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Battle Of South Mountain

After his great victory at the 2d Battle of Manassas, Gen. Robert E. Lee led his 50,000-man Army of Northern Virginia on an invasion of Maryland. By chance, a copy of Lee's marching orders was discovered by Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the 90,000-man Army of the Potomac. He now knew that Lee had divided his army into four parts and he knew where those separate columns were. All he had to do was attack Lee's divided force before they could come back together.

The Army of Northern Virginia was on the west side of South Mountain, which was not a peak but a 50-mile-long ridge that stretched from the Potomac River into Pennsylvania. McClellan knew that three parts of Lee's army, under Gen. Stonewall Jackson, were besieging Harpers Ferry and that the rest, under Gen. James Longstreet, were at Boonsboro at the western foot of South Mountain. What McClellan did not know was the true size of Lee's army: he thought Lee had 120,000 men. McClellan also did not know that Lee had further divided his army by sending Longstreet to Hagerstown and leaving only one five- brigade division under Gen. Daniel H. Hill at Boonsboro to guard the army's wagon train and the gaps through South Mountain.

Sunday morning, September 14, 1862, General Hill watched the approach of four Union corps containing 32 brigades in 12 divisions, saying he had never "experienced a feeling of greater loneliness. It seemed as though we were deserted by all the world and the rest of mankind." Despite the odds, Hill had two advantages. He held a highly defensible position, and while he could see McClellan's men, they could not see him. Hill's five brigades made a tremendous defense against the all-day attack. Toward evening, just as they were about to be overwhelmed, Longstreet arrived with reinforcements. The position was held until darkness ended the battle. Each side suf- fered about 1,800 in killed and wounded. The Confederates lost another 800 who were taken captive.

Fascinating Fact: Among the Union wounded was a future U.S. president, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes. Another future president in the Battle of South Mountain was Sgt. William McKinley.

Illustration courtesy Library of Congress
Written by Stephen T. Foster
Printed in USA
MCMXCIII Atlas Editions, USA
D3 602 02-04