The Eve of Antietam: A Tale of Two Mountains and Three Cigars


Back on December 21, with Christmas fast approaching and much remaining to be done, I decided that it was the perfect time for another Aston Martin road trip. I headed off in the general direction of Frederick, Maryland, where I grew up. Thankfully, a rainstorm had washed all the winter salt off the roads, the V8 Vantage fired up immediately, and even the highway traffic was minimal. I was in search of the prelude to the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. At the risk of offending Mr. Dickens, my trip would involve “A Tale of Two Mountains and Three Cigars.”

Given the cold temperatures, I was curious to see whether my recent transaxle oil change would improve shifts into second gear. I used the official Castrol BOT270A transmission oil, sliding around on cold concrete under the car to finagle 4½ litres of the stuff into the box (and about 0.1 litre into my stocking cap). At 25 degrees Fahrenheit (–4 degrees Celsius), second gear still wouldn’t cooperate, despite $275 worth of slippery new oil. (As I told my friend Neil, pint for pint this oil is nearly as expensive as his beloved Macallan scotch!) Fortunately, the gear ratios are closely spaced, and it’s straightforward to shift from first to third until the oil warms up a bit, at which point second gear is happy again.

Before long I’d arrived at my first stop: Braddock Heights, Maryland. This former summer resort area is named for British General Edward Braddock. In 1755, General Braddock led an army over this mountain on the way to his ill-fated encounter with the French at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) during the French and Indian War. His young aide, George Washington, survived the battle, but General Braddock did not. He was severely wounded and died during the army’s retreat back to Virginia.

The French and Indian War, incidentally, was the North American theatre of the Seven Years War between England and France and their allies, which was fought across Europe, North and South America, West Africa, India, and the Philippines.

When I drove up Braddock Mountain on the old National Road (now Alternate Route 40), it took just a few minutes to reach the summit. I enjoyed the scenery while listening to the song “Red Barchetta” from Rush’s Moving Pictures album. In contrast, Braddock’s army had struggled for hours to climb the rudimentary trail on foot and haul supplies up the steep slopes. Even 100 years later, as shown in this early photograph, the road was primitive and steep.

In the prior photo, a woman is carrying water from a nearby spring. General Braddock and his troops are said to have stopped at the spring on their way to Fort Duquesne, and that story led to the naming of this section of the Blue Ridge Mountains as “Braddock Mountain.” Despite having grown up in this area, I hadn’t previously heard of the spring, and I was hoping to find its location.

Sometimes you succeed, but other times not so much. I’m convinced the spring is within a quarter mile of this old tollhouse, but I couldn’t find it—and the friendly homeowner had never heard of it. I later learned that an ugly concrete slab now covers the spring, so my desire to photograph the scenic spot would have failed anyway. Oh well…

In the late 1800s, a group of investors started the Hagerstown and Frederick Railway, a system of trolleys linking Frederick with other towns in Maryland. To promote ridership, they started a summer resort at the top of Braddock Mountain. This is one of the trolleys making the steep climb from Middletown, MD to Braddock Heights.

At the top, the trolley would run through the Heights and stop here at the local station, which also served as the post office and general store.

Although the trolley service ended in the 1950s, the post office and Beachley’s Variety Store are still here.

Braddock Heights flourished as a place to escape the summer heat and humidity in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. Considered the first planned community in the country, it featured numerous summer cottages, no two of them alike, and all offering wraparound porches where visitors could sit and enjoy the steady mountain breezes. This is Jefferson Boulevard; the first two houses shown at the left in this postcard are still standing.

Many of the other houses also continue to exist, although these days they are surrounded by tall trees and shrubs, making them less easy to identify. The view in this postcard almost looks like a seaside area, but there is a sharp drop-off on the right, leading down to Middletown Valley. To the left lies Frederick Valley.

Many of the old houses are beautifully preserved, as is the case with the Hays Cottage.

There were also hotels here, including the impressive Braddock Hotel. It’s long gone, having burned in 1929, although its hedges continue to flourish.

The Camp Schley Inn also catered to summer guests at Braddock Heights, and later served as the lodge for a small ski resort. Today, it is the Braddock Inn, with a popular restaurant.

The Vindobona Hotel is still here, too, although it was converted to a nursing home many years ago. In its heyday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited here on more than one occasion.

But the best part about Braddock Heights was the mountaintop amusement park. An observation tower was built at the highest spot on the mountain, and visitors gladly walked up the long path to enjoy the view. On a clear day, you could see as far as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, including Big and Little Round Tops at Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge and carve through South Mountain.

The amusement park expanded to include a wooden-floored roller rink, with a duckpin bowling alley in the basement, a dance hall, ferris wheel, “speedboat” ride, merry-go-round, and miniature train, which circled the mountain. As a kid, I enjoyed all of these rides. By the mid-1960s, however, most of the park had closed.

Out of all the amusements available, my brother Curt and I most enjoyed the observatory. Not for the views, but rather because someone decided to add a giant slide to the structure. While your parents were spotting Little Round Top or looking for Snallygasters (or their arch enemy, the Dwayyo), you could run up the steps and slide back down over and over again. It worked even better if you sat on a large piece of wax paper.

Today, there is almost nothing left of the amusement park. But I thought it might be fun to take a look and see what I could find. Parking an Aston Martin inconspicuously is never easy, but I tried my best and headed up the little path shown at the left.

It was still quite cold, and I’d neglected to take my (replacement) stocking cap, but I still loved every minute of my hike around the old park grounds.

These days, tall trees block what was once a magnificent view of Braddock Heights and the surrounding valleys. Nonetheless, it was still quite scenic.

It wasn’t long before I found signs of the old ski resort. It operated from 1962 to about 1980. Notice the fallen tree in the background, which landed on the ski lift cables. Further down the hill there’s another one, which (somehow) continues to be held up by these wires. If you’re in the area, I don’t recommend walking under these trees. (Another example of “do as I say, not as I do”!)

There are a few signs of what used to be. This might have been the ticket booth for the miniature railroad. With all the vegetation, it’s a little hard to say.

There were a lot of picnic tables and some outdoor stone fireplaces for cooking.

To my pleasant surprise, I found this stone foundation at the very top of the mountain—and, yes, that’s where the observation tower and mega-slide were located. My Day o’ Memories was complete.

As I walked back down the mountain, I looked into the distance at South Mountain, with its highest point, Lamb’s Knoll, visible at the left. The view reminded me of why I’d come here in the first place: to learn more about the Civil War Battle of South Mountain.

This historical photo shows South Mountain and Lamb’s Knoll from the opposite, western side. The “sunken road” in the picture is a little ways outside of Sharpsburg, MD—and became better known as “Bloody Lane” during the Battle of Antietam.

Most Americans know of Antietam; in fact, the only Civil War battle that is better known is Gettysburg. Antietam is remembered as the bloodiest day of the war, with almost 23,000 casualties in its single day of fighting. As a result, its prelude—the Battle of South Mountain—is largely overlooked. But if not for South Mountain, the Confederates would have been catastrophically defeated at Antietam, probably ending the Civil War on the spot.

It all started in September 1862 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee, buoyed by the strong victory at the Second Battle of Manassas, decided to invade the North. His goal was to destroy Union moral and even capture Baltimore or Washington, DC—thereby forcing a settlement to the war that would grant independence to the Confederate States of America. His army crossed the Potomac River and reached Frederick unopposed, although, as shown in Alfred Waud’s drawing, Union sentries observed the movement of the Confederate troops.

Lee’s army established their camp at Best’s Farm, southwest of Frederick. The farm is still there and is now part of the National Park Service. (The farm’s infamous past with regard to slavery is described in my trip The Darker Side of History.)

While I was at Best’s Farm, it seemed like a good idea to revisit the Gambrill Mill, just across the Monocacy River. The gristmill was built in 1830 and was very successful. It eventually closed in 1897. In the 1920s, its original third story was removed, and the building was converted to a house. It is now used as office space for the National Park Service.

Bush Creek supplied water power to the mill. On this day, it offered a beautiful—if bleak—winter view.

But my real reason for visiting the mill was to see the nearby Edgewood mansion again. By 1872, James Gambrill’s mill operations had been so successful that he was able to build this stately home for his family, complete with numerous rooms, 7 fireplaces, a central coal-burning furnace, gas lamps, and hot and cold running water (gravity fed from an outside cistern). Edgewood now serves as the NPS’ Historic Preservation Training Center. Whatever its use, it remains my favorite mansion in Maryland.

I couldn’t help noticing the very long shadows as I roamed around these historical sites, even though it was only about 1:30 in the afternoon. Then it dawned on me: December 21 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Leaving Edgewood, I unleashed the Aston Martin in the direction of South Mountain and thoroughly enjoyed rushing back across Braddock Mountain and along the farm roads in Middletown Valley. This car seems equally at home on the freeway, clipping apexes on hilly curves, or just puttering around in search of lost history. It starts up every time—which is a bit remarkable, given that it still has its original 2007 battery!—and it can blitz from a standstill to warp speed in short order. Oh, and it’s just beautiful to look at from any “vantage point.”

But back to the Civil War and Lee’s invasion of the North… In a daring strategy, he divided his army into several separate forces: one to capture the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad yards at Martinsburg, West Virginia; one to capture the Union armory at Harpers Ferry; another to take position at Boonesboro, MD; and the last to serve as a rear guard. Lee described these maneuvers in detail, right down to the roads to be traveled, in Special Orders No. 191. As fate would have it, a copy of these orders was found by Union soldiers at Best’s Farm, shortly after the Confederates had decamped. The orders were wrapped around three cigars and left lying on the ground. Why this happened has never been determined.

Against the advice of his Cabinet, President Abraham Lincoln had named General George McClellan as commander of the Union forces in Washington and ordered him to move against the Confederate forces that had poured into Maryland, only 40 miles from the White House. When Special Orders No. 191 were discovered, verified, and sent to McClellan, he exulted, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

The first two parts of Lee’s campaign were accomplished, with Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson capturing the C&O trains and destroying the railroad facilities in Martinsburg, then rushing to assist Generals McLaws, Anderson, and Walker in capturing the armory at Harpers Ferry—including the 13,000 Union soldiers stationed there. The operations took longer than planned, however, and by now McClellan’s Union army was marching from Washington toward Lee’s scattered forces, intent on interposing themselves between the Confederates in Harpers Ferry and those at Boonesboro. McClellan had 85,000 soldiers at his command versus Lee’s scattered 50,000, and the outcome seemed certain. However, South Mountain stood in the way of the Union’s destinations.

Lee did not learn of McClellan’s advance until September 13, 1862. He immediately recognized the grave danger facing his divided army and sent orders to reinforce the Confederate troops guarding the three passes across South Mountain: Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Turner’s Gap (where the National Road crosses). Initially, a total of only about 5,000 men were available to defend these positions. However, as a Union private later commented, “the rebels had stone walls to get behind and the woods to fall back in.”

At 9:00 AM on September 14, the Union forces stormed up Fox’s Gap, and the Battle of South Mountain began. Among them were future U.S. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. The Confederate defenders were led by Gen. Samuel Garland. His wife and only child had died the previous year in an influenza epidemic, and some said that Garland’s fierce fighting reflected a death wish. Although outnumbered several-fold, the Confederates had superior positioning and managed to hold off the initial Union assault. In the process, Gen. Garland was killed in the fields of Wise’s farm. Union Gen. Jacob Cox halted his troops and waited for reinforcements before continuing the fight. In the meantime, reinforcements from Confederate James Longstreet made their way to the gap. Hours later, Union forces under Gen. Jesse Reno renewed the attack at Fox’s Gap. They gained the victory, but Gen. Reno did not live to see it; he was shot while commending his men along the front lines for their bravery.

Today there are few indications of the vicious battle that occurred at Fox’s Gap. In the distance there is a monument to Gen. Reno, who, ironically, was killed that afternoon within a few yards of where Gen. Garland had died in the morning. Reno had been a close friend of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at West Point. When Union Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis (another West Point classmate) learned that Reno had been shot, he rushed to his friend’s side. Gen. Reno told him in a strong voice, “Hello Sam, I am dead.” Sturgis doubted the prognosis, but Reno was right and died within minutes. His body was taken to Boston for burial, wrapped in the American flag given to him the prior day in Frederick by Barbara Fritchie, the heroine of John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem.

From the Reno Monument, a narrow, winding road climbs steeply to the top of Lamb’s Knoll. There used to be a fire tower there, but it has been replaced by a modern electronic observation post. (A secret Federal facility is also there and remains heavily guarded—but that’s a story for another day.) For any Rush fans keeping track of such things, the road to Lamb’s Knoll was the setting of the climax to my story “A Nice Morning Drive” in Road & Track magazine, which later inspired Neil Peart to write the classic song “Red Barchetta.” As usual, truth is stranger than fiction!

While the fighting was going on at Fox’s Gap, the Union army was inexplicably hesitant at Crampton’s Gap to the south and Turner’s Gap to the north. At Turner’s, Gen. Ambrose Burnside delayed the Union attack until Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps had arrived. Hooker’s men made their charge at 4:00 PM—a full 7 hours after the initial attack at Fox’s Gap—but Confederate reinforcements from Longstreet arrived in time to prevent an outright Union victory. When night fell, Turner’s Gap was still in Confederate hands.

The original Union battle map for South Mountain includes a depiction of the “Mountain House” at the top of Turner’s Gap. It’s still there but is now called the Old South Mountain Inn. It’s been serving travellers since 1732 (and I can attest that their food is excellent). Several U.S. Presidents have stayed here, along with Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and a number of followers of John Brown, who captured the inn in connection with Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. During the Battle of South Mountain, Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill used the inn as his headquarters.

Across the National Road from the inn stands the handsome Dahlgren Chapel. It wasn’t built until 1881, and it’s hard to image the horrific fighting that occurred in these peaceful surrounding fields.

At Crampton’s Gap, Union General William Franklin, with more than 12,000 men, grossly overestimated the number of Confederate defenders, which in reality only amounted to between 500 and 1,000. As a result, he also held off his attack until 4:00 PM. Alfred Waud’s drawing of this battle (below) shows two large, well-organized lines of soldiers firing at each other, but the reality was much more disorderly (as seen in the second drawing): the small number of Confederates were positioned behind a long stone wall but were eventually overwhelmed by the far greater number of Union fighters and forced to retreat into the valley. Rather than pursuing what was left of the Confederate force, however, Gen. Franklin called a halt and remained in position at the top of the mountain.

There are many historical placards at Crampton’s Gap today, but few signs of the battle itself. This old stone arch may have existed then, or it could be a later addition. The Appalachian Trail runs directly behind the arch, on its way to Maine or Georgia, depending. And for you movie buffs, the 1999 thriller The Blair Witch Project was filmed in these woods.

There aren’t many photographs related to the Battle of South Mountain, but this is one of them. A careful look reveals that this is a Union burial detail. There were roughly 6,000 casualties from the fighting at South Mountain, divided about equally between Union and Confederate forces. Among the 85,000 Union soldiers, only a few percent were killed, wounded, or captured. Among the Confederates, however, the casualty rate was roughly 50 percent.

After nightfall on September 14, 1862, Generals Lee, Longstreet, and D.H. Hill agreed that South Mountain should be abandoned. But the daylong engagement had allowed the Confederates time to regroup their armies in Sharpsburg, MD, where they assumed defensive positions along Antietam Creek. Gen. McClellan’s opportunity to catastrophically defeat Lee’s divided army was lost. Three days later, the Battle of Antietam was fought. It was largely a draw in terms of casualties, but it forced Lee to retreat back to Virginia; his Maryland campaign was over. He escaped, however, with most of the Army of Northern Virginia intact, and the Civil War ground on for another 2½ years. Abraham Lincoln, furious with McClellan’s timidity and hesitation, soon reassigned command of the Union Army of the Potomac to Gen. Burnside. But the repulse of Lee’s invasion improved the North’s morale considerably and gave Lincoln the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all African American slaves in the Confederate states.

While I was at Crampton’s Gap, I refreshed my memory of George Alfred Townsend (1841-1914). Townsend was a noted war correspondent, using the pen name “Gath.” He was the youngest journalist covering the Civil War, writing for the New York Herald. He contracted “Chickahominy Fever” in the process (similar to both malaria and typhoid fever), and he later wrote extensively about the assassination of President Lincoln. Townsend is shown on the left in the photo below, with Samuel Clemens—a.k.a. Mark Twain—in the center, and poet and editor David Gray at right.

In 1884, Townsend purchased land at Crampton’s Gap and built a mountaintop estate that he called “Gapland.” It included his 11-room home, Gapland Hall…

… “The Lodge,” which served as guest and servant quarters…

…and a mausoleum, with the inscription “Good Night Gath” engraved above the entrance. As it happens, however, he was buried in Philadelphia, and his crypt at Gapland remains empty.

Gapland originally had as many as 20 buildings, some of them quite extensive, but most have not survived. These are the ruins of the barn, which was built into the side of a hill. Other buildings included a library, den, and tollhouse—with the latter proving very unpopular with the local population who crossed South Mountain at Crampton’s Gap on a regular basis. (The tollhouse survives and is currently a private residence.)

In 1895, while visiting the Antietam Battlefield, Townsend observed the many monuments that were being constructed in honor of the combatants. Realizing that there were no monuments for war correspondents anywhere in the U.S., he returned to Gapland and built the striking War Correspondents’ Arch. (For more information on this eclectic monument, see Allen Browne’s excellent web article, The Empty Tomb and the Lost Monument.)

With my tour of South Mountain completed, it was time to remember where I’d left the long-suffering Aston Martin and to head for home.

Descending the mountain, I was struck by this ancient barn that was almost certainly present as Union and Confederate soldiers were scrambling for position.

I suppose it goes without saying that, if you’re going to park on a steep hill, your parking brakes should be in good working order!

Before I knew it, I was back home:

Okay, I confess: That’s not really where I live—it’s another photo of the Edgewood mansion, where I’d really like to be living! But I have no complaints. I’m blessed to own a magnificent Aston Martin and to enjoy driving it in search of history and adventure. I can’t wait until the next outing.

Rick F.

PS: Historical photographs and drawings are courtesy of the following sources:


Written by Rick

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