Death of a Brigade

As the battered Federal and Confederate forces awaited reinforcements at Fox's Gap, Confederate General D.H. Hill was sending as many reinforcements to the north and south of the National Road as he could muster, while anxiously waiting to receive a massive Federal assault.  It wasn't until around 3:30 p.m. that the lead elements of Longstreet's wing, who were in Hagerstown earlier that day, arrived at the Mountain House.  One of these brigades was under the command of General Thomas Drayton, consisting of about 1300 troops from Georgia and South Carolina.

What the Confederates Did Not Know

Photograph of Confederate General D. H. Hill
Confederate General D. H. Hill

Library of Congress

Hill sent Drayton's men, along with three other brigades, to Fox's Gap, the scene of a brutal fight earlier in the day which resulted in the loss of Confederate Brigadier General Samuel Garland. The commanders of the brigades met with Hill and decided that an assault of the ridge top would be made by all four brigades. Drayton's troops were positioned on the extreme left of the line. The rest of the troops extended from the summit of Fox's Gap, down the west side of the mountain and into the Old Sharpsburg Rd (present Reno Mountain Road). After the troop dispositions were made, Drayton's men were essentially left alone on the summit of the gap, the nearest troops being those of G.T. Anderson, positioned 300 yards to the west. Hill left them with instructions to sweep the mountainside from west to east and drive off any federal troops who remained from the morning's actions. Thus, Hill would regain the initiative. However, little known to the Confederate high command, reserve divisions of the Federal Ninth Corps had positioned themselves and commenced their second major assault on the ridge top. Drayton's brigade would receive the full force of this assault.

In the midst of rectifying his line to link with Anderson's, Drayton's soldiers were hit both in front and flank by elements of Union General Thomas Welsh's brigade of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians. Along with the Mid-Atlantic troops, the 17th Michigan, a regiment recently mustered into Federal service, would wreak havoc on Drayton's troops. As the 17th advanced, harassing artillery fire forced them to crowd to the left, causing them to split into two wings. The right wing advanced on the north side of the road, wheeled to the left and fired into the backs of the 50th and 51st Georgia Regiments, who were positioned in the Old Sharpsburg Road, while the left wing fired into them from the front and flank.

The murderous fire was too much for the Georgians to handle. The remaining South Carolinians were invested in a sharp firefight in the open ground to the south of the road, but were also overwhelmed by the power of the federal assault. Drayton's troops, alone and without proper support, were compelled to retreat in complete disorder. The fight was over in minutes, but within that brief period the brigade suffered approximately 50% casualties.