Cold Steel Did Great Execution: With the 23rd Ohio at Fox’s Gap

     The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry as part of the Kanawha Division had until August 1862 spent its Civil War service fighting the Confederacy in the rugged mountains of western Virginia. It first saw action at Carnifex Ferry, then Cotton Mountain, Giles Courthouse, Flat Top Mountain, and Pack’s Ferry. The battle-hardened Kanawha Division arrived in the defenses of Washington shortly before Second Bull Run and in McClellan’s subsequent reorganization of the army found themselves attached at Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s 9th Army Corps. Within days, the Ohioans would find themselves in the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac chasing after Robert E. Lee’s army in the opening stages of the Maryland Campaign. They would clash at Fox’s Gap as part of what was known as the Battle of South Mountain on Sunday, September 14, 1862.

The following letter was written by an unknown soldier of Co. E of the 23rd Ohio writing under the name of “Philo.” He provides a detailed account of the 23rd Ohio’s part in the fighting at Fox’s Gap in which Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes suffered his second wound of the war, his first occurring five months earlier at the Battle of Giles Courthouse. Philo’s letter first saw publication in the October 9, 1862, edition of the Mahoning Register published in Youngstown, Ohio, an excerpt of which is reprinted below.

The 23rd Ohio battle flag torn in battle at Fox's Gap and Antietam and a dozen other battlefields. One veteran wrote that after Antietam the flag was so shot up that only one row of stars remained in the blue field. The 23rd Ohio was armed with a mix of weapons at Fox's Gap; the flank companies carried .577 caliber Enfield rifle muskets while the line companies carried .69 caliber muskets, some of which had been converted to percussion while others were updated M1842s modified by Miles Greenwood's Eagle Foundry in Cincinnati. 

Camp near Sharpsburg, Maryland

September 23, 1862


          When we first arrived in eastern Virginia, we were placed on the outer line of defenses for the city of Washington but did not remain long in that position. When Jackson made his first appearance in Maryland, our division was put in the advance of Burnside’s corps and headed towards old Stonewall. Nothing of interest transpired until around Friday the 12th. We had left Ridgeville early in the morning expecting a skirmish at or near New market some eight or ten miles distant. When we reached the latter place, we found it without any Rebel soldiers but like all places here in Maryland full in secession sympathizers or conditional Union men. When about four miles distant, our cavalry came upon the enemy’s pickets consisting of cavalry and two pieces of artillery. Two pieces of Simmons’ 20-lb Parrott guns were at once brought forward and the Rebels were then non est.

          When we got to within two miles of Frederick, we learned that the place was occupied by 2,000 Rebel cavalry under General Stuart together with one battery strongly supported by infantry. When about a half mile from the city, our artillery fire was opened. The Rebel cavalry charged on our battery, but the 11th Ohio promptly met and repulsed them and entered the town on the left as the 12th, 23rd, and 28th Ohio came in on the right. The Rebels fled, leaving a good many behind, most of whom had too many sheets fluttering to know exactly what was going on; in other words, they were too drunk.  We captured in all counting their sick in the hospitals about 100 prisoners. We were welcomed by the people of Frederick with tears and shouts and flags waving from the housetops and windows. The streets were thronged with citizens who manifested their joy at being thus delivered from their Secesh friends.

          On Sunday morning the 14th we got ready for an early start and by 6 o’clock were in ranks and for the first time were to march without knapsacks. We were obliged to ford a stream on starting for the Rebels had burned the bridge the day previous. We had marched but two miles when we found the Rebels holding a formidable position on a mountain a little in advance. Cox’s Division which consists of the 11th, 12th, 23rd, 28th, 30th, and 36th Ohio regiments along with McMullin’s and Simmons’ Ohio batteries were ordered to take the extreme left and attack the enemy’s flank while the remainder of General Reno’s corps would engage his center. Simmons’ battery took a position in a plowed field to the left of the road and opened a heavy fire of shell upon the enemy with a design to draw him out and discover his position. The Rebels did not reply for some time.

Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford Birchard Hayes suffered his second wound of the war at Fox's Gap, a nasty wound in his left arm that took him months to recover from. Hayes had sustained his first wound at the Battle of Giles Courthouse and would go on to be wounded two more times before the war ended. Hayes became the nation's 19th president in 1877. 

          In the meantime our infantry was following a bridle path over the mountain and soon the 23rd Ohio who was in the advance discovered two brigades of the enemy coming out of the woods and taking a position behind a stone fence. Our regiment immediately formed in line, marched down the mountain, and engaged them. We advanced steadily forward and soon drove them from their position into a heavy piece of woods. Our regiment suffered severely in this charge. Lieutenant Colonel Hayes was wounded in the left arm almost at the first fire and was compelled to leave the field. Major Comley then took command and throughout the entire day exhibited remarkable coolness and bravery.


“For three or four hours the struggle was severe. Every foot of ground was disputed on both sides. At first, we found it extremely difficult in the thick brush we were in to take sure aim, besides the enemy occupied a small eminence on which was a stone wall behind which they took shelter. At last the order was given to form line at the base of the hill which when done we lay on our arms and gradually advanced on our hands and knees up the slope until within a short distance of the stone wall.” ~ Captain Abraham A. Hunter, Co. K, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

          The 12th and 30th Ohio regiments now formed on our right and the Second Brigade came up as a support. We were then formed in line and ordered to lie down and crawl forward nearly to the summit of the hill which movement we successfully accomplished. We lay for half an hour 30 yards from the enemy without their being aware of our close proximity. The order was then given for the 12th Ohio and 23rd Ohio to prepare to charge the enemy. With bayonets fixed we stealthily crawled to the summit of the hill when the order was given ‘Up and at them!’ At the word, every man promptly sprang to his feet and with a deafening shout rushed forward. A deadly fire was poured into our ranks but we gave them a far more destructive volley and then charged upon them with our bayonets. The Rebels fled in confusion before our furious onset leaving a great many dead and dying upon the field.

Major William McKinley of the 23rd Ohio would survive the war and go on to become the nation's 25th president 20 years after the election of his wartime commander and comrade Hayes. 

          We followed them some distance into the woods and then fell back on our reserve, every man ready and determined not to give back an inch should the enemy rally and return to the contest. This, however, they did not see fit to do. We remained resting on our arms for about an hour exposed to a heavy fire of grape and canister from the enemy’s batteries. About 4 o’clock, we were again ordered into line to silence a battery that was pouring iron hail into our ranks. The 12th Ohio was ordered to charge the battery with the line being formed as follows: the 12th in advance and center, the 36th Ohio in the rear, the 23rd and 11th on the left flank and the 28th and 30th on the right flank.

 “Every man sprang to his feet and with a wild yell rushed upon the foe. Bayonets clashed for a moment or two when the Rebels took to their heels in great disorder leaving behind piles of dead and wounded and some 200 prisoners. At this time I received a gunshot wound near the knee joint which whirled me over. I rejoice to know that the Rebels have got a good thrashing for once.” ~ Captain Abraham A. Hunter, Co. K, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry


At precisely 4 o’clock the bugle sounded the charge and we hurried forward. The Rebels withdrew the battery, however, in time to prevent it being captured by the veteran 12th Ohio. We were obliged to contest ever inch of the ground until we had gained the summit of the mountain. When this was accomplished, the enemy fled down the opposite side and the day was ours and won solely by Cox’s division of Ohio boys. At one time during the charge, General Cox sent word to Colonel White of the 12th to ‘hang on; he did not doubt but we were doing all we could, but to hang on a few minutes longer.’ Colonel White replied, ‘General, we are driving them and have no wish to stop as long as a Rebel lives.”

Details of a .69 caliber M1842 percussion rifled musket altered by Miles Greenwood. The smoothbore arms carried by the 23rd Ohio were similar in design to this with the exception of not having a rifled barrel. The tactical deployment of bringing the 23rd Ohio within 30 yards of their opponents at Fox's Gap may have been in part due to the fact that these smoothbore muskets had an effective range of less than 100 yards. As my friend Phil Spaugy is fond of saying, the weapons drive the tactics. 

After routing the enemy, we were ordered to the rear to rest. Several times during the evening they made an attempt to retake their lost ground. Fighting was kept up until about 9 o’clock that night when the Rebels withdrew under the cover of darkness. Our loss, as near as I can learn, was about 120 killed and 300 wounded. Of this number, the 23rd Ohio had 32 killed, 96 wounded, and 8 or 10 missing; Co. E lost two killed and six wounded.

I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of our officers on this occasion. General Cox proved himself to be no ordinary man. In consideration of his gallantry as a soldier and ability as an officer, he has been assigned to command the corps of the brave General Reno who was killed in action about dusk that evening. Colonel Eliakim P. Scammon who has proven himself a thorough military man now commands the Ohio division while Colonel Ewing of the 30th Ohio commands our brigade.


Letter from Philo, Co. E, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Mahoning Register (Ohio), October 9, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Captain Abraham A. Hunter, Co. K, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), October 1, 1862, pg. 1


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