The Battle for Turner’s Gap

On September 14, 1862, several battles erupted on South Mountain. The Union army, commanded by Major General George McClellan had caught up with the rear of the Confederate army, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Much of the fighting during the morning of September 14, was concentrated around Fox’s Gap, one mile to the south of Turner’s Gap and the National Road. By the afternoon, reinforcements from both armies began making their way toward South Mountain. By evening, the battles of Brownsville Gap, Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, Turner’s Gap and Frostown Gap would erupt.

Alfred Colquitt in Uniform
Confederate Colonel Alfred Colquitt, shown here as a major general.

Guarding the eastern approach to Turner’s Gap, situated along the National Road, was a brigade of Confederate infantry commanded by. His brigade consisted of 13th Alabama Infantry, 6th Georgia Infantry, 23rd Georgia Infantry, 27th Georgia Infantry, and the 28th Georgia Infantry. They had been posted east of Turner’s Gap, since the evening prior the Battles of Catoctin Mountain came to an end. Supporting Col. Colquitt was Captain John Lane’s Battery of Lieutenant Colonel A. S. Cutt’s Battalion, who positioned his guns at Turner’s Gap overlooking the National Road.

While Col. Colquitt remained in his position, several miles east at Frederick, Maryland, the Union I Corps, under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker, left their camp along the banks of the Monocacy River at 6:00 a.m. By 1:00 p.m., Maj. Gen. Hooker’s corps had reached Middletown, Maryland. There, he was ordered to attack Turner’s Gap. Marching his men to the small town of Bolivar, Maj. Gen. Hooker moved his corps to the right, along Mt. Tabor Road, and came near the small area called Frostown. Here, Maj. Gen. Hooker would attack the Confederate left flank holding the mountain ridge north of Turner’s Gap.

Union Brigadier General John Gibbon

While Maj. Gen. Hooker’s corps was deploying, Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Fourth Brigade of Brigadier General John P. Hatch’s First Division was ordered back to the National Road and attack Turner’s Gap. Brigadier General Gibbon’s brigade consisted of the 19th Indiana Infantry, commanded by Colonel Solomon Meredith. Commanding the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry was Colonel Lucius Fairchild, and the 6th Wisconsin Infantry was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edward S. Bragg. The 7th Wisconsin Infantry was commanded by Captain John B. Callis. Brigadier General Gibbon’s brigade would hold the extreme left flank of the I Corps. The last of fresh troops, part of Major General Jesse Reno’s IX Corps was located a mile to the south, ready to attack Fox’s Gap.

By 3:00 p.m., Gibbon’s Brigade were positioning themselves into a battle line just east of Bolivar. Supporting Gibbon’s Brigade was a section of artillery from Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant James Stewart. Brigadier General Gibbon deployed his brigade on both sides to the National Road. In front, the 19th Indiana Infantry was on the left of the National Road, and were in battle line formation. Supporting them was the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, who were deployed in columns. The 7th Wisconsin Infantry was located on the right side of the National Road and deployed in a battle line, while the 6th Wisconsin Infantry was in support, deployed in columns.

Map showing the positions of Gibbon’s Brigade and Colquitt’s Brigade.

Colonel Colquitt had his brigade deployed along the National Road, at the base of South Mountain leading into Turner’s Gap. His left flank was held by the 28th Georgia Infantry, commanded by Major Tully Graybill. To their right and left of the National Road was the 23rd Georgia Infantry, commanded by Colonel W. P. Barclay. Located on the right side of the National Road was Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Newton’s 6th Georgia Infantry. Positioned next to them was the 13th Alabama Infantry, commanded by Colonel Birkett D. Fry. Holding the right the flank was the 27th Georgia Infantry, commanded by Colonel Levi B. Smith. Four companies of skirmishers from  the 28th Georgia Infantry, commanded by Captain W. M. Arnold, were positioned just east of Fox’s Gap that joined the National Road.

By 5:00 p.m., as part of a coordinated assault on Frostown Gap and Fox’s Gap, Brig. Gen. Gibbon ordered his men forward. Captain W. W. Dudley’s company of the 19th Indiana Infantry moved to the left and deployed as flankers. They would hold the extreme left flank of Gibbon’s brigade. Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry deployed skirmishers in front of the 19th Indiana Infantry, while Company K, 6th Wisconsin Infantry deployed in front of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry.  

Upon seeing Gibbon’s brigade moving forward, Col. Colquitt sent a dispatch to Major General Daniel H. Hill asking for reinforcements. Major General Hill responded, saying that he had none and that Col. Colquitt would need to defend Turner’s Gap with the forces he had on hand. This was due to Maj. Gen. Hooker’s assault on Frostown Gap to the north of Col. Colquitt’s position, and Major General Jesse Reno’s IX Corps attacking Fox’s Gap to his south.  Additional Confederate reinforcements were needed in those areas in order to keep the Union army from breaking through South Mountain.

Captain Lane’s artillery opened on Gibbon’s brigade as they began moving forward. As Gibbon’s brigade moved forward, Lt. Stewart’s two gun section followed behind until their rifled cannon were in range of the Confederate guns. The skirmishers of Captain Arnold concealed themselves within the wood line. They opened on the advancing skirmishers of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry and 19th Indiana Infantry. Many of the Confederate skirmishers took up in the whitewashed house that was located at the intersection of the National Road and Fox’s Gap Road.

Lieutenant Stewart’s guns quickly silenced the Georgians, but they fell back and took up position just west of the intersection, using stone fences to reform their skirmish line. As the Georgian skirmishers quickly went back to work, they managed to hold back the 19th Indiana Infantry. Company G, of the 19th Indiana Infantry managed to quickly wheel left and begin gaining ground. Captain Clark, the company commander, managed to dislodge Arnold’s skirmishers, capturing 14 Confederates.

southmountain 180
The Iron Brigade Field, South Mountain State Battlefield. This is where the 6th and 7th WI Infantry moved as the right flank. A series of boulders in this field also provided protection to those Union men while many leaped frogged through the field.

While Brig. Gen. Gibbon’s left flank engaged, his right flank moved forward. They entered a cornfield that covered about half of a mile. The 7th Wisconsin Infantry followed behind the 6th Wisconsin Infantry skirmishers, who were in their front, 100 yards ahead. Once they moved out of the cornfield, they came to an open field. There, the 23rd Georgia Infantry and the 28th Georgia Infantry opened fire. These two Georgia regiments were well concealed behind a stone fence that was at the bottom of a ravine, which made a perfect breastwork.

The 7th Wisconsin Infantry quickly formed their battle line, with their left situated on the National Road, and their right stretched across the field, where their right flank rested near the woods. The Georgians kept up their fire.

While Col. Colquitt’s left flank was situated behind a natural breastwork, his right flank was still coming under fire. The 19th Indiana Infantry, along with the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry slowly began to dislodge the Confederates. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Gibbon’s right flank was starting to get bogged down. To complicate matters, Brig. Gen. Gibbon was losing daylight.

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The Iron Brigade Field, looking east toward Bolivar.

As the 19th Indiana Infantry and the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry continue to hit Col. Colquitt’s right flank, it began to give way. That part of Col. Colquitt’s brigade was in a more exposed position, and they were slowly being driven back. Finally, the 19th Indiana Infantry managed to break Col. Colquitt’s right flank. The 27th Georgia Infantry, followed by the 13th Alabama Infantry, and the 6th Georgia Infantry were forced to retreat further up South Mountain. As Col. Colquitt’s right flank was giving up ground, this allowed Brig. Gen. Gibbon’s left flank to support the two Wisconsin regiments that formed the right flank. The 23rd Georgia Infantry began receiving fire from it’s right. But, still using the stone fence as a breastwork, the Union fire wasn’t enough to break Colquitt’s left flank.

Map showing the final assault by the Iron Brigade on Colquitt’s position just as nightfall was coming.

The 7th Wisconsin Infantry kept a heavy fire upon the 23rd Georgia Infantry. Receiving support from the their left flank, the 7th Wisconsin Infantry began another advance. They were quickly hit with musketry from the 28th Georgia Infantry. This drove the 7th Wisconsin Infantry back. They were getting fired upon by the Confederates from their front, flank, as well as their rear.

The 6th Wisconsin Infantry was brought into action, and they quickly formed up on the right flank of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry. As the 6th Wisconsin Infantry moved forward, they were hit by fire from the 28th Georgia Infantry. As daylight was fading, Col. Bragg ordered his 6th Wisconsin Infantry to advance by wings. The right wing of Col. Bragg’s regiment fired into the Confederates. While they reloaded, he then advanced his left wing, who quickly fired into the Confederates. He then advanced his right wing and continued this leapfrog movement. Col. Bragg gained a considerable amount of ground.

Now, with twilight upon the battlefield and darkness setting in, Brig. Gen. Gibbon ordered his brigade to cease fire. Gibbon’s brigade was withdrawn from the battlefield with the exception of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, who would sleep under arms that night. Brigadier General Gibbon’s losses were 37 killed, 251 wounded, and 30 missing. Colonel Colquitt’s losses were 110 killed, wounded, or missing. Colonel Colquitt attended to his wounded and managed to evacuate many of them.

Although Gibbon’s brigade was unable to break through the Confederate battle line, they earned the nickname “The Iron Brigade.” At one point during the attack, Maj. Gen. McClellan, observing the battlefield, saw Gibbon’s brigade and complimented on how they stood their ground, saying that Gibbon’s men stood like iron. The Iron Brigade was also known as the “Black hats” as they proudly wore their dress Hardee hats, with their dress frock coats and white gaiters.

Advancing the Gap: Hatch’s Division during the Battle of South Mountain

During the afternoon of September 14th, 1862, General McClellan, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac knew that the Confederate Army was divided, and he wanted to pounce each individual portion before it had time to concentrate. Standing in McClellan’s way were two things. The first was South Mountain, a mountain range that divides Frederick and Washington Counties, or Eastern Maryland from Western Maryland. The second was a meager Confederate force of about 1,500 defending the mountain gaps from Frostown to Fox’s Gap. Seven miles further to the south was another 1,500 Confederate soldiers guarding the backdoor to Harper’s Ferry at Crampton’s Gap and Brownsville Pass. With both of these issues facing McClellan, he knew he had to act now.

Thinking that Turner’s Gap would be heavily defended, McClellan decided he would side step it and move his army through Fox’s Gap to the south, and Frostown to the north of Turner’s Gap. Here McClellan would face a major obstacle. Confederate General Daniel H. Hill had already sent a brigade under General Samuel Garland to Fox’s Gap and another brigade under Colonel Alfred Colquitt below Turner’s Gap on the National Road. North of Turner’s Gap, Hill had ordered General Robert Rodes’ Alabama Brigade to occupy the area that the Virginians and South Carolinians would later become engaged in. To make matters worse, in the Middletown Valley McClellan’s army was in view of the Confederate artillery that had massed at the summit of Turner’s Gap under the command of Captain John Lane. Eventually, more artillery support arrived as Lieutenant Colonel Allen S. Cutts’ Artillery Battalion arrived and deployed on the heights of Turner’s Gap. To attack such a position would almost be suicide.

During the mid afternoon, the Union 1st Corps under the command of General Joseph Hooker arrived at Bolivar, a town with a distinct crossroad. Bolivar is located between Middletown and South Mountain. Taking the Mount Tabor Road on the right from Bolivar, he would soon send his Corps into battle where a small force of Confederate soldiers guarded the area. After marching on Mount Tabor Road, General John Gibbon’s Brigade, already known by that time as the Iron Brigade for their assault at Manassas a few weeks before, was recalled and ordered to hit the Confederate defenses along the National Road. As Hooker advanced on the small hamlet of Frostown, he would soon be in position to hit the small Confederate force under General Robert Rodes, who was being reinforced by other brigades of Confederate infantry at that time.

Using Frostown Road, Hooker’s Corps deployed. General George Meade and his division deployed to the right of Frostown Road, while General John Hatch deployed to the left of Frostown Road. Situated in the center, and held in reserve was the division under General James Rickett’s. As General Hatch’s division began to climb the rugged mountainside Private Uberto A. Burnham of the 76th New York, Hofmann’s Brigade recalled: “The mountain was quite steep. When we were about half-way up we halted a few minutes to rest. The sun had gone down behind the mountain. We were marching in the shadow. The sun lighted up the valley behind us. It was a beautiful sight, with farm houses, grain fields, orchards, groups of staff officers, and columns of troops in motion, but I cannot say I enjoyed the scene. I felt the importance of the big task before us.”

Private Burnham continued: “A little further up the mountain was a comparatively level place planted with corn, which had been fenced in. I saw the skirmishers go in the field, and thought they would perhaps find some of the enemy there, but they did not. I saw their bright uniforms going over the fence on the further side. Three women came down the side of the mountain on horseback by a diagonal path and passed in front of the regiment.”

As Hatch’s boys in blue were ascending the mountain, the men noticed that the eastern side of the mountain was cleared to the summit where it turned into a wooded area about 200 yards wide. From there a cornfield appeared, then another wooded area, and from there a wide path to Turner’s Gap was revealed. This was the area that General Hatch’s Division was to take possession of.

General Hatch, being newly appointed deployed his division. Covering his left flank was General Walter Phelps’ First Brigade, who commanded the following regiments: the 22nd New York Infantry, 24th New York Infantry, 2nd United States Sharpshooters, 30th New York Infantry, and the 84th New York Infantry. To their right was General Marsena Rudolph Patrick’s Third Brigade which consisted of the 21st New York Infantry, 23rd New York Infantry, 35th New York Infantry, and the 80th New York Infantry. Held in reserve, in the rear of Hatch’s Division was the Second Brigade under General Abner Doubleday, who commanded the 56th Pennsylvania Infantry, 76th New York Infantry, 7th Indiana Infantry, and the 95th New York Infantry.

General Marsena Patrick’s Third Brigade deployed and held the right of Hatch’s Division. General Patrick sent out the 21st New York ahead of his brigade. Upon deployment, General Hatch ordered the rest of General Patrick’s Brigade to ascend South Mountain. The 35th New York deployed to the left, overlooking the road, and without unslinging their knapsacks, climbed the mountain. Soon before reaching the summit, the 35th New York lost site of the 21st New York, and the 80th New York was ordered to plug the hole. The 23rd New York supported the 35th New York during the deployment. By this time Colonel Phelps arrived in support of the line.

Upon deployment, Colonel Phelps noted that the woods and the nature of the ground gave them protection from Lieutenant Colonel Cutts’ Artillery Battalion, which was posted and firing on his left. From there Colonel Phelps moved forward, marching toward the summit where the road was located. As they moved forward, Colonel Phelps requested that General Patrick deploy his skirmishers. As Phelps moved, the ground gave him cover, thus he was unobserved by General Richard Garnett’s Confederate Brigade. Garnett’s brigade was posted behind a fence and cornfield, with artillery behind them in an open field, on higher ground.

General John Hatch followed Phelps just as the battle had begun, and ordered the men forward during a deadly fire. Soon a bullet struck General Hatch and he was removed from the field where General Abner Doubleday took command. Phelps’ men continued to the top and began to engage the Confederates. Phelps’ advance continued until he stopped in an area where an abrupt rise of ground gave his men shelter. Once there, the 84th New York (14th Brooklyn) advanced to the left to hit the right of Garnett’s Brigade, where the 8th Virginia Infantry was posted, hitting the Confederate ranks with great musketry. During the deployment of Phelps’ Brigade, the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters were detached and ordered to preceed up a steep ravine, where they rendered valuable service.

While Patrick’s and Phelps’ brigades were in the beginning phases of the battle, the 21st New York under the command of Colonel William F. Rogers charged up the hill and took possession of a fence near the cornfield, where they began picking off the Confederate cannoneers. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Burr Gates, commanding the 80th New York Infantry was ordered by General Patrick to support the 35th New York, which by that time, was thrown forward near the road as skirmishers. The road was in site and orders came for the 80th New York to support the 21st New York, which was already charging up the mountain toward the cornfield. Skirmishers were again deployed until the rest of the 80th New York was in place. Soon a volley from the New Yorkers poured into the Virginians, who were now lying behind a fence by the cornfield. The 14th New York came onto line and engaged in the battle, helping to push Garnett’s Confederate soldiers back.

As Hofmann’s Brigade came to the summit in support of Phelps and Patrick, their officer’s ordered the knapsacks to be unslung, and just then came a clash of musketry. The officers soon ordered bayonets to be fixed, and forward at a charge they went. When this occurred the Confederate troops began to fall back through the wooded area, taking position in the open field. The Union line came to the edge of the woods, to an old rail fence and halted. Private Burnham recalled: “The broken fence was about knee high, but seemed to give some protection.”

The Union troops pushed the Confederates back through the field to the stone fence where the Confederate soldiers held that position, and soon Hatch’s boys occupied the open fields on the mountaintop. Phelps’ Brigade held that position until General James Rickett’s Division arrived, and Phelps’ pulled back to a more supportive role.

Darkness came long before the firing had ceased. During the night after the battle died down, Union troops slept on their arms, ready for any attack that may come. But such an attack never came, as the Confederate forces fell back from the heights of Tuner’s Gap and began to march toward Boonsboro, where they were ordered to begin their march to Sharpsburg. The fighting that took place at Frostown was fought on some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the area. Those men, officers, and enlistees alike, all mention the treacherous rocky terrain.

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.