Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 by Brian Matthew Jordan
Savas Beatie, 2012.
Pp. XI, 388.
On September 14, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the mountain passes of South Mountain. The importance of this engagement was twofold; this caused the Confederate Army to hurriedly congregate along the banks of Antietam Creek but more importantly this was the first victory by the Army of the Potomac over its nemesis Army of Northern Virginia since the war started.
With the bloodiest day in American history looming just days later, the Battle of South Mountain have been overshadowed. Historian Brian Jordan, current doctoral student in American history at Yale University, set out to “challenge traditional histories of the Maryland Campaign by restoring the combat on the slopes of South Mountain to the prominent place its veterans accorded it” (xiii). Jordan succeeds.
The importance of South Mountain to the veterans, according to Jordan, is very obvious in the way they transcribed their memories of the battle—whether in letters, society papers, and/or their diaries. One veteran, John Watts de Peyster, when asked to contribute to a chronicle of the decisive battles in the Civil War, concluded about Antietam that “whatever was won in the cornfields and woods of Antietam was decidedly initiated in the gaps of South Mountain” (xii).
The book begins with a short history to bring the reader up to the Maryland Campaign in the fall of 1862. This portion of the history is well-written as it gives the necessary information for a novice student of the campaign but does not bore a more experienced enthusiast. As the opening maneuvers and Battles of South Mountain—Crampton’s, Fox’s, and Turner’s Gaps–Jordan shines as both an astute historian and a very talented writer, unfolding the ebb and flow of the battles of September 14th.
The “Unholy Sabbath” was ushered in early on that autumn day. As Adjutant V.E. Turner of the 23rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment, serving in the defenses of Fox’s Gap remarked later, “Not till the lines seemed within a few yards of each other was the calm, radiant Sabbath morning broken by the crack of rifles” (103). The beauty of the area was not lost on the soldiers. “Nature, at least, was calm, peaceful, and joyous” as one combatant remarked (107). The day would not be calm and peaceful for the Confederates tasked with defending the passes, which was the primary responsibility of the division commanded by Daniel Harvey “D.H.” Hill. Ordered to defend the top two passes, Fox’s and Turner’s three of his four brigades suffered terribly, including the loss of one of the brigade commanders, Samuel Garland Jr., who was killed leading his North Carolinians in Fox’s Gap. By the end of the day, the Confederates were pushed out of the gaps, but Hill had done his duty and delayed the advance of the Union army for another day.
In the same gap where Garland fell, the advancing blue columns lost a leader as well-Major General Jesse Reno, who was shot during the fighting that evening. Reno commanded the Ninth Corps. As Reno followed a few of his advancing regiments, a volley of musketry erupted from the “darkening forest,” as one of the soldiers of the 35th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment remembered later (183). Reno, on horseback, was struck by the fatal bullet through the chest while also being struck by others in the thigh and groin.
As the account reads, that when Reno tumbled to the ground he noticed Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis, a fellow West Point classmate and personal friend. The division commander inquired about Reno’s wounds, hoping they were not serious. Reno responded “Hallo, Sam, I am dead!” Sturgis refused to accept Reno’s prediction, by exclaiming “Oh no, General, not so bad as that, I hope!” Reno’s response? “Sam, it’s all up with me..Yes, yes, I’m dead—good-bye!” Reno died shortly thereafter, around 7:00 p.m. (183-184).
Another officer struck that day was a lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment, by the name of Rutherford Hayes, who during the morning, was struck “a stunning blow and found a musket ball had struck my left arm” (129). He would be evacuated later in the day to Middletown, Maryland where his wife came to nurse him back to health. Hayes would later become the 19th president of the United States.
The Union attacks though successful in wrestling the passes from the Confederate defenders were hard fought but not as complete a victory as they could have been. One of the rebels defending the pass, John Dooley of the 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment, recalled the thinness of the Confederate line “our regiment sent to defend a position or line which a whole Brigade might be supposed able to protect..There was not a fair fight here” (236). By the end of the day’s fighting the Confederate division of D.H. Hill was able to retreat off the western side of the mountain passes and regroup. The initial reports of the battle from the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major General George B. McClellan’s initial reports of the battle exaggerated the Confederate death toll at South Mountain—but then again, when did McClellan not exaggerate some number about his Confederate counterparts? However, he did not overestimate the outcome of the battle as viewed by the rank and file. James Henry Harrison, a Union soldier, remarked that “the victory was a signal and encouraging one” (303). General Joseph Hooker, later to command the Army of the Potomac, in his official report, stated that “the forcing of the passage of South Mountain will be classed among the most brilliant and satisfactory achievements of this army” (304). What this confidence won for the Union army was the strategic initiative for McClellan, which bore itself out on the bloody fields of Antietam three days later.
Why did South Mountain fade from historic memory? The most obvious reason was the simple fact it was followed just 72 hours later by the bloodbath at Antietam. But, the veterans routinely agreed about the strategic significance and immediate consequences of the South Mountain fight and went, according to Jordan, to great lengths to highlight that fact (309). Uniquely named Adoniram Judson Warner of the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves recorded the psychic importance of the victory at South Mountain after what the Army of the Potomac had already experienced:
Being baffled on the Peninsula [and] had been beaten and discomfited at Bull Run…the consciousness that we had by sheer fighting, beaten the enemy and driven him from his strong positions filled me to overflowing [and] gave me the confidence that we would finally win and the country be safe. (311)
Jordan, in his argument about the importance of South Mountain, relies heavily on primary sources, like Warner’s account above. This drives home his thesis—as who would be better able to judge what was the “pivotal” battles of the war were better than the participants? To find out what else these veterans recounted about this September 14th engagement and what the Confederate response was—well, you will have to read this great history.
In closing, as Jordan writes “by wresting the initiative away from General Robert E. Lee at South Mountain, the men of the Army of the Potomac had done more than achieve a simple battlefield victory. They were now, according to Horace Greeley, the soldiers “flushed with unwonted victory, and dull faith that they just wrested two strong mountain-passes from the entire rebel army, were ready for any effort, any peril” (327).
Overall, Jordan’s history fills a much needed void in the literature of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. The book compliments previous works on South Mountain but advances the field into historical memory. It’s must-read for any Civil War enthusiast. I hope you enjoy it as