Death of a Brigade - Drayton's Brigade at Fox's Gap - September 14, 1862
By Kurt Graham
In the process of doing the research required to establish the presence of the Phillips Legion's Infantry Battalion at Fox's Gap, Maryland on September 14, 1862, as part of Thomas F. Drayton's brigade (see article "Lost Legion" in the December 1999 "News from Fox's Gap"), it became evident to me that no one who had ever written about this fight had a very good idea of the specific actions of Drayton's brigade in it. There is a very good reason for this "vacuum" of knowledge. Neither Drayton nor any of his five unit commanders filed after-action reports or, if they did, these have been lost to history. The only major published account of any member of Drayton's command is that of Major W. G. Rice of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion in Dickert's "History of Kershaw's Brigade". Major Rice's account concentrates solely on the actions of the 3rd Battalion and does not mention the other four units of Drayton's command. Historians have apparently taken this to mean that these four units had little or no impact in this fight.
As an example, J. M. Priest in his book, "Before Antietam", presents a scenario where the relatively small 3rd South Carolina Battalion attacked southeast across Wise's field south of the Old Sharpsburg Road while the remainder of the brigade was dug in on the Wood Road north of the Old Sharpsburg Road with their only offensive action being the impromptu charge of 50 or so rebels east from the Wood Road some 300 yards. He goes on to credit Drayton's troops with having "fought with the ferocity of a division before melting away from the double stone walls in front of the 17th Michigan." Other authors simply lump Drayton's brigade together with those of G. T. Anderson and G. B. Anderson and state that the aggregate command fought well (with the support of two of John B. Hood's brigades) until nightfall. If one has an interest in their battle history at a "micro" level they are quickly disappointed in the accounts of the afternoon action at Fox's Gap.
At any rate, having established that the Phillips Legion Infantry had been there as part of Drayton's command and having come to a good understanding of their actions, I decided to take a crack at figuring out exactly what happened to and with Drayton's entire brigade.
Returning to Mr. Priest's work, one thing that he had ascertained very clearly was that Drayton's brigade was alone at the gap between 3 and 4 PM when the afternoon action exploded into violent combat. This was the result of a conference that had taken place earlier in the afternoon between Major General D. H. Hill, commanding the South Mountain defense and the four brigade commanders at Fox's Gap. The first of these was George B. Anderson, whose 1250 man command was the first to arrive at the gap following the rout of Samuel Garland's brigade in the morning. The timely arrival of Anderson's North Carolinians stalled the attack of General Jacob Cox's IX Corps "Kanawha Division" just south of the gap. Cox pulled his exhausted troops back behind the woods south of Wise's four acre field and the two sides took an uneasy pause to regroup and reinforce. Next to arrive at the gap was the 1050 man, mixed Georgia, North Carolina brigade of Roswell Ripley. Ripley went into position to G.B. Anderson's left and Anderson extended his line down the Old Sharpsburg Road west of the gap. Longstreet's first two units to arrive at the top of the mountain at Turner's Gap were George T. Anderson's small 500 man Georgia brigade and Thomas F. Drayton's 1,300 man, mixed Georgia, South Carolina brigade. D. H. Hill had personally escorted G. T. Anderson and Drayton to Fox's Gap and planned to use their brigades (with the two brigades already there) in an attack designed to sweep the Federals off the mountain south of the gap and back down the east face.
Hill envisioned the deployment of the 4000+ men of these four brigades in a line running down the west side of the mountain. Once in position, they would charge forward in a huge left wheeling attack with Drayton's brigade at the gap serving as the "hinge". G. B. Anderson and Ripley were told to move farther west down the Old Sharpsburg Road to make room for the new arrivals. G. T. Anderson was told to file off to the west following Ripley and Drayton was instructed to deploy his men at the gap itself. Having given his orders, D. H. Hill placed the senior brigade commander, Roswell Ripley, in command and hurried back to Turner's Gap to oversee the action developing on his left.
Things went wrong almost from the moment Hill departed. The three brigades ahead of Drayton's moved too far west down the Old Sharpsburg Road and a 300 yard gap opened up between G. T. Anderson's left and Drayton's right. When Anderson heard firing erupt back at the gap he attempted to rectify this situation by moving back towards the gap, but discovered that Federals had moved into this opening. G. B. Anderson's leading brigade moved south into the tangled, rocky woods and struggled to get into position to attack. Ripley's own brigade shifted southwest completely off the mountain. When Ripley's men turned east and began to reascend the slope, their skirmishers reported another force moving across their front. These were, in fact, G. B. Anderson's troops working southeast up the slope, but Ripley somehow decided that they were a Federal force and retreated with his men off the mountain and out of the battle.
In the meantime, Drayton had initially deployed his brigade in an inverted L shaped formation at the gap.(See Map 1) The 550 men in his two South Carolina units were in the Old Sharpsburg Road facing south and the 750 soldiers in the three Georgia units were posted facing east at a stone wall overlooking a deep ravine some 200 yards east of the Wood Road. This deployment made sense for a number of reasons. First, it placed Drayton's more combat experienced South Carolinians (the 15th SC on the right and the 3rd SC Battalion on the left) facing south against the perceived strength of the Federals who had been attacking from that direction earlier in the day. The most experienced of the Georgia units was the Legion and it was formed at a right angle to the 3rd SC Battalion and connecting to its left flank where the stone wall intersected the Old Sharpsburg Road. The other two "green" Georgia units (the 50th and 51st) formed along the stone wall to the Legion's left. Another reason this deployment was sound relates to the topography of the gap. The Wood Road, which runs into the Old Sharpsburg Road from the north, lies behind the military crest of the east side of South Mountain. The "military crest" is that point at which one can see down the face of the forward slope. If one deploys troops behind the military crest of a position, he permits an approaching enemy to get within a short distance of his position without being seen.
So, how do we know this is how Drayton initially deployed? The first clue lies in the Chaplain George Smith account. The chaplain served with the Phillips Legion and, although severely wounded in this fight, left a wonderfully detailed account of the battle. This account was presented in the previously mentioned "Lost Legion" article. In it he states that "a battery of light artillery (Bondurant's) was firing overhead and we lay quietly looking toward the east." Previous research by Steve Stotelmyer, which is presented in the book "From Selma to Appomattox; A history of the Jeff Davis Artillery" (AKA Bondurant's battery), had established that this battery had moved to a position in the north end of the field north of the Old Sharpsburg Road and east of the Wood Road by mid afternoon. Therefore, there is no way that a battery could have been firing over the heads of the Legion Infantry if they had been deployed in the Wood Road as the battery would have been in front of them. Further evidence of the lower stone wall's having been the location where Drayton's Georgians originally deployed comes from the regimental history of the 35th Massachusetts Infantry. It states that when the firing finally died out after dark, "we then marched into the field north of the sunken road (Old Sharpsburg Road) and stacked arms with orders to rest behind the stacks but be ready for action at any moment." The account goes on to describe the restless, uneasy night spent in this field adjacent to the Wood Road. In the morning the tired and hungry Federals began to look around for something to eat. The account states, "Down the east side of the hill, in our rear, WHERE THE CONFEDERATE LINE OF BATTLE HAD LAIN THE DAY BEFORE, along a stone wall, the ground was gray with the knapsacks and blankets they had thrown off in the fight and left behind in their hasty departure."
As the gap opened between Drayton's right and G. T. Anderson's left, Drayton took action to rectify this situation by shifting his command farther west. (See Map 2) He did this by moving the 15th SC and 3rd SC Battalion west on the Old Sharpsburg Road and moving the Legion into the Old Sharpsburg Road. Again, the Chaplain tells how it happened......... "Suddenly orders came to change front. We were to now face toward the south. The turnpike (Old Sharpsburg Road) was narrow and the enemy were upon us. The change of position called for a change from line of battle into column and then from column into line. My own regiment did beautifully and for a moment we looked to the woods expecting the Federals to charge upon us."
In the meantime, Drayton had sent a company of the 3rd SC Battalion southeast across Wise's field south of the Old Sharpsburg Road to reconnoiter. Captain D. B. Miller's Company F spotted large numbers of Federals and scrambled back to advise Drayton. Knowing that he had orders to attack, Drayton launched his three units in the Old Sharpsburg Road southward across Wise's field with most of the 15th SC on the right, the 3rd SC Battalion in the center and the Legion on the left. How do we know this? Again to Chaplain Smith. "We entered the pike, crossed it and entered a wood. As we did, I found the enemy were in our front." The accounts of Private Sam Puckett and Major Rice of the 3rd Battalion also confirm this attack. Puckett says, "We were then ordered to vacate the cut (the Old Sharpsburg Road) and charge the enemy." Major Rice states, "General Drayton ordered the command to forward and drive them (the Federals seen by Captain Miller's recon) from the woods." The Puckett account further reinforces the fact that the initial direction of the attack was to the south as he states, "Colonel James (Lt. Col. George James), seeing the enemy to be too strong, wheeled the battalion to the right between two rock fences, where we attempted to check them." The position he describes is the rock walled Ridge Road, which ran north/south through Wise's field. If James "wheeled" his men into the Ridge Road, they had to have initially been headed south. Major Rice also confirms the direction of the attack with his statement that, "There was a low rock wall running at RIGHT ANGLES to the battle line, and behind this the battalion sought to protect itself."
As the 800 soldiers in the Old Sharpsburg Road moved south to attack, General Drayton, having observed no Federal activity to the east, ordered the 51st and 50th Georgia to execute the same movement that the Legion had previously performed; a shift from the stone wall facing east into the Old Sharpsburg Road facing south. (See Map 3) This would provide Drayton with either a second attack wave to launch south or a defensive line should the attack of the South Carolinians and Legion infantry be repulsed. How do we know about this shift? Lt. William 0. Fleming, commanding Company F of the 50th Georgia penned a superb account of this fight shortly after the battle. This account was subsequently published in the Savannah Republican during October 1862. In it, Lt. Fleming tells us that, "While forming in line of battle so as to be in position to make the assault, we were exposed to a most dreadful rifle and musket fire from the enemy. The 50th Georgia who were on the extreme left towards the enemy, and the last to form on the right by file into line, were under the hottest fire. Our position was in a narrow road between an embankment eight feet in front as we were faced and a stone wall on an embankment about four feet high in the rear. The embankment in front of us gradually declined on the left, until it gave us no protection at all from the balls of the enemy. Our company (F) was the last that could take its position in line, and this took some of our men entirely from under cover. It was painful to see our men shot down while taking their positions. (Orthwald) Trawick, near me on the right of the company, was shot down while about to file into his place. He was shot in reach of me. The ball passed through his thigh breaking the bone. I mention him, as he was the first one of our company shot. Many others soon shared the same fate. "
Even today, one can stand in the Old Sharpsburg Road and easily locate the spot so clearly described by Lt. Fleming. The embankment to the south of the Old Sharpsburg Road drops away to the east to road level today just as it did 139 years ago. The remnant of the stone wall to their rear on the north side of the road is still there. There is simply no other place on this field that fits the Fleming description. There was initially one major problem with fitting the account to this location and it was only a stroke of luck that allowed this to be resolved. To understand this problem we will continue with the Fleming account...... "The enemy were posted behind a fence and trees, not over sixty or seventy yards from us, pouring their deadly volleys into us in comparative security. Some of the boldest of the enemy would come out into the road and fire down it. Our boys acted nobly, loading and firing as fast as they could; but I am afraid, though, they aimed when the enemy were concealed - very few of their bullets struck a Yankee."
The problem we had in completing the identification of the 50th's location according to Fleming lay in the fact that period maps seemed to show woods adjoining the south side of the Old Sharpsburg Road at this point yet Fleming is clearly talking about a gun battle being fought over a small field some sixty yards across from north to south. While discussing this problem with my friend Steve Stotelmyer, an expert on the Fox's Gap battlefield, he suggested that we dig through his extensive files. It was in the course of this "digging" that we came across an aerial photo of the battlefield that had been taken in 1936. Unbelievably, the small field described by Fleming was clearly visible. It even perfectly fit the 60 to 70 yard width specified by Fleming. Apparently this field has grown up into forest (as has the Wise field to its west) since 1936. With this discovery, the Fleming account was now an exact match.
(See 1936 Aerial Photo)
As one can see from looking at the maps which accompany this article, the attack launched by Drayton sent three units south down the length of Wise's field with the Legion soon entering woods on the left and the 15th SC with its right in the woods to the west of Wise's cabin. (See Map 2)The 3rd SC Battalion in the middle went down the left center of the field. What Drayton did not know was that Orlando Willcox's 3600 man IX Corps division had arrived on the field and was massed ready to launch an attack just beyond the forest to the Legion's left front. The Federals charged northwest into the woods and pushed the Legion out of the woods into Wise's field. Willcox's Federals quickly reached the edge of the woods facing the 50th Georgia in the Old Sharpsburg Road and the fight described by Fleming ensued. The 30th Ohio of Cox's division had also charged forward south of Wise's field and, in conjunction with Willcox's troops now at the eastern edge of Wise's field, forced the 3rd SC Battalion to spin 90 degrees and drop into the "protection" of the Ridge Road.
As all this occurred, a "friendly fire" incident almost took place when Legion emerged from the woods into Wise's field. Legion Chaplain Smith relates, "I heard Cook, my Lt. Colonel, cry out, "For God's sake, don't fire, we are friends." I saw a body of our men about to fire on us thinking we were Federals. I ran back to check them and was pointing out the position of the troops when I looked up the road we (the Legion) had abandoned, and saw a body of Federals moving behind us."
This information allows us to determine where the chaplain ran to as being at or near the Old Sharpsburg Road's intersection with the Ridge Road which ran south and formed the western boundary of the Wise field. If he had run west back to the Ridge Road, he would not have been able to look down the Old Sharpsburg Road. It is likely that the troops who almost fired at the Legion were those of the 51st Georgia who had already moved into the Old Sharpsburg Road ahead of the 50th and would have been located in that road (and possibly the Ridge Road near the intersection as well). This body of Federals was the large, 800 man 17th Michigan regiment of Willcox's division, which had been sent by Willcox to get behind the Confederate's left (eastern) flank. Chaplain Smith continues, "I saw their line of battle was moving upon the stone fence we had left (the east facing stone wall where the three Georgia units had originally deployed), but it struck me from the way they moved that they did not know that is was abandoned. I ran to the General (Drayton) and told him about it. He ran up to the fence and said something about charging, but there was nobody to (make the) charge. Major Gest (Major William Gist, commanding a rear guard detachment of the 15th SC) when he saw how matters were, placed the few men he had in position and I started for my regiment." The flanking attack of the 17th Michigan is also part of Lt. Fleming's account. He continues his story, "We had been exposed to this fire (from across the small field to their south) about twenty minutes, when a Yankee regiment made its appearance suddenly in our rear about 80 yards distant. The command was given to charge and they came towards us at the charge bayonet about 20 or 30 yards and stopped. I directed my men to fire at them, which the few that were left did, with some effect, I know. About this time, there was a general move out of the lane, and we followed. I carried into this action with me 38 men, and brought out 10. "
Federals had now almost surrounded Drayton's men. (See Map 4) The 45th Pennsylvania and the 46th New York were pouring in volleys from the east side of Wise's field. The 30th Ohio was firing from the south end of the field and other elements of Cox's division were working through the woods to the west. Meanwhile the 17th Michigan had moved around behind the Confederate left (eastern) flank and was charging up the fields north of the Old Sharpsburg Road. The trap was closing fast. Chaplain Smith relates, "As I came to the Pike, (on the way back to the Legion after leaving Major Gist and General Drayton) I saw a soldier shooting toward the east. It took but a moment for me to see that the Federals were east south, and west of us. The firing was now fierce, but I felt that my regiment must be brought out of that pocket at all hazards and I started (forward) to warn it, when I found it retreating."
Not everyone made it out. Stubborn Lt. Colonel George James of the 3rd Battalion refused to retreat and kept his unit between the stone walls of the Ridge Road. This proved to be a fatal error, as 136 of his 160 man unit became casualties. James was shot in the chest and died on the field later that evening. Many other pockets of dazed and exhausted rebels were scooped up by the victorious Federals. The "horror story" was not over for many of the wounded men of the 50th and 51st Georgia who lay in the Old Sharpsburg Road. George Hitchcock, a private in the 21st Massachusetts who came on the field just after the Confederate collapse wrote in his diary, "The sunken road (Old Sharpsburg Road) is literally packed with dead and dying rebels who had held so stubbornly the pass against our troops who have resistlessly swept up over the hill. Here the horrors of war were revealed as we see our heavy ammunition wagons go tearing up, right over the dead and dying, mangling many in their terrible course. The shrieks of the poor fellows were heartrending."
This account may help to explain the incredible ratio of wounded to killed among the Southerners in this battle. An examination of the casualties of most battles of the Civil War shows that the normal ratio of wounded to killed was in the area of four or five to one. This vicious fight produced 206 men killed or mortally wounded and 227 wounded in Drayton's brigade, an almost unprecedented one to one ratio! An additional 210 men were captured unwounded. Casualties ranged from 85% of the surrounded and overwhelmed 3rd SC Battalion, 76% of Lt. Fleming's battered 50th, 60% of the 51st, 40% of the Phillips Legion, to 25% of the 15th SC (probably by virtue of its position on the far right of the command). The entire brigade suffered a staggering 51% loss.
What did this sacrifice buy the Southern army? Lt. Fleming asked his regimental commander, Colonel Manning, "Why we were left in such a place?" Manning replied "that he could not understand it." Major Rice of the 3rd Battalion criticized Drayton for ordering the attack, saying, "The road (Old Sharpsburg Road) in which the brigade was stationed was as all roads crossing hills, much washed and worn down, thus giving the troops therein stationed the advantage of first class breastworks. I do not know that the 15th SC and the other portion of the brigade were thus sheltered - have heard indeed that all were not - but within my vision the position was most admirable, now almost impregnable with good troops to defend it. To leave such a place was suicidal, especially when we were ordered to march through open ground and attack the enemy sheltered behind trees and rocks. This is my estimate at least, and the result proved most disastrous to the brigade and General Drayton himself, as he was soon afterwards relieved of his command." Of course, Major Rice ignores the fact that Drayton had orders from D. H. Hill to attack. At the battle of Second Manassas just two weeks earlier, General Drayton had delayed the ordered forward movement of his brigade to a critical point due to rumors of a Federal cavalry attack on his flank. He had been severely criticized for the delay in responding to orders and one can only surmise that he wasn't going to let this happen again. It is also interesting to note that D H Hill did not criticize Drayton in his report of the battle. Later correspondence would show that Hill placed the blame for the afternoon fiasco squarely on the shoulders of Roswell Ripley, who had been left in command of the overall attack. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Hill's attack plan never made much sense due to the rugged nature of the terrain on the western side of the mountain. As events show, the 2800 men sent west down the Old Sharpsburg Road, became virtually lost when they entered the dense woods taking themselves out of the action when most needed. One is left to wonder what might have happened had these three additional veteran brigades been dug in alongside Drayton's 1300 men at the gap when the Federals launched their attack.
The several hours "bought" by the sacrifice of Drayton's brigade did have the effect of allowing General Hood's two brigades to move into position north and west of the gap thus blocking any further Federal advance on the 14th. The time so dearly purchased allowed General Stonewall Jackson to force the surrender of the 12,000 man Harpers Ferry garrison on September 15th. This, in turn, set the stage for the bloody battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg on September 17th, 1862.
I would like to express my appreciation and thanks to Mr. Steve Stotelmyer for providing the Fleming and Smith accounts as well as the key 1936 aerial photo of the gap. Steve was also generous with his time in spending a day with me examining the ground at the gap. I am also indebted to Mr. Jim Clary and Mr. Sam Davis for providing the casualty figures for the 15th SC and the 3rd SC Battalion. As is the case with the three Georgia units, these figures were compiled by detailed examination of the compiled service records as well as letters, diaries, and casualty reports from period newspapers.
Copyright 2000 Society of the Descendants of Frederick Fox
Written by Kurt Graham
Texans in the Civil War