When the men and boys of the 45th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry began ascending the steep slopes of Maryland's South Mountain on the morning of Sunday, September 14, 1862, they could see and hear that they were marching into the first true test of their mettle.
Scenes from the Battle of South Mountain, September 14, 1862 (Frank Leslie's)
These green soldiers, made up of men from a swath of Central Pennsylvania running from Lancaster County in the south, to Centre County in the middle, to Tioga County in the far north, had seen skirmishes on the coast of the Carolinas in the first year of the Civil War. But nothing quite like this.
The 45th Pennsylvania was among the IX Corps of the US Army, an organization that featured prominently in General George McClellan's battle plan on September 14. His goal: evict Confederate forces from the slopes of the South Mountain range and get at Robert E. Lee's widely scattered Army of Northern Virginia on the opposite side of the ridge.
The scene in Middletown, MD on September 14, 1862 as US forces marched through the town towards South Mountain. (Library of Congress)
To accomplish this - the 45th Pennsylvania and its neighboring units were tasked with taking one of three major mountain passes carrying roads across the steep ridgeline. Their attack would take place where the Old Sharpsburg Road crested the ridge through woodlots and farmers' fields at a place called Fox's Gap.
Decades later, when the survivors of the 45th Pennsylvania assembled their regimental history, they dedicated a brief chapter to the battle where they first "saw the elephant." One of the veterans of South Mountain, Sergeant Eugene Beauge of Company G, documented their experiences far better than we ever could hope to more than a century and a half later. I'll let the native of Wellsboro, Tioga County tell their story:
It was nine o'clock Sunday morning September 14th, 1862. A thick fog which had settled over the Catoctin Valley during the night had disappeared; we had finished our breakfast of roasted corn, crackers and coffee; the drum rolled and we fell in line ready to move. Considerable artillery firing had been going on since daybreak. The battle of South Mountain had begun.
Sergeant Eugene Beauge of Company G, 45th Pennsylvania in his later years.
Our column was set in motion and we were soon winding our way slowly up the hill. The sharp report of a cannon is heard on top of the hill, and a shell comes tearing down screeching through the air. Others followed in quick succession.
An illustration of the fighting at Fox's Gap at South Mountain, where the 45th Pennsylvania fought on September 14, 1862 (Library of Congress)
The enemy on top of the mountain (part of Lee's army under D. H. Hill stationed there to keep McClellan in check while the Rebels under Stonewall Jackson were capturing Harpers Ferry), could discern all our movements and were making it as hot as they could for us. We pushed steadily on and presently took a by-path that diverged to the left from the turnpike, and continued on over the rough ground and wooded hill until we came to a clearing where the column formed line of battle near an old log house, the right of the line of the Forty-fifth resting on the road. It must have been then not far from eleven o'clock.
The Rebels were pelting us with grape and canister and it was only by lying down that we avoided serious punishment. Between us and the enemy was a cornfield on a side hill; then a piece of thin woods and, as we found out later on, an open space beyond the timber.
Having formed line of battle, orders were given to unsling knapsacks which were piled up and a man from each company detailed to guard them. Thick and fast came the grape and canister with a swish down the road and diagonally into the field tearing up the turf all about us. Several pieces of artillery were advanced up the hill for the purpose, I suppose, of silencing the Rebel battery that was making all this fuss. Hardly had the guns unlimbered, however, when a volley of musketry and a dose of grape and canister sent gams, gunners, caissons and horses pell mell back down the road. It looked for a few minutes as though a panic would ensue.
But Colonel [Thomas] Welsh, who although in command of a brigade, was in the front line with his own regiment, by a few cool assuring words soon allayed whatever excitement might have prevailed among the men. Order was restored and the exciting incident passed off without serious trouble.
For several hours during the forepart of the afternoon the conflict was continued by the artillery alone. Meanwhile reenforcements were coming up and our line was being formed for the assault. At four o'clock all had become ominously silent all along the line. Not a gun was heard. The two giants were taking breath for the final tussle.
A mounted officer came dashing up and spoke a few hurried words to Colonel Welsh and passed on to the left. Orders were communicated to regimental commanders and then came the long expected order, "Attention, battalion! Shoulder arms. Forward, guide center, March!"
The whole line advanced. Companies A and K being thrown out as skirmishers; the line of battle swiftly and silently followed them up through the cornfield.
Major John I. Curtin, in command of the regiment, it seems intended going into the fight on horseback. His horse, however, a spirited animal, either through fear or pure cussedness, refused to jump the low stone wall over into the cornfield. The regiment was pressing steadily on, leaving the gallant major behind. That would never do.
Dismounting he dropped the reins over the animal's neck and letting his steed go galloping riderless back to the rear Curtin hurried on after the Forty-fifth and soon caught up with it. Had the brute obeyed his master that day and carried him into that tempest of lead and iron the chances are that neither horse nor rider would have come out alive.
It must have been some twenty rods through the cornfield. When about half way across scattering shots were heard from the front and minie balls began to zip through the air from that direction. Our skirmishers had reached the timber and found the enemy. The firing gradually increased and our line pressed rapidly forward, the Rebel skirmishers slowly falling back, firing as they retreated.
US forces engaged with Confederates at Fox's Gap (Library of Congress)
As our line emerged from the cornfield, climbing over a rail fence into the woods, the Johnnies were seen scaling the fence on the farther side of the timber. At this point a battery of the enemy located on a spur of the mountain to our right proceeded to throw shells into the woods. These missiles made sad havoc among the tree-tops scattering limbs in all directions or plowing ugly furrows in the ground in dangerous proximity to our line.
Welsh and Curtin were both at the front and seemed as cool as if on parade. By their example and soothing words such as "Steady, boys, keep cool!" they did much to allay the nervousness of the men on the firing line. During this momentary halt some of the boys seeing a few Rebels climbing over the fence beyond the woods fired on them. Others followed suit until nearly the whole regiment had fired a volley.
This, of course, was imprudent as it told the Rebel artillery just where our line was advancing through the woods. Our officers were yelling at the top of their voices, "Cease firing!" One of our boys who was an old hunter and a good shot (Andrew Bockus of Company G), muttered to himself, "Don't care a d — n! I saw a Johnny!" It was from 15 to 20 rods through the woods, beyond which was a rail fence pretty well demolished by the Rebels climbing over it.
Presently the order was given by Welsh and quickly repeated by Curtin, "Forward to the fence!" It didn't take long to get there. On reaching the edge of the clearing the enemy's line of battle was discovered in a lane between two stone fences something like 80 yards across an open field. The Rebels were kneeling behind the wall nearest to our line, their own line running parallel or nearly so to ours. Only their gun barrels and the tops of their heads were visible.
An illustration of the fighting at South Mountain on September 14, 1862
The rail fence, or what was left of it, afforded some protection, but the enemy behind their solid wall still had an immense advantage. It was here that we sustained our heaviest loss. We found out afterwards, however, that the Rebels lost more men on that part of the line than we did, most of the Confederate dead or wounded being shot in the head, which was about the only part of their anatomy in sight above the stone wall.
Meanwhile the enemy had a raking fire with their batteries on that part of the field. Trees and fence rails were shivered to pieces by shells and grape and canister coming from the front or at right oblique. All this time the battle was raging furiously along the two or three miles of the Union and Confederate lines.
Reports of cannon, bursting shells and musketry blended together in one continuous, deafening roar. Clouds of white-blue smoke hung over the field like a thick fog, and the air was stifling with the smell of gunpowder. I suppose we noticed these things particularly that day because South Mountain was our first pitched battle and naturally made more of an impression on our minds that the bigger and more important battles we were in later on after we got used to that sort of thing.
The Battle of South Mountain as it raged (Library of Congress)
Between five and six o'clock the One Hundredth Pennsylvania, or ''Round Heads," as we called them, came to the support of the Forty-fifth on the firing line. But the enemy's fire had slackened by that time and presently ceased altogether in our front. The Johnnies were ready to quit. Many of them were shot down while climbing the stone wall in their rear trying to get away.
Our line of battle advancing at once captured a lot of prisoners, about 150, Colonel Welsh says in his official report. It was then about six o'clock. There was more or less firing in other parts of the line as late as nine o'clock that night, but the battle in our front was over and as the sun went down that Sunday evening the woods and rocks on the brow of the hill we had won echoed and reechoed with the cheers of the victors of South Mountain.
A decided victory had been won over the veterans of Lee's army; but we paid dearly for it.
Many of the 45th Pennsylvania's casualties fell in the fields around this mountaintop crossroads. The farmhouse just visible at left belonged to Daniel Wise. To the right are the fences, fields, and woodlots mentioned in the account. The 45th Pennsylvania buried their dead in a neat row near the Wise cabin. Today, this section of the South Mountain is relatively well-preserved.
The Forty-fifth lost 136 officers and men — 21 killed and 115 wounded, many of whom died shortly after. Lieutenant George P. Grove of Company A was mortally wounded and died six days later. Conspicuous among the killed from the writer's own county were Lieutenants George Dwight Smith and James M. Cole of Company I, both excellent soldiers.
The fact that Colonel Welsh on assuming the duties of brigade commander, from among a score of officers selected Lieutenant Smith to fill the most important position on his staff — that of his assistant adjutant general — is sufficient evidence of his abilities as a soldier.
The writer may be pardoned for referring to the death of three of his own Company, (G). Henry Fenton, a giant in strength and fearless as a lion, was shot through the heart; George Brewster, good natured and portly, with whom I chatted that morning, seated on his knapsack nibbling away at an ear of roasted corn, died bravely in the front rank of battle; Jacob Squires was shot through the head after the battle was practically over and died without a struggle.
Next morning we buried our dead. In a trench a little above the old log house referred to. wrapped in their blankets we laid them tenderly away at the front of the hill they had helped to make immortal!
The enemy's dead were also left for us to bury. The poor fellows lay where they fell, singly or piled up one across the other. We were surprised to find so many of them, especially between the two stone walls were the ground in that narrow roadway or lane was literally covered with dead bodies. Some of the severely wounded had also been left behind for us to look after.
An illustration of the Confederate dead on the battlefield at South Mountain (Frank Leslie's)
Our Harpers Ferry muskets with a good sized ball and three buckshot, at short range, had done fearful execution.
No member of the Forty-fifth need blush for having been at South Mountain. Every man did his duty. Burnside, and General Wilcox, our division commander, complimented Colonel Welsh very highly on the conduct of his old regiment at South Mountain.
Colonel Welsh himself in his report of the battle says: "My officers and men were enthusiastic and brave. Where all are so meritorious it would be unjust to designate individuals. I will only add that the Forty-fifth Pennsylvania of my brigade and the Seventeenth Michigan of the first brigade sustained the brunt of the battle with a bravery and constancy seldom equalled in modern warfare..."
Captain E. G. Scheiffelin of Company H, was promoted to major of the regiment immediately after the battle. Second Lieutenant R. G. Richards of Company G, who commanded the company at South Mountain was promoted to captain the same day. It was understood that both of the promotions were made for meritorious conduct on the battlefield. However. Captain Scheiffelin resigned before his commission as major was delivered.
The writer is indebted to General Curtin, Captain Chase of Company I, Lieutenant Davies of Company G, and several comrades of Companies G and I for valuable information and pointers about South Mountain, where we lost more men killed or mortally wounded than in any other battle we were in.
This account is best followed by a sorrowful letter written in the days after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862. Lieutenant Samuel Haynes wrote the letter while being removed from the front lines due to sickness. On his way to a hospital in Washington, he made a stop on the South Mountain battlefield to visit his fallen comrades less than a week after the fight.
Lieutenant Samuel Haynes
September 20th, 1862.
Our regiment has been badly used since I was with it. Last Sunday at the Battle of South Mountain or Blue Ridge it lost 134 killed and wounded. I saw the place to-day where 28 were buried in a row on the battlefield. They are buried as nicely as possible and each grave is marked plainly with a headboard. Poor fellows!
Dwight Smith and Jimmie Cole lie together and the first tears that have started from my eyes since my mother died fell on their graves. They were indeed the most intimate and truest friends I had in the army and fell at their posts, fighting like true soldiers and brave men.
Henry Fenton, George Brewster and Jacob Squire of Company G; George English of Company I, and Gillett Holiday of Company H, were all the boys I was acquainted with and embraces all of Companies G and I, that were killed, but there were more of Company H whose names I do not recollect.
The graves of the fallen members of the 45th Pennsylvania were removed from the slopes of South Mountain in the years after the Civil War and reinterred in Antietam National Cemetery along with thousands of others who fell on the battlefields of Maryland in September 1862.