On this day 150 years ago, at nine o’clock in the morning, Union troops commanded by a Virginian—Jesse L. Reno of Reno, Nevada, fame—attacked a small Confederate brigade guarding Fox’s Gap on South Mountain, in Maryland. Fighting spread to Turner’s Gap, another crossing just to the north where Union troops under Joseph Hooker joined the battle and drove the Confederates back. Union troops also attacked farther south, at Crampton’s Gap, which was defended by just a handful of Confederates from Lafayette McLaws‘s division, the rest of which sent their regrets, but were otherwise engaged at Harpers Ferry.
A little background: Robert E. Lee had invaded Maryland a week and a half earlier and concentrated his troops in Frederick. Due to supply-line issues, he decided that he really needed to clear Harpers Ferry of Union troops, so he took a good two-thirds of his men, under Stonewall Jackson, and sent them south and back into Virginia. A copy of the order directing all this was lost by Confederates and then found by a Union corporal wrapped around some cigars. Having already ordered his men in the direction of South Mountain—a range of hills that naturally divided one part of Lee’s force from the other—Union general George McClellan now understood that an attack there would save Harpers Ferry and allow McClellan to destroy Lee’s army piece by piece.
So what happened?
By evening on the fourteenth, Union troops had taken Fox’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap, but couldn’t quite break the line at Turner’s. Reno, meanwhile, was shot at dusk.
He was brought back to [General Samuel] Sturgis’s command post on a stretcher. “Hallo, Sam, I’m dead!” he called out in a voice so natural that Sturgis thought he must be joking. He said he hoped it was not as bad as all that. “Yes, yes, I’m dead—good-by” Reno repeated, and minutes later he died.
If, unlike me, you find yourself interested in reliving such moments of terror and tragedy, then the video game Scourge of War: Antietam might be for you! The above screenshot, taken from the game (h/t), shows the field at Crampton’s Gap.