Uberto Burnham Remembers South Mountain

The following is an article Uberto Burnham wrote for a veteransí newspaper, The National Tribune, describing his experiences with the 76th at the Battle of South Mountain. It was originally published in 1928.

South Mountain - Maryland Campaign

by Uberto A. Burnham, 76th NY, 9 Elmwood Ave, Cortland N.Y.

On Sept. 6, 1862, the 76th NY received orders to march. The regiment at that time, also the other regiments of Gen. Doubledayís Division, were about 10 miles south of the Potomac River. We commenced marching about 7p.m. and about 2a.m. reached the river and crossed at Long Bridge. We then marched through the city of Washington and along Pennsylvania Avenue. When morning came we thought we would halt and rest, but we did not. The day was very hot and the dust four inches deep. The word was always "Forward! Forward!" During the whole day we did not stop long enough to take a real meal or make a cup of coffee.

The reason for this hurried march was that Lee with his victorious troops had crossed the fords of the upper Potomac and was in Maryland in alarming attitude toward the city of Washington. It seemed necessary to put as many troops as possible between Lee and Washington in as short a time as possible. We did not halt until 7p.m., having marched 24 hours. When the marching columns halted, not half the men were in line. Many had fallen, exhausted, but by morning most of them were again with their comrades at the front. The next day we resumed our march, but moved more deliberately.

On the afternoon of Sept. 13 we reached Frederick in western Maryland. The company to which I belonged found a fine camping place in the city in a dooryard near a good residence. As the Captain and First Lieutenant had been wounded at Gainsville and Bull Run and the Second Lieutenant was sick in the hospital, I, as First Sergeant, had command of the company.

While making my details two of my men came to me and said "Orderly, when Jackson passed through the city two or three days ago, an old woman on Patrick Street waved the US Flag from her door or window as they passed." They told me some other details. Now I am sure it was the Barbara Frietchie incident which in their hurried stroll about the city they had heard about.

The march of the previous days had been of much interest. We had left devastated and depopulated northern Virginia and were now in Maryland, loyal and beautiful. Moving through a prosperous farming section with fenced fields and orchards, we received friendly greetings from all sources. The women and girls gave us water and encouraging words. The Stars and Stripes were seen on every hand. We noted, however, that some houses were closed. No friendly face appeared at door or window. We naturally inferred that the sympathies of the occupants were on the other side.

On the morning of the 14th we resumed our march. We passed over a range of hills and into the beautiful Middletown Valley. Late in the afternoon we reached the foot of South Mountain. We halted for a short time at a hamlet called Bolivar. While there I was startled by a loud "Hurrah!", and the sight of caps thrown in the air. Looking near me, I saw General McClellan riding slowly by with his staff.

The Confederate forces were on top of the mountain and it was our task to drive them off. We turned to the right and marched along the foot of the mountain until the line had cleared the road, then faced to the left and went up the mountain in line. The mountain was quite steep. When we were about half-way up we halted a few minutes to rest. The sun had gone down behind the mountain. We were marching in the shadow. The sun lighted up the valley behind us. It was a beautiful sight, with farm houses, grain fields, orchards, groups of staff officers, and columns of troops in motion, but I cannot say I enjoyed the scene. I felt the importance of the big task before us.

As we started again forward I noticed that a line of skirmishers had been thrown out in front of us. They consisted of the 84th NY, known among us as the 14th Brooklyn. They had a bright uniform of red and blue. The line of skirmishers was in our front and extended to our right as far as I could see. The men presented a most picturesque sight, were stepping rapidly forward and receiving their orders by bugle.

A little further up the mountain was a comparatively level place planted with corn, which had been fenced in. I saw the skirmishers go in the field, and thought they would perhaps find some of the enemy there, but they did not. I saw their bright uniforms going over the fence on the further side.

During all these minutes cannon shots were going over our heads both from the top of the mountain and the valley behind us. I thought the Confederates were firing at the batteries below, but I learned from an account written after the war by a Confederate officer that they fled to break the advancing line of infantry, but could not depress their pieces low enough to hit us.

The same officer told of the advancing lines. He said the alinement(sic) was perfect, the field and line officers were on horses. It gave him the most impressive view he had seen during the war.

Three women came down the side of the mountain on horseback by a diagonal path and passed in front of the regiment. Our Color Bearer, Charles E. Stamp, addressed them and inquired about the Confederate forces on top of the mountain. Less than half an hour later Sergt. Stamp was dead from a bullet wound in his forehead.

To make the situation plain to the reader, a few words of explanation may be necessary. The mountain on the east side was cleared to the summit, and at the summit was a piece of wood yard about 200 yards wide. Then there was an open field of perhaps 300 yards, then another piece of woods, in the edge of which was a wide path which led to the gap below. Turnerís Gap was between two mountains, each about 1,000 feet high. The gap rose to a height of 600 feet. It was the task of General Hooker, with his corps, to take possession of the north mountain. Gen. Burnside's Ninth Corps was to take the mountain on the south side of the gap.

When we arrived at the summit, we were ordered to unsling knapsacks. Then came a crash of musketry on our right and the staff officer came down, ordering us to hurry, "The right was hard pressed." Then came the orders, "Fix bayonets!" Then "Forward, double-quick, march!"

I remember thinking, "will our men be equal to this?" But they immediately gave a great shout and rushed forward. The way was somewhat tangled, but the men pushed forward into the woods which were more open.

The Confederate brigade in our front fell back through the woods into the open field, where it rallied. Our line was brought up to the edge of the woods against an old rail fence, and halted.

The broken fence was about knee high, but seemed to give some protection. Both lines then commenced fighting and for the next half hour or more was all the noise and confusion of a closely-contested battle. It soon was quite dark, and we could see the opposing line only as a long shadow, illuminated by the flash of rifles.

The lines seemed to be less than 100 feet from us. Looking to the front and right I thought I saw a Confederate officer on horseback directing the Confederate troops. I said to the boy who stood just in front of me, "Charley Roundy, stand aside." He gave me place, and I took as good aim as possible and fired. But I saw nothing fall.

Just at this time the quick eye of Capt. Goddard saw a long line of our enemy creeping cautiously toward our left flank . He reported the fact to the Colonel, who ordered the men to turn their rifles toward the left and fire at the advancing line. We did so. The Confederates rose to their feet and gave us a return volley.

Fortunately for us they fired too high, most of the bullets went over us. Yet some of our men fell, among them Color Bearer Stamp. Col. Wainright was shot through the wrist and his horse was killed. Immediate action was taken to strengthen our line on the left. The contingency had been anticipated and a full regiment was ordered to take place of the 76th NY.

We received an order to countermarch by "file left" and the new regiment coming forward "left in front" filed into our places, making a new line much longer, towards the gap. But the battle was virtually over. The new regiment stood in its place all night, but had little fighting to do.

The Confederate line to the north of us had been turned and the forces in our front made haste to reach the main road and retreat down the west side of the mountain.

Battlefield Horrors

My regiment was taken to the rear of the battle line where it stayed until morning. In the morning I obtained permission to look over the battlefield in our front. I first looked through the woods where we charged. The first body I saw was a Confederate Colonel. He was lying on his back and his hat and sword had been taken. He wore some old-style boots which reached half way up to the knee. The front of the tops were russet leather and on these tops was written in plain letters "Col. K. B. Strange, 19th Va." Prisoners said he commanded the brigade opposed to us and tried hard to make his men stand in the woods.

Passing through the woods into the open field I could plainly see where the Confederate line of battle stood by the number of fallen. Supposing that the wounded, who had been removed, succeeded the dead in usual proportion their first line must have almost entirely fallen.

I looked for the officer at whom I had shot, but I saw only a large stump with a large sliver reaching far above it. This object I had probably taken for a Confederate officer on horseback.

A little later the regiment was ordered to fall In and march. We crossed the battlefield and entered a path in the second piece of woods where we turned down to the road which leads through the gap. The small houses along the road on the west side were all filled with Confederate wounded.

Standing beside the road was a hotel called the Mountain House. Near it was a well and the water was lifted to the surface by an old-fashioned sweep. The well was, of course, surrounded by thirsty soldiers.

We marched down the mountain and through the village of Boonesboro. There we turned to the left and marched toward Sharpsburg.

Three days later came the great battle of Antietam, but the story of this battle belongs to another chapter. Perhaps I may take space to relate a few incidents of the Battle of South Mountain.

In the morning as we were moving across the field a tall boy about 17 jumped up from beyond a log or stump and exclaimed "Don't shoot." He came forward and gave himself up as a prisoner. "I told them," he said, "that I was afraid and could not fight. But they pushed me up here and I was near being killed, so I dropped down behind this stump and stayed all night."

In the morning before we moved Van Valkenburg, a private, on duty at headquarters, started out to explore the neighborhood. He was probably seeking for something for the headquarter's mess. Going to a nearby farmhouse he saw seven Confederate soldiers seated near the house and their rifles stacked a few yards from them. Drawing his pistol he ordered them to fall in. One of the Confederates started to reach for his rifle but Van Valkenburg with his pistol pointed at him, gave him warning and he fell in with the rest.

They were directed to march towards headquarters, but on the way they came across two other Confederates, who were ordered into line with the seven. Van Valkenburg riding behind the prisoners took them all into our lines. For this deed he was offered a commission. This he declined, saying he had no education and he could fill best the position he now has.

The Iron Brigade Named

The following story had been told to me:

During the battle Gen. Hooker went to Gen. McClellan's headquarters for orders "What troops are those in the gap?" McClellan said.

"It is Gibbon's Brigade of Western men" Hooker replied.

"They fight like men of iron," McClellan said.

"Well," said Hooker, "they are men of iron as you would know if you were acquainted with their previous record."

"They are equal to any troops in the world," McClellan said.

This so pleased Hooker that he mounted his horse and rode back, forgetting his orders. This incident is said to have led to the name "Iron Brigade," by which it was ever after designated.

Looking Back on the Battle

Fifty-eight years after I again stood on that battlefield, but how different the scene.

The day was bright and beautiful as on the day of battle. There was the same beauty of meadow and wood land, the same sublime beauty of mountain. Now all was peaceful, there were no columns or marching infantry, no lines of near, no houses filled with wounded. I had been attending the dedication of the New York monument on the Antietam battlefield.

After the dedication I spent two days looking over the Antietam field, hunting up familiar features of the field, which I remembered. At the end of the second day while at supper at the hotel I began a conversation with a guest who sat near me. I became aware that he knew more about the Maryland campaign than I did. He seemed to know the records of the different regiments which participated, my own among the number. I learned that his name was Fried Cross, head of the Bureau Of Military Statistics in the State Department of Massachusetts. He told me that he had that day been over the South Mountain Battlefield. I expressed a desire to visit that field. He said he would go with me the next day.

The next morning we took the bus on Boonesboro pike and at that village connected with the Hagerstown bus which went through Turner's Gap, now a paved road. Quite early in the forenoon we found ourselves on the battlefield. I could hardly realize the situation. It seemed to me almost a vision. I took great interest in looking over the field. I looked for the stump which I shot 58 years before, but it was not there.

We could look across the gap to the mountain south and see where Gen. Reno of the Ninth Corps was killed. Tables by the roadside gave information as to the movements of the different commands. We found the South Mountain House, but the old sweep was gone. My companion, with his ready tact for obtaining information, had learned the history of the house.

After the war it became the property of a widow Dalgreen, who rebuilt the house and made it her home, and later built a chapel across the road where she is buried. Mrs. Dalgreen had written a book about South Mountain. I forgot now the title but it emphasized the superstition and folklore of the plane people of the Mountains. We had a bountiful dinner at the New Mountain House, and stopped at Boonesboro in the afternoon, becoming acquainted with a very interesting family, who treated us with true Southern hospitality and told us many interesting facts about the mountain arid the country surrounding it.

One citizen told me that against the French and Indians at Fort Duquesne, Gen. Braddock in his ill-fated expedition passed through Turner's Gap. He said there were formerly two Indian trails to the west from that point, one north of the village and one south.

The small houses on the west side of the mountain were still there, but most of them had been whitewashed or stuccoed.

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- last updated January 2, 1999