James P. Sullivan, 6th Wisconsin: Skirmishing at the Battle of South Mountain

On 14th September 1862 the Union army engaged in a vicious struggle with their Confederate foe for possession of the passes or ‘Gaps’ through South Mountain in Maryland. The discovery of Order 191 had revealed the Army of Northern Virginia’s dispositions to Federal commander George McClellan, and he needed to push through the mountain in the hope of bringing Robert E. Lee’s divided forces to battle as soon as possible. The fighting that took place during the Battle of South Mountain would be overshadowed by the bloodbath of Antietam just three days later, but for one Irishman its slopes would be the last he would see of the campaign.

James P. Sullivan was born in Ireland on 21st June 1843, emigrating to the United States with his parents and two siblings while still an infant. They eventually settled in Wisconsin, where James grew up. On the outbreak of war the little Irishman from Juneau County enlisted in the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit that was initially brigaded with the 2nd Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana. These Western men would fight their war in the east, with the Army of the Potomac, and would win fame as the ‘Iron Brigade’. Sullivan rose to the rank of Sergeant in the regiment’s Company K, and in the 1880s began to write about his wartime experiences. He adopted the name ‘Mickey, of Company K’ and began producing pieces for The Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph; his description of the fighting at South Mountain appeared in 1888. (1)

Aerial View of South Mountain, Maryland

Aerial View of South Mountain, Maryland

The portion of the fighting in which Sullivan and his comrades were involved was at Turner’s Gap. As light faded on the 14th September and with other Union forces pressing the Rebel flanks, it was decided to send the Westerners straight up the National Road towards the enemy in an effort to force a breakthrough. The brigade was not known as the ‘Iron Brigade’ just yet; that would be a name associated with them after this fight. For now their distinctive black Hardee hats led to them being called the ‘Black Hat Brigade’. Company K of the 6th Wisconsin and Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin were ordered to deploy in front of the brigade as skirmishers, and so James found himself out in front of the main body of troops (2):

The skirmishers pushed on up the side of the mountain and soon came in sight of the enemy’s skirmishers and opened fire on them. The ground was a cultivated field with a heavy wood on the right and Company K’s line extended from the woods down to the road. The field was pretty full of large stones, and now and again a huge boulder stood up and afforded both us and the enemy excellent cover. Lieutenants Ticknor and Upham [Lyman] directed the movement of our company, which was always “Forward,” and about all they had to do was follow the men who needed no urging. Part of the men would fire and then rush forward while the others covered them and had at the rebels and then the rear line would pass through to the front and lay down while the other kept up fire, and in that way it was a steady advance. (3)

Having advanced towards the enemy in this fashion Sullivan turned to see the brigade advancing behind him on either side of the turnpike. He was with a group of friends in the company:

Chamberlain, “Eph” Cornish, Corporal Wilcox and myself kept close together and formed a group of “comrades in battle.” Chamberlain, who was brave as a lion, kept continually rushing forward leading the squad, and of course we had to follow up and support him. It was now sundown and being in the shadow of the mountain it was getting dark very fast, and our fellows pushed the rebel skirmishers up to their line of battle, and our squad took shelter behind a big boulder and two of us fired from each side of it. (4)

Trapped between the two contending lines of battle, things were about to deteriorate for Sullivan and his comrades:

The 7th [Wisconsin] which was the line of battle behind us, opened fire and the skirmishers who had gradually moved to the right towards the woods had uncovered their front and were fighting the rebel skirmishers at close quarters, when a heavy line of battle rose up and advanced towards the right flank of the 7th, and then came the crash of their volley by regiment. I had been troubled with mumps for several days and my jaws had now reached a respectable rotundity and Lieutenant Upham had let me have a big silk handkerchief to tie about my face, but on entering the fight I took it off as it obstructed my range of vision, and when that crash came, either a bullet split in pieces against a stone or a fragment of the boulder hit me on the sore jaw, causing exquisite pain, and I was undetermined whether to run away or swear, when Cornish groaned, “Mickey, Chamberlain is killed and I’m wounded,” and then came another crashing volley and I felt a stinging, burning sensation in my right foot followed by the most excruciating pain, and as I sprang up I saw Corporal Wilcox topple over, wounded. (5)

An Irishman in the Iron Brigade

An Irishman in the Iron Brigade

Out of the fight, he used his musket as a crutch to get back down the Mountain to seek out treatment. His brigade was unsupported in its attack and was unable to make ground against the Confederate defences, with darkness putting an end to the struggle. His battle over, Sullivan received medical attention at Frederick City, avoiding the carnage of Antietam. His wound led to him being discharged for disability, but the redoubtable Irishman re-enlisted in the 6th Wisconsin and was soon back among his companions in Company K, with whom he would serve the remainder of the war. His accounts of different battles and experiences have been brought together by William J.K. Beaudot and Lance J. Herdegen who published An Irishman in the Iron Brigade in 1993, making James Sullivan’s fascinating insights into the conflict available to all. The Battlefield of South Mountain is unfortunately still at risk, and was named on the Civil War Trust’s 2010 list of most endangered battlefields, due to the threat of development on the site. It is to be hoped such development will not take place. (6)

(1) Beaudot & Herdegen (eds) 1993: 1, 6-7; (2) Sears 2003: 141, Beaudot & Herdegen (eds) 1993:60; (3) Beaudot & Herdegen (eds) 1993:60; (4) Ibid: 61 (5) Ibid: 61-62; (6) Ibid: 4, 63,  Sears 2003: 142;

References & Further Reading

Sears, Stephen W. 2003. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Sullivan, James P. (edited by William J.K. Beaudot & Lance J. Herdegen) 1993. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade

Hoptak, John David. 2011. The Battle of South Mountain

Civil War Trust Battle of South Mountain Page

South Mountain State Battlefield

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Categories: Battle of South Mountain, Books

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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2 Comments on “James P. Sullivan, 6th Wisconsin: Skirmishing at the Battle of South Mountain”

  1. September 17, 2011 at 2:35 am #

    When I’ve been to South Mountain I’ve always been tempted to think of it as a human construction. It is a high ridge that stretches almost continuously for miles, like a Great Wall of Maryland. I can’t imagine what it was like to be told you had to storm the mountain.

  2. September 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Hi Patrick,

    It is a site I would love to visit if I ever get the chance- from the accounts it sounds like it was (and is) a formidable obstacle, you are right it is almost unimaginable to think of having to attack it.

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

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