Review in Brief: Disaster in the West Woods by Marion Armstrong

by Brett Schulte on August 14, 2008 · 2 comments

Marion V. Armstrong. Disaster in the West Woods: General Edwin V. Sumner and the II Corps at Antietam. Western Maryland Interpretive Association (2002). 78 pages, 6 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ASIN: B0014SER8S Out of Print (Paperback).

Disaster in the West Woods takes a detailed tactical look at II Corps commander Edwin Vose Sumner’s performance at the battle of Antietam.  It is a precursor to Armstrong’s recent book, Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign, which I reviewed in early August.  Armstrong attempts to reassess Sumner’s much maligned performance on September 17, 1862.  He looks closely at the four main reasons Sumner was blamed for a poor performance:

  1. For sending Sedgwick’s division to attack the West Woods immediately upon reaching the battlefield.
  2. For the formation which he used for Sedgwick’s division, which was three brigades, each in line, following each other at a distance of 50-75 yards (planned anyway, in reality the lines were a bit further apart).
  3. For failing to direct the divisions of French and Richardson on the battlefield, and
  4. For failing to attack the Confederate left with the Federal right after Sedgwick came to grief in the West Woods.

After examining Sedgwick’s attack and the details behind its failure, Armstrong goes over the points above and offers his reasons, some convincing, others not as strong, about Sumner’s performance.  I mostly agree with the author that Sedgwick’s attack into the West Woods based on the information Sumner was able to gather.  Armstrong is also fair in his assessment of the problems associated with the formation used by Sedgwick’s division.  Armstrong’s reasoning behind Sumner’s seeming loss of control of French and Richardson are not as convincing to this reader.  Sumner positioned himself too far forward with Sedgwick to perform his proper role on the battlefield.  Lastly, although I believe McClellan ultimately bears the most blame as army commander, Sumner should also incur some criticism for his role in dissuading McClellan from renewing the attack.

It is interesting to note that at the time this book was written, Armstrong did not yet advance the theory that Sumner ordered French to attack the Sunken Road at the same time he ordered Sedgwick into the West Woods.  If anyone knows Mr. Armstrong I would love to hear the background of how he came to the conclusions he did in Unfurl Those Colors!.

I noticed at the front of the book that an earlier version of the text appeared in Steven Woodworth’s Leadership and Command in the American Civil War, published by Savas Woodbury in 1996.  If anyone has read all three of that essay, Disaster in the West Woods, and Unfurl Those Colors!, I’d love to see the whole picture of the ways in which Armstrong’s conclusions have changed or remained the same over the past decade or so.

I would not recommend this book if you already have Unfurl Those Colors!.  However, if you do not plan to but that book soon this might be a cheaper, more compact alternative which covers what is essentially the “West Woods” chapter of Mr. Armstrong’s most recent book.  This one is highly recommended to fans of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam.  Even if I did not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, the book definitely made me question some long-held assumptions about Sumner’s performance in the West Woods.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Drew W. August 14, 2008 at 9:17 am

Brett,
do you own a copy of that Woodworth book you mentioned in the review? I’ve always wondered about the contents of that one.

Drew

Reply

admin August 14, 2008 at 9:57 am

Drew,

I don’t. I placed an order for it several days ago because I was interested in the other topics as well. Amazon has the following:

“The essays in this volume examine major Civil War generals in the context of their leadership at a specific battle or campaign. Topics include Joseph E. Johnston in 1861-62, James Longstreet and Chattanooga, Edwin Sumner and Antietam, George E. Pickett after Gettysburg, and Pierre Beauregard and the Bermuda Hundred campaign.”

Brett

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