Organized in the summer of 1862, the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry saw their first, and perhaps most notable, action at the Battle of South Mountain. Arriving in Washington in early September, the Wolverines were promptly attached to Christ's Brigade in General Orlando Willcox's division of the Union Ninth Corps. Immediately the regiment was sent into the field to campaign in Maryland with the Army of the Potomac, as it pursued the invading Army of Northern Virginia.
17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry
The Michiganders arrived in Middletown, Maryland on September 13th after a grueling weeklong march in pursuit of Lee's forces, only to be met with reports of the enemy close by. As the fight for South Mountain commenced the next morning, Willcox's division, a lead division for the Federal army, was eventually positioned to attack Fox's Gap. Earlier that morning, the Ninth Corps' Kanawha Division - a hard fighting group of Ohio troops transferred from the rugged region of Western Virginia - assaulted Fox's Gap and dislodged a brigade of North Carolinians. The casualties were heavy on both sides, and now both Federals and Confederates waited for re-enforcements.
The 17th Michigan, numbering about 500 strong, occupied the right side of the Old Sharpsburg Road as it began its ascent of the mountain towards Fox's Gap, while Welsh's brigade was positioned to the left of the road. After sustaining casualties caused by punishing artillery fire from front and flank, the Michigan men moved back and forth across the road. Finally, they were ordered to move forward. After sweeping aide Confederate skirmishers and silencing the artillery in their front, the 17th found themselves on the flank and rear of part of Drayton's Georgia and South Carolina brigade. Using the protection of a stone wall, the 17th Michigan fired devastating, well aimed shots into the front, flank, and rear of the unsuspecting confederate soldiers. Their fire inflicted immense casualties, stacking bodies like cordwood in the roadbeds at the summit of the gap.
In a matter of minutes, the 17th, along with troops from Welsh's Brigade and remnants of the Kanawha Division, inflicted about 650 casualties on the 1300 men of Dayton's Brigade - a loss of 50%. One of Drayton's men who lay dead at Fox's Gap was Lt. Col. George S. James of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion. James is credited with firing the signal shot that began the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April of 1861.
The 17th Michigan, only a few short weeks from the training camps of their home state, found themselves on an unfamiliar Western Maryland mountaintop amidst some of the most horrific combat of the war. The fighting produced approximately 100 casualties within the ranks of the Michiganders, but their firmness in line and coolness in battle earned them the nickname of "Stonewall Regiment". Just three day later, the 17th Michigan would again find themselves in heated combat on the rolling hills above Antietam Creek.
Last updated: February 4, 2015