Controversies of a Campaign: Why Did French Attack the Sunken Road At Antietam?

by Brett Schulte on July 31, 2008 · 2 comments

I just finished reading Marion V. Armstrong’s new book Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign, and one of Armstrong’s theories just doesn’t sit right with me.  Before we go into details let me give you a little bit of background.  The fight over the northern portion of the Antietam Battlefield was a bloody draw by the time Edwin Sumner’s II Corps approached the East Woods.  The efforts of Hooker’s I Corps and Mansfield’s XII Corps to puncture the Confederate left had not been successful though the Confederates were hard pressed.  By the time Sumner arrived Hooker had been wounded and Mansfield killed, so he had to worry about the entire Federal right in addition to his own corps. According to Armstrong, Sumner’s personal reconnaissance showed him that the proper area to attack was the West Woods, and Sumner ordered Sedgwick’s division to do so.

I have no problems with Armstrong’s version of events up to this point.  As you can probably guess by the post title, I am not convinced by Armstrong’s theory that Sumner ordered French to specifically assault the Sunken Road (pages 203-204, 208).  Sumner’s son and aide did tell General French to attack, I’m not disputing that.  However, I do not believe Sumner specifically told French to attack the *Sunken Road*.  It’s at least somewhat clear from reading the various sources (to me at least) that Sumner lost track of French’s division while he was involved with Sedgwick’s division in the West Woods and the resulting need to stabilize the Federal far right in the aftermath of that disaster.  When French was told to attack, I believe Sumner wasn’t sure exactly where French was but just wanted to relieve some pressure on the far right of the line to give himself time to restore order.  French, for his part, also lost track of Sumner and Sedgwick’s division, which led the way to the battlefield.  When told to attack, he was to the left of General Greene’s XII corps division, and some members of French’s division believed Greene’s division was Sedgwick’s in the confusion.  What’s odd is that Armstrong doesn’t really mention this theory in Disaster in the West Woods, so I’m wondering if he changed his interpretation of events due to new research between the books.  Perhaps since Disaster in the West Woods focuses on Sedgwick’s division, he didn’t consider the theory to really have a place in that book.

For a much more detailed description, see Fred Ray’s original post The Antietam Anomaly, Brian Downey’s follow-up post Following General French, and Fred’s response in That Antietam Anomaly for further details.

Camp Pope Publishing

So for those of you familiar with the situation, what do you think?  Did Sumner specifically tell French to send his men against the Sunken Road at the same time he led Sedgwick’s attack on the West Woods?  Did Sumner even know for sure where French was most of the morning?  Did French’s division mistake Greene’s men for Sedgwick’s?

For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, I would suggest Armstrong’s book Unfurl Those Colors! mentioned above, his earlier work Disaster in the West Woods, and possibly Sears’ book Landscape Turned Red for the opposite view.

Look for more on this subject in my upcoming review of Unfurl Those Colors! as well.

Note: “Controversies of a Campaign” is a new idea I’m trying out in which I will look at well known controversies in battles and campaigns, try to offer up some conflicting views by various authors along with links to their books, and offer you the reader a chance to weigh in on the subject.  I really enjoy these conversations on the Civil War message boards and I thought I might try it out in blogland as well.  If you have any suggestions for topics for upcoming “Controversies of a Campaign” entries, use the Contact Us link and let me know!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bryn December 20, 2018 at 4:37 am

Hi,

I’ve recently been reading around this topic and have a completely different theory. Using the available reports and the official US Army maps (which were made at the time and are slightly different to the Carman map) (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3701sm.gcw0098000/?sp=26&r=0.206,0.114,0.165,0.079,0 ), I think:

1. There were two fords, the permanent Pry’s Ford and a smaller one to the south of it (visible on the official maps, and mentioned in the history of the regular engineers).

2. Sedgwick’s division crossed at the northern and French’s division at the southern.

3. The divisions were in motion at 0600. Multiple AARs from French’s division gives the time they broke camp and started the movement at 0600. In Sedgwick’s division the brigadiers give the times they forded the creek as 0630, 0700 and 0730 respectively.

4. There is general agreement both divisions were formed west of the creek at 0800.

5. It seems the two divisions advanced abreast, and after ca. one mile they crossed a gully, and French turned left to form on the left of 12th Corps.

6. French’s division came under fire after this turn at around 0830.

I’m still gathering primary accounts, and if you know of any not in the OR (or the 34th NY, published here: https://archive.org/details/briefhistoryreg00chaprich/page/62 ) can you let me know.

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