Monday, May 23, 2005

Made a day-trip of it after Saturday's con meeting wrapped up early, outside of Baltimore. Took a wander westwards through Carroll & Frederick Counties and points west. Drove through Boonsboro, Burkittsville, Harper's Ferry, and the drearier modern stretches of Martinsburg. Well, that was on the way - the goal was the passes of South Mountain, which I have read enough about, but never seen with my own eyes.

The big battlefields are much easier to get to than South Mountain - lots of signs, major highways, maps and all. For the longest time, I thought the point at which I-70 crossed the mountain was Turner's Gap - not so. In fact, the first run I made at Turner's Gap on Saturday, I missed it - the map I had been working from said Rt. 40, but another road to the north of that older road had been re-designated Rt. 40 since the map in question was made. I ended up in the outskirts of Hagarstown before I was sure of my mistake. I almost gave up, but I found a newer map and made my way back to Turner's Gap from the west.

The terrain is a lot more heavily forested than I suspect it was back in 1862. This might have something to do with the fact that the Appalachian trail runs along South Mountain, and the area's primary usage as camping/backpacking terrain causes something of tendency towards greenery and forest rather than pure preservation. I didn't find the place where D.H. Hill would have seen the marching columns of the Army of the Potomac advancing on his command "as terrible as a army with banners". What I did find was an out-of-period neo-Gothic church squatting in the gap, just east of the inn which was actually there in the fall of 1862. The church, according to the plaque, was put up by Admiral Dahlgren, the man who invented the naval cannon of the same name. I went on a sickening, wandering drive around the back-roads around the gap, trying to get a feel for the terrain. Found the Reno Monument after a few missteps. Fox Gap is more open these days, due to a farmer's field. You could almost see a battlefield, here.

Finally, I drove through Burkittsville, looking for Crampton's Gap. The town thoughtfully presents a pretty big marker for the Gap, sitting as it does right in front of the pass through the mountain. Burkittsville is better-known as the much put-upon location of the Blair Witch Project, which I hear the townsfolk are none too pleased about. On my brief wander through the town, I spotted a guy standing on the stoop of a general store dressed like a doctor or surgeon, circa 1862. Not sure if he was re-enacting, or just always dressed that way. At the top of the pass was another surprise.

At the top of Crampton's Gap is an enormous, anachronistic monument in redstone and bombast to "War Correspondents". Apparently a hack named G.A. Townshend bought the Gap long after the war, and built "Gathland" up there, crowning his architectural vandalism with the three-story tall monument right in front of the last stand of Troup's Battery and Cobb's brigade. There are a lot of signs scattered around the Gap, and they're actually better than average, although they tend towards happytalk about Cobb's rout having saved the Army of Northern Virginia, instead of opening it up to division and defeat. As with Turner's Gap, the pass is heavily forested, and I can't see how the gunners of Troup's guns saw far enough to fire their last-stand canister at the described 50 paces, let alone the rest of the rounds described. You can't see much of anything.

Most of the actual battle took place at the foot of the mountain, along a farm road running in front of a number of stone walls described in the accounts. Some of the positions in front of those stone walls are quite militarily impressive, but the southern stretch strikes me as presenting a ripe potential for worthless plunging fire, and I can't imagine anyone holding it for long, let alone the small force which actually held the position. It runs for more than a mile, and unless they were strung out like skirmishers, Franklin's two divisions should have easily have flanked them quickly on both sides - especially given the two beautiful roads which led behind the defensive position on both sides, like a funnel.

Such a perfect prospect for a textbook double envelopment is rarely offered - it doesn't make me think much of Bartlett that he planned a direct frontal assault instead of quick-stepping columns of attack for the flanks. On the other hand, given Franklin's long delay in ordering the advance, the direct attack was pretty much required to give the assault any sort of urgency, and who knows - maybe the rest of Cobb's Brigade might have gotten into a decent position if Sixth Corps had screwed around trying for a full flanking movement against the force at the foot of the hill.

Once the defenders of the pass broke, they were pretty much screwed, in much the same way as the defenders of Missionary Ridge were when *they* were driven from their strong position at the base of that mountain. The problem with putting defenders at the foot of a steep hill, is that if they're driven back, they've got as big of a hike in retreat as the enemy does in pursuit, and they won't be worth spit by the time they reach the top of the slope, assuming any of them make it. The force that gave battle at the top of the gap hadn't been involved in the rout at the foot of the mountain - they were reinforcements coming up from Pleasant Valley.

Oh, BTW - I should correct an impression given by the name "Crampton's Gap" - it isn't much of a pass. It isn't a water-gap or anything like that, more like a slight dip in the mountain where two roads meet after climbing up the north and south slopes of the east side of the mountain. Crampton's Gap was important because of the roads, not because of its nominal "gap"ness.

Afterwards, I drove down Pleasant Valley, which upon inspection was quite the trap for McLaws and Anderson once Crampton's was forced. Even today, the position to the west of Crampton's totally dominates the narrow valley, making a breakout attempt in that direction impossible given any sort of force in position, assuming they thought to bring artillery. I tried to find the road that supposedly runs from Harper's Ferry to Sharpsburg on the other side of Maryland Heights, but the only bridge over that side of the town is a railroad, so no joy. I'll have to take the writers' word for its existence. Harper's Ferry was jumping on Saturday evening - I wonder if there was something going on, or if it's always that busy?

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