Disaster in the West Woods

by Fred Ray on August 5, 2006 · 1 comment

Thanks to Brett I recently picked up a nice little battle monograph – Disaster in the West Woods, General Edwin V. Sumner and the II Corps at Antietam, by Marion V. Armstrong (Western Maryland Interpretive Association 2002). At 77 pages it’s short, but a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Antietam. Right now it’s on sale for half price ($4.97) at the Antietam book store. In fact, the shipping will cost you more than the book. Armstrong takes a detailed, literally step by step look at what befell the US II Corps at Antietam, as well as assessing Major General Edwin Sumner’s leadership.

Overall I was very impressed by Armstrong’s contribution, although I differ with him on Sumner’s generalship and some other matters, which I will discuss. In addition to tracking the positions of various units, Armstrong (a former Army officer turned military historian) provides both modern-day photographs and descriptions of what Sumner would have seen when approaching the West Woods.

With forty-three years of active service in the regular army Edwin Vose “Bull” Sumner was one of the Army’s most experienced soldiers, and at sixty-five years of age, one of the oldest. A colonel when the war began, he had risen rapidly to major general, and had performed credibly in the Peninsular campaign. His highest prewar combat command had been at company level in Mexico, and at regimental level during some Indian campaigns. At Antietam he commanded II Corps, comprised of three divisions. One of these divisions, that commanded by Brigadier General William French, had only recently joined the corps and was composed in large part of new units, many of which had been in the service only six weeks.
westwoods.JPG

Alerted on the morning of the battle, Sumner (who was, in theory, a Grand Division commander) chafed as he waited for orders while the corps of Major General Joseph Hooker (I Corps) and Major General Joseph Mansfield (XII Corps) went in at dawn. The fighting swayed back and forth, with both Hooker and Mansfield being carried from the field wounded. By the time Sumner crossed Antietam creek in mid-morning, both these corps had been driven back in disarray by Stonewall Jackson’s command.

With Sedgwick’s division in the lead, II Corps crossed Antietam creek and advanced toward the West Wood through the debris of I and XII Corps. His concept of the operation (to use a modern term) was to have French’s division advance forward to cover Sedgwick’s left, and then the two divisions would attack, with the third division (commanded by Major General Israel Richardson) behind them in the classic “two-up, one-back” formation. He seems to have communicated this to both French and Richardson.

Nevertheless, Sumner made two critical mistakes early on. One was to be too far forward personally, and the other was to fail to factor in the lack of experience of French’s men. Sumner, whose personal courage was beyond question, actually rode at times in front of Sedgwick’s division (which was deployed in line), trying to make sense of the confused and fluid tactical situation. This was certainly understandable given the uncertainties of the day, but it left him vulnerable to sharpshooters and made him unaware of what transpired next.

French’s division had crossed the creek behind Sedgwick’s, and while this was normally not a terribly challenging maneuver, it was difficult for men (and officers) new to the military. Just moving several thousand men, even away from a battle, is a difficult proposition without an experienced, smoothly-functioning chain of command, which most of French’s regiments just did not have as yet. Thus by the time French’s division had crossed and reformed into battle formation, Sedgwick’s division was out of sight.

When Sedgwick’s division began fighting Sumner remained at the front, attempting to coordinate the battle, which included fragments of other corps (e.g. Brigadier General George Greene’s command, near the Dunker Church) and becoming far too involved in its conduct, which he should have left to his subordinates.

Over the past twenty years I’ve spent quite a bit of my time training EMS leaders to deal with large, complex incidents like floods. These are, in many ways, very similar to military operations. One of the most common mistakes that ICs (that’s EMS-speak for Incident Commander) make is to become too involved in the actual “hands-on” running of the event so that they lose sight of the overall picture. This is where I differ with Armstrong, who thinks that Sumner was justified in being forward. It’s pretty obvious, however, that Sumner became caught up in the battle (an easy thing to do), ordering individual brigades and even regiments around. In the process he eventually completely lost track of two-thirds of his command, the two fresh divisions that might have made the difference, and fought Jackson with only a third of his combat power. The result was catastrophic – Sedgwick’s division was cut to pieces and John Sedgwick himself severely wounded.

There are two things that can be considered in Sumner’s defense. First, if he had ridden off the rear he might have seemed like cowardice and demoralized the men. Second, when Sedgwick was wounded he was the only man with enough authority to command both Sedgwick’s division and the remnants of the other corps. While there is truth to both of these, his first responsibility as a commander was to be where he could control his corps. Had he attacked as planned, with two fresh divisions abreast and a third in support, even Stonewall Jackson would have been hard pressed to hold out.

The book itself is soft cover, 6×9″, with a number of informative maps and an index. However an order of battle, at least of II Corps, would have been helpful.

Next, we’ll look at one of the enduring mysteries of the battle. Why did Sumner’s two other division take off on their own and attack the Sunken Road?


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