood show regret for his dispute with General Evans and Hood politely declined both attempts by Lee for the admittance of guilt. Seeing that he would get nowhere with Hood, Lee promptly released Hood from his arrest to re-take command of his division and the matter of the ambulance dispute would be settled at a later date. Hood quickly mounted his horse and rode to the summit, amid the cheers of his division, and reported to General Longstreet, who was then placing his command into defensive positions on either side of the National Pike. Hood was ordered to deploy his division on the left of the pike with his right resting near the pike.
From this position, Hood witnessed “the advance of McClellan’s long lines” that had the evident appearance of forcing the Confederates from the mountain. Remaining in this position for a short time, Hood was ordered by Longstreet to shift his division to the South of the pike to shore up the Confederate line there. The 35th Mass Infantry had just pulled out from the woods when Hood was advancing.
Before arriving in force, four members from the Hampton Legion Infantry were ordered ahead to scout. Stephen Welch recalls: “A call was made for three volunteer skirmishers. Under one of the Lieutenants, we pushed ahead and on reaching the crest or the mountain we saw a line of blue coats not 30 yards from us. Fortunately they did not see us, so taking deliberate aim we fired and withdrew. It had some effect of astonishing them and as soon as possible they fired us in return, doing no damage, however. Not being ranked in line of battle we four lay down and the yanks fired over us.”
Hood ordered his division to deploy with Colonel Evander Law’s brigade on the left and Colonel William Wofford’s brigade on the right (facing in a Southeasterly direction from the tree line near Wise’s Northfield). Then the order to fix bayonets was given and when the Union troops were within 75 to 100 yards, the order to charge was given. Sometime around 7pm, shots range out from the woods and mass confusion began setting on the soldiers in blue. As the 35th Mass was pulling back, skirmishers of the 51st Pennsylvania had advance and this caught the attention of Hood. When Hood’s men fired, the shots went over the heads of the Pennsylvanians, but struck down many Massachusetts men including their colonel.
The 35th Mass fired and soon “Cease fire” is given as they struck the skirmishers of the 51st PA. Hood would stand off with BGen Edward Ferrero’s Brigade of the IX Corps recalled “[We] was unexpectedly fired upon from the woods by a large force of the enemy. The sudden fire produced the utmost confusion in one of my new regiments. It quickly recovered, however, reforming under a severe fire. My command then advanced, and after a long and hard fight, lasting until 9 p. m., drove the enemy from their position and occupied the field. We retained possession of the battle-field during the night, having our whole force on guard, momentarily expecting a renewal of the attack.”
Major General Jesse Reno moved forward in the South Field to observe the Confederate activity. Captain Gabriel Campbell of the 17th Michigan Infantry observed the following: “The twilight was growing dusky….about 50 yards where I met General Wilcox, I encountered General Reno and four of five members of his staff riding quietly to the front. Reno, who was about half the length of his steed in advance was leaning forward peering steadily through his field glass to reconnoiter for himself. I stood and watch. Just as I reached the end of the fence there was a sudden fosilade, about five or six shots….at once commotion among the Reno horsemen, dismounting and catching of someone.” Thomas Parker of the 51st Pennsylvania recalled, “Thus passes away the army’s brightest stars, as a gentleman, a friend and a soldier.”
By midnight, the Confederate army had fallen back toward Boonsboro. J.B. Polley of the 4th Texas: “…on the morning of the 15th, and Hood’s division, assisted by artillery and cavalry, forming the rear guard, and holding the Federals in check until the other troops of Longstreet’s command marched quietly to their destination west of Antietam Creek. This was no easy task.”
Six days after the Battle of Antietam, General Ambrose Burnside issued General Orders No. 17 officially announcing the death of Jesse Reno. “BY the death of this distinguished officer, the country loses one of its most devoted patriots, the army one of its most thorough soldiers. In the long list of battles in which General Reno has fought in his country’s service, his name always appears with the brightest luster, and he has now bravely met a soldier’s death while gallantly leading his men at the Battle of South Mountain.”