Reviewed by John G. Selby
In writing Hood’s Defeat Near Fox’s Gap: Prelude to Emancipation, Curtis Older seeks to refute the standard interpretation of Confederate Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s battle for Fox’s Gap on South Mountain in the late afternoon of September 14, 1862. Modern historians have built on the work of Ezra A. Carman, who argued that Hood’s two brigades re-captured lost ground at Fox’s Gap with minimal casualties. Utilizing over a dozen participant accounts, official records, and an extensive knowledge of the terrain and the transportation network on South Mountain at the time of the battle, Older systematically picks apart earlier interpretations of the fight for control of Fox’s Gap.
Older’s book fits perfectly into the “microhistory” genre of historical writing. An accountant and genealogist by training, and the author of two books on the history of the area, Older writes with the passion of a descendant of Frederick Fox (settler whose family name graces the location) and the precision of a statistician. In six tight chapters Older describes the topography and roads, the movement of armies before and during the battle, and the results of the fighting. In chapters 2—5 he organizes the material by topic, and ends each chapter with at least 30 “conclusions.” These chapters are richly supplemented by maps and photographs.
What readers will not find is a narrative of the battle for control of Fox’s Gap. Older is clear about his objective, “I have chosen to take an analytical approach, rather than a narrative approach.” (3) That organizing principle provides the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of his book. If a reader is very familiar with the Battle of South Mountain, then Older’s interrogatory approach to existing evidence is refreshing and revisionist. If a reader is unfamiliar with the Battle of South Mountain (which preceded the much larger and more famous Battle of Antietam), or even knows the general contours of the battle but seeks a fresh, sprightly narrative, then he or she must look elsewhere. Older also strives to show how this one part of the Battle of South Mountain fits into the political ramifications of the Battle of Antietam by including key documents from President Abraham Lincoln before and after the battle. That element of the book appears tacked on and is not as deeply plumbed like the material in the interior chapters.
Older’s book adds to the growing historiography of the Battle of South Mountain. He makes frequent use of the memoir of Jacob D. Cox, the Union brigadier general who became the commander of the 9th Corps upon the battlefield death of Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno. Older’s methodical analysis of the participant records and reports supports Cox’s contention that “Longstreet’s men were pushed down the mountain beyond the Rohrersville and Sharpsburg roads, and the contest there was ended.” (19) Furthermore, Older casts great doubt on Carman’s estimate of Confederate losses at Fox’s Gap to be “about 600,” (148) finding his own estimate of nearly 1,500 to be more plausibly accurate.
In conclusion, if you have a deep knowledge of the Battle of South Mountain, read this book to have some of your assumptions challenged. If you have limited familiarity with the battle, start elsewhere to gain an overall picture of this important battle.
John G. Selby is a Professor Emeritus of history at Roanoke College and the former holder of the John R. Turbyfill Chair in History. A Civil War scholar, Selby wrote: Meade the Price of Command, 1863-1865; Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates; and coedited Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans.