HPLM group visits Battle of South Mountain site

MIDDLETOWN, MARYLAND – The battle where Rutherford B. Hayes nearly lost his arm to a Confederate musket ball was pivotal in the Civil War.

But most people have never heard of it.

The Battle of South Mountain, near Middletown, Maryland, took place a few days before the Battle of Antietam in nearby Sharpsburg in September 1862. Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history with 23,000 dead. 

Many historians consider Antietam a tactical draw, but it was close enough to a Union victory that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in its wake.

“South Mountain is probably the most famous battle you’ve never heard of,” said John Miller, former historian at South Mountain State Park. “If it wasn’t for South Mountain, there would be no Antietam.” 

Hayes, a lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the time, was injured so severely that he could not fight in the Battle of Antietam. He recovered from the wound – one of five he suffered on four different occasions while fighting in the Civil War – and later became the 19th president of the United States.

In December, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums staff, their families, board members and Hayes descendants visited the battle site as part of a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit areas of Hayes family impact. The trip was part of HPLM’s year-long celebration of its centennial, which took place in 2016.

The group walked through Fox’s Gap, one of the passes on South Mountain and the site where Hayes and the 23rd O.V.I. fought the Confederates. A stone fence that is referenced in historical accounts of the battle still stands, not far from the field where Hayes lay injured, overlooking the city of Middletown.

“It is hard for a layman to understand military jargon when a battle is described, but to be able to stand in the field, see the lane on the hillside and the stone fence where the Confederates met Hayes’s men, made everything clear,” said Becky Hill, head librarian at the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. “And my 9-year-old grandson, Brady, was happy to demonstrate to the group how the men crawled on the stomachs up a hill to camouflage their approach.”

During the battle, Hayes led the 23rd in a charge on the Confederates, forcing the Confederates back twice. As the 23rd readied for a third charge, a musket ball hit Hayes’ arm above his left elbow. He continued to give orders after collapsing to the ground.

While lying there, he had a friendly conversation with a wounded Confederate. Both commented that they had come a long way to fight each other.

Hayes later wrote in his diary: “I gave him messages for my wife and friends in case I should not get up. We were right jolly and friendly, it was by no means an unpleasant experience.”

Hayes was later taken to Middletown, where he recovered from his wound for several weeks at the Jacob Rudy House, which still stands today.

When Hayes was injured, incomplete information about his location reached his wife, Lucy. She traveled to Washington, D.C., and Frederick, Maryland, to search for him in hospitals. Finally, after five days, she learned he was at the Rudy House and found him there.

The HPLM group drove by the Rudy House during the trip to South Mountain. 

“Although the Rudy House was fairly close to the battlefield action by car, it must have been a very long haul for Hayes up and down hills – walking or in a horse-drawn wagon,” Hill said. “It was clear to our group after we returned from the battlefield to the town how difficult it must have been.”

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is America’s first presidential library and is located at Spiegel Grove at the corner of Hayes and Buckland avenues. The facility is affiliated with the Ohio History Connection.

For information, call 419-332-2081, or visit rbhayes.org. Like HPLM on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hayespresidentialcenter and follow on Twitter at @rbhayespres and Instagram at rbhayespres.