Losing a Quarter of the Division: The 2nd North Carolina at South Mountain

     In part 2 of this series, Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry describes the South Mountain phase of the Maryland campaign with a particular focus on the role his brigade under the command of General George B. Anderson played in defending South Mountain on September 14, 1862. In a see-saw fight that cost Daniel H. Hill’s division a quarter of its men, the Confederates were eventually driven from the gap and set on the road to Sharpsburg, Maryland. The 2nd North Carolina was in the thick of the fighting.

          “Soon we are reinforced by Ripley’s brigade who are put on the left and making a left wheel of the whole line up the sides of the mountain, we drive the enemy step by step to the top of the ridge and with a yell we dashed to the open plateau of a few acres that are cultivated. But as we emerged from the cover of the woods, like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky, comes the booming of cannon and the whole earth in front of us seems torn up by grape and canister. Our exhausted columns fall back in some disorder, and we retreated down the mountain,” Gorman observed.

          Gorman’s lengthy letter was written four days after the Battle of Antietam while he was convalescing in Charlestown, Virginia from wounds received in that last engagement. It originally saw publication in both the October 1, 1862, edition of the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard and the October 6, 1862, edition of the Spirit of the Age, also published in Raleigh.

          Part 3 of this series entitled “The Storm of Blood That is Sure to Reign: At Antietam with the 2nd North Carolina” will include Gorman’s experiences fighting at the Battle of Antietam.

To read part 1, click here.

To read part 3, click here


An unidentified pair of Confederate lieutenants dressed in their finest Confederate gray uniforms. Heavy casualties incurred during the several battles of the Maryland campaign led to many companies being led by the lieutenants or by non-commissioned officers. 

 Charlestown, Virginia

September 21, 1862

 Dear Wife and Mother,

          We left our camp near Frederick City on Wednesday the 10th instant and marched through the city in the direction of Hagerstown. As we passed through the city, a respectable show of favor was exhibited to us by the lady secessionists of the burg, but it was not very large, and it had the appearance of cordiality mixed with a lively fear of consequences. We marched all day over a beautiful mountain turnpike that at times gave us beautiful views of the scenery and encamped at night at the South Mountain Gap of the Blue Ridge, having passed through during the day several little villages that lay nestled down among the valleys, the largest being Middletown, a village of perhaps 1,000 inhabitants who showed by their signs that they were for the greater part hostile to our cause.

          Little did I think as I stood that night on picket duty on the mountain that in a few short days a battle would be fought on the very spot I then stood. I had a beautiful view of sunrise from the top of the mountain the next morning but was too sleepy to appreciate it. Soon we were again in line and trudged over the mountain gap and then down into the Alleghany Valley, the tops of whose mountains could be seen away to the westward. We passed through several villages that day and also through the town of Boonsboro, one of the oldest places in Maryland, and encamped for the night within four miles of Hagerstown in a beautiful oak grove. Here we rested on Friday and Saturday, the first two days’ rest we had since leaving Richmond. I had a good opportunity while there to ascertain the sentiment of the people, two-thirds of whom I found hostile to us. Indeed, but few families did I find but what had brothers or sons in the Yankee army.

A rough C.S.A. belt plate with what could be bullet damage. 

Here our army split: Longstreet with three divisions went in the direction of Williamsport on Saturday while McLaws’ and Jones’ divisions went towards Harper’s Ferry while we of D.H. Hill’s division remained. Saturday night we were called to arms soon after we had lain down and away we put back again through Boonsboro and by daylight we were on top of South Mountain Gap and were soon drawn up in line of battle on the two mountains to the right and left of the road, fronting in the direction of Middletown where, the day before, our cavalry had a sharp fight with the enemy and had reported the enemy as advancing in full force with a column of 20,000 men.

South Mountain is on the south side of the road and is entirely wooded. North Mountain on the north side of the road is more or less open being, for the most part, farmed. Away in the distance we could see the long lines of the enemy approaching, looking like long, crooked, black shadows slowly moving towards us. As small as our force was, Garland’s, Ripley’s, and Anderson’s brigades (Rodes was not there), we drew up to meet them. Garland was put away over in the woods on South Mountain, Ripley to the left on North Mountain, while we of Anderson’s brigade held the Gap road or center.

The thick forest of South Mountain is evident in this 1862 print depicting one of the Union assaults. The heavy smoke of burnt gunpowder hung heavily under the canopy of trees punctuated by the angry zinging of bullets whistled through the air. General Daniel Harvey Hill's division lost heavily at South Mountain but bought time for Lee to consolidate his army at Sharpsburg. 

Artillery was put into position and by sunrise the reverberation of its thunder went rolling up over the cliffs. The enemy also opened, and a sharp artillery duel was kept up for an hour. Very soon the rattle of musketry is heard from the woods on the right; Garland is engaged on the right with the enemy and we on the left and center stood in eager expectation of being attacked also, although no signs of the enemy can be seen over the cleared fields of the left. In half an hour, cheers are heard and as we stand awaiting an attack ourselves, we eagerly strain our ears to see if we can distinguish whether the cheers come from friend or foe. There is a difference between Yankee cheers and our own. The Yankee cheer is “huzzah, huzzah,” while ours is characterized by one continuous, unearthly tell without pause or stop. Our hearts drop within us as we become convinced that the cheers emanate from Yankee throats.

The firing continues, and a canopy of smoke hangs over the woods in the vicinity of the place from which the sound of musketry proceeds. Still we are not attacked, and I think I can perceive the in the face of General Hill a gleam of thought that the enemy have thrown their whole force on our right flank. The men became restless and uneasy, and the light of battle is seen in every face. But here comes one of Garland’s aides, galloping furiously.

“General, send us reinforcements! We are falling back, and the enemy are pressing us hard in heavy force.”

“General Anderson, hurry your brigade to Garland’s assistance,” is his reply.

We are faced to the right and away we go up the side of the mountain at a double quick. We pass lots of wounded limping down the mountain, trickling blood at every step, then again, a stretcher containing some more desperately wounded, and as I bend over one, I catch the pale face of the gallant Garland who is being carried down desperately wounded in the breast. He died before reaching a surgeon. He was wounded on the first charge of the enemy while gallantly rallying his men before their superior force.

Lieutenant Gorman spied the "pale face" of Brigadier General Samuel Garland, Jr. being carried back on a stretcher from the fight at Fox Gap. The popular Garland, a graduate of V.M.I., died that afternoon of a gunshot wound in his chest. 

We soon come up with his brigade, just getting into position behind a fence that surrounds a small mountain farm. We take position on their left and await the enemy. Soon we see them coming up on our front, and our right opens on them. Bullets whiz from the front and soon come heavy volleys on our right flank. The enemy have attacked us in front and the right at the same time. Garland’s brigade swings around to the rear through the woods in order to face a flank fire while we keep up a continuous one in front and drive the enemy back beyond range.

The enemy still presses our right flank and Garland’s brigade, after desperate fighting against heavy odds, falls back slowly through the woods and exposes our right. An order is given for us to move to the left as the enemy are trying to gain our left as well as our right. We move to the left through a heavy fire, men falling at every few steps. The firing ceases. Our regiments are again formed into line of battle, facing up the mountain and before the enemy are prepared for us, we attack him and drive him back, but the laurel is so thick and our force so small that our commanders are afraid to let us penetrate their lines too far.

Soon we are reinforced by Ripley’s brigade who are put on the left and making a left wheel of the whole line up the sides of the mountain, we drive the enemy step by step to the top of the ridge and with a yell we dashed to the open plateau of a few acres that are cultivated. But as we emerged from the cover of the woods, like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky, comes the booming of cannon and the whole earth in front of us seems torn up by grape and canister. Our exhausted columns fall back in some disorder, and we retreated down the mountain unpursued to reform.

This American Battlefield Trust map depicts the fighting that occurred at Fox's Gap on September 14, 1862. Anderson's North Carolina brigade moved up to support Garland's beleaguered troops before being driven back themselves by General Jacob D. Cox's Kanawha Division which included future President Rutherford B. Hayes then serving as colonel in the 23rd Ohio. Hayes himself was badly wounded during the fight. 

The sun is now but an hour high. Hill’s little division has kept the enemy in check all day and we are again preparing to make another attack when Jones’ division of Longstreet’s corps arrives, and gladly do we hear the order given for us to retire. Jones’ division fought the enemy until about 9 o’clock when, finding the enemy strongly posted on the top of the ridge in heavy force, it retired to a position with us near Boonsboro  where we lay on our arms till near dawn. We then received an order to give the Gap up and fall back to the Potomac River.

We have full one-fourth of our division killed, wounded, and missing among the woods on that mountain. The word “missing” means those who are not known to be killed or wounded but are not present. At 4 o’clock on Monday morning, we take up our line of march. We had hardly gone four or five miles before news reaches us that the enemy are pursuing and that our wagons are endangered. The column forms a line of battle on the first line of hills that run diagonally to the road, and our wagons move on to the front. This causes the enemy to halt and form in battle array and while they are disposing of their forces to the best advantage for attack, we quietly move off by the flank to the next succession of hills and thus continue our retreat until we arrived on the south side of small creek in the vicinity of Sharpsburg three miles from the river. Here we formed a junction with Longstreet’s corps, formed a line of battle and determined to make a stand.



Letters from First Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman, Co. B, 2nd North Carolina Infantry, Spirit of the Age (North Carolina), October 6, 1862, pg. 3


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