The stunning Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run brought on a political crisis for the Lincoln Administration. Defeated Union General John Pope would have to be replaced by anti-abolitionist Democratic General George B. McClellan just as Lincoln was planning to issue his Emancipation Proclamation designed to free millions of slaves. During early September of 1862, as Republican politicians plotted against McClellan behind the scenes, rumors floated in Washington that the reinstated commander’s supporters were plotting a coup designed to make him the country’s military dictator. Against this background of intrigue, the most effective Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee had moved into Maryland. 1
McClellan was slow to respond to the invasion. His intelligence reports suggested that Lee had more than 100,000 men in his army, nearly double the size of Lee’s actual force. Compounding his self-invented problems, McClellan’s superiors in the War Department were hardly on speaking terms with him and their instructions were vague and contradictory. At times he was told to stay near Washington to protect the capital, at other times he was criticized for not being in hot pursuit of Lee, and still other times he was informed that Lee was retreating back to Virginia. Military gridlock resulted in less alacrity than the situation demanded.2
That would change on September 13, 1862, when Union soldiers came upon an abandoned Confederate camp in Maryland where they found cigars wrapped in paper. The paper contained orders relayed from General Lee describing the location of the various wings of the Confederate invasion force. McClellan could finally read the mind of his enemy. 3
The Maryland Campaign September 1862
What the Union commander found out was that Lee’s army was spread out over dozens of miles of territory in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Far from being a potent strike force, it was split up to pick off smaller military and economic targets. If McClellan could move quickly enough, his army could destroy whole wings of Lee’s Confederate force and perhaps trap the bulk of the army, defeat it, and end the war in September of 1862. For the first time in months, the Union army in the East moved quickly and decisively against the rebel army. 4
Robert E. Lee was unaware that McClellan knew his plans. He had sent a large part of his army under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to capture the Union armaments facility at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia and sent other forces into northwestern Maryland to scoop up food and other supplies. He had left behind only a small force in central Maryland to protect his main forces from pursuit by the Union army. But he placed them in one of the most formidable defensive positions imaginable, South Mountain.5
The modern tourist, driving west from Baltimore, may be excused before she sees South Mountain to think of it as a mountain like those common in the Appalachians, a tall, peaked hill. Instead, South Mountain is a continuous ridge extending most of the length of Maryland from north to south looking like nothing so much as the Great Wall of Maryland. Had he placed enough men on South Mountain, Lee might had foreclosed any possibility of Union troops following his army. Fortunately for McClellan, Lee’s army was too small for the sort of defense that would have made the ridge impregnable. As the Scottish Highlanders of the 79th New York approached South Mountain on September 14, 1862 they were among the leaders of a force that would soon outnumber the Confederates on the mountain by three-to-one. The Highlanders would face a tough uphill battle, but numbers and speed gave them the possibility of success.6
The 79th had been suffering from declining morale after the defeat two weeks earlier at Bull Run, but it was revived when it arrived in Frederick, Maryland on its way to South Mountain. Here it was greeted as a liberating force. Confederates had occupied the city, and now, in thanks, local women set out food and offered water and other drinks to the Union men.7
As the men of the 79th New York marched towards South Mountain, they came under cannon fire. A veteran of the regiment later recalled; “The enemy’s guns were planted on the heights above, and their shot and shell were dropping about us as we marched down the road.”8
Confederate troops during their September 1862 occupation of Frederick in Maryland
When they drew close to the rebel position, the men saw that two abandoned Union artillery pieces were laying in the path of an advancing rebel line. The 79th rushed forward to save them. “[W]hen the enemy saw it they halted, ” the regiment’s historian wrote later. The regiment took shelter from increasing Confederate fire behind a stone wall. The veteran recounts the terrifying minutes that followed:
[T]he enemy’s guns opened a furious fire with grape [shot] and short-fuse case-shot, to escape which we all lay close to the ground. The shot rattled over the tops of the stone walls, knocking the stones about and making great gaps here and there in the lines of the moving troops. Before the army could advance the battery must be silenced. Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison was now ordered to storm the heights with the Highlanders…Drawing his sword, Morrison ordered us to “stand up and prepare to charge.” On seeing the line, [the general] asked: Is this your regiment?” “Yes General, but if you will give me more men we’ll take the battery,” was Morrison’s reply. “No, I’ll send another regiment, your’s is too small.” 9
The Highlanders would join the charge in support of two other regiments, but the fact that they had suffered so much already in previous battles spared them the many casualties that leading the attack would have caused.
“We moved up the hill-side,” the veteran recalled, “…the two leading regiments gained the crest driving the enemy from his strong position… It was a gallant charge, but the victory was dearly won.” When the charge ended, the men of the 79th “found themselves in a cornfield, just a little below the crest of the hill.” The Confederates had not retreated far and they kept the Highlanders under fire. “In order to escape the bullets which they showered on our advanced position, we lay down, some of us falling asleep while the bullets were cutting the tops of the corn-stalks above our heads.”10
The Battle of South Mountain
The 79th detached a group of 60 men to sneak through a nearby woods to spy on the enemy position. The scouts came so close to the Confederates that “every word of command could be heard by our men.” The detachment was thought to have been wiped out by the Confederates, but it later emerged largely intact from the woods. But many other men, on both sides, did not survive. As night came on, the Highlanders held their place on top of South Mountain, worried that the Confederates might attack at any time. A veteran was still haunted by that night years later:
All about us lay the dead and dying, while the groans of the wounded sounded in our ears throughout the long hours of that weary night… [W]e dared not wander far, even to give a drink of water to… those who moaned piteously for it.” The weather was cold and as we stood in line [of battle] shivering and wishing for morning, we conversed in low tones with each other, congratulating ourselves on this, our first victory in the new campaign.”11
Daylight did not bring the soldier relief from war’s horror:
Morning of the 15th dawned at last, and on such a sight as none of us ever wished to see again. Behind and in front of us…the dead bodies of the enemy lay thick; near the gaps in the fences thay were piled on top of each other like cord-wood dumped from a cart.
While the scene was ghoulish, the men’s morning hunger had to be slacked. The Highlanders “were in a fit condition to enjoy a cup of coffee, even amid such ghastly surroundings.”12
Breaking through the Confederate line at South Mountain increased the men’s confidence, but it also placed them on the road to the bloody conclusion of the Maryland Campaign at Antietam just three days later.
Video: Maryland, My Maryland
The song “Maryland, My Maryland” was composed by a Confederate sympathizer and played by an army band when the Confederate army entered Maryland. I have reprinted some of the song’s lyrics below the video so you can read its distinctly propagandistic message. It is now Maryland’s official state song and it is played every year at the start of the Preakness, part of racing’s Triple Crown.
Maryland My Maryland
Lyrics of “Maryland, My Maryland”
Note: The “despot” referred to is Abraham Lincoln. The “patriotic gore” refers to rioters killed by Federal troops after they attacked Union soldiers in 1861. The song urges Maryland to join her sister slave state Virginia in fighting against the “Northern scum”.
The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Hark to an exiled son’s appeal,
My Mother State! to thee I kneel,
For life or death, for woe or weal,
Thy peerless chivalry reveal,
And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Come! for thy shield is bright and strong,
Come! for thy dalliance does thee wrong,
Come to thine own anointed throng,
Stalking with Liberty along,
And sing thy dauntless slogan song,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
Sic semper! ‘tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!
I see the blush upon thy cheek,
For thou wast ever bravely meek,
But lo! there surges forth a shriek,
From hill to hill, from creek to creek,
Potomac calls to Chesapeake,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Better the fire upon thee roll, Better the shot, the blade, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the Soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!
I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! She burns! She’ll come! She’ll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!
Video Look at Battle of South Mountain
Video Explaining the Union Army’s Finding of Lee’s Special Order 191
A new book, Unholy Sabbath: South Mountain in History and Memory by Brian Jordan, provides an excellent overview of the battle and its role in lifting Union soldier morale.
Here is a driving tour of the battlefield.
1. From the Peninsula to Antietam by George B. McClellan in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 545-555; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor and Fields (1988); Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears pub. by Houghton Mifflin; The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution by Richard Slotkin (2012); The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 Vol. 1 by Ezra Carman Edited by Thomas Clemmens published by Savas Beatie (2010); September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril by Dennis Frye pub. by Antietam Rest Pub. (2012); Unholy Sabbath: South Mountain in History and Memory by Brian Jordan published by South Mountain Press (2012).
7. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 p. 230.
8. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 p. 230.
9. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 p. 232-233.
10. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 p. 232.
11. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 pp. 233, 235.
12. The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd published by Brandon, Barton & Co.1886 p. 236.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites