In September 1862, Union forces under General George B. McClellan pursued General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia through northwestern Maryland. Lee had invaded Maryland to demoralize the North ahead of the November elections, and to convince Europe that the Confederacy had legs and deserved recognition. A copy of Lee’s orders were lost (famously found by Union soldiers wrapping three cigars), alerting McClellan to his plans. The key to defeating Lee lay in capturing three passageways through South Mountain, one of which is known as Crampton’s Gap (shown above in this Google Earth image).
Crampton’s Gap as viewed from the southern side looking north. There were no structures here during the battle.
South Mountain is a north-south extension of the famous Blue Ridge into Maryland. It is a sharp ridge made of resistant metamorphic rocks, including gneisses, schists and quartzites. The slopes on either side are unusually steep and so passing from east to west over the mountain is best done through “gaps” made by eroding antecedent river systems. Water gaps are deepest and have streams currently flowing through them. (One is made by the Potomac River.) A wind gap was also made by river erosion, but the water was long ago snatched away by stream piracy. Crampton’s Gap (39° 24′ 36″ N, 77° 38′ 24″ W) is a wind gap less than 300 meters wide.
On September 14, 1862, McClellan finally moved on Lee and attacked the three gaps through South Mountain to turn back Lee’s invasion. Crampton’s Gap was the southernmost part of what later became known as the Battle of South Mountain.
Union forces under Major General William B. Franklin, after a long preparation, attacked from the east a much smaller Confederate force at Crampton’s Gap. The Confederates resisted all day, taking advantage of the steep slopes and narrow pass with a battery of cannon. By the end of the day, though, the Union force broke through the Confederate lines, sending the remaining rebels down the western slopes. Strangely, Franklin failed to follow up on his victory, allowing the rebel troops to join Stonewall Jackson to capture the Union garrison and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The overall battle was a Union victory as it blunted Lee’s invasion, forcing him to stand at Antietam and eventually retreat from Maryland. The resistant rocks of South Mountain protected his army long enough for him to frighten the Northern public, but those ancient wind gaps were his undoing.