In my last entry I discussed “Bull” Sumner’s attack on the West Woods and what went wrong, and why he ended up attacking with a single division instead of the three he had available. Here I want to consider one of the mysteries of the battle — why did two-thirds of II Corps suddenly angle off southward and attack D.H. Hill’s position in the Sunken Lane? After all, Brigadier General William French’s division was supposed to be up on Sedgwick’s left, or at least supporting him as his division bled in the West Woods. No one ordered this movement, nor was it part of either McClellan’s or Sumner’s battle plan.
What happened? Most students of the battle, like Stephen Sears, mention it briefly without going into the causes, then move on to the conflict in the Bloody Lane. I had hoped that Marion Armstrong, in Disaster in the West Woods, would go into it in more detail, but he, too, just mentions it and moves on.
As I mentioned previously, French’s division was in large part composed of very raw regiments, and thus moved slowly compared to Sedgwick’s veterans. Some of the problem may have been French himself, as “Old Blinky” was sluggish even by Army of the Potomac standards – a trait that eventually cost him his command and reputation. By the time French had crossed Antietam creek and reformed, Sedgwick’s leading division had moved out of sight and was entering the West Woods. French moved forward slowly and began passing the Roulette farm. Two things then happened more or less at the same time.
First, French’s men began taking fire from a group of sharpshooters in the farm house (as the Roulette family cowered in the basement) and the grounds. This did not present a serious threat to a full division, but the noisy show did attract a good deal of attention, especially from those soldiers who had never been under fire before. Second, while a couple of regiments were dispatched to root them out, a courier arrived for General French.
It was Captain S. S. Sumner, General Sumner’s son and aide, who delivered a peremptory order from the corps commander directing French to “press the enemy.” A reasonable interpretation of what happened next would be that French took the sharpshooters at the Roulette farm to be the enemy he was directed to press. This would certainly explain why, instead of continuing to march west, he angled off to the south. He would have known, of course, that they were an advanced picket and that the main body would have been some distance beyond. If so then French must have concluded that his commander (who for his part seems to have been under the misapprehension that French was close behind Sedgwick) had changed his orders.
Another possible or concurrent explanation is that French saw Brigadier General George Greene’s division (part of XII Corps), which was still in place near the Dunker Church and assumed that this was Sedgwick’s division. If so, his march to the Sunken Lane still put his path far past Greene’s flank, lending credence to the hypothesis that French thought his destination was now a different one. General Sumner might have avoided all this by having his aide or other staff officer guide French to where he wanted him, but Captain Sumner appears to have galloped away, leaving French to draw his own conclusions.
If that is the case, thing brings up the next question – who were these sharpshooters? They were well away from Jackson’s command in the West Woods, and about 500 yards away from Hill’s position in the Sunken Lane. Therefore, it seems logical that they were part of Hill’s division, which held the center of the Confederate position. Three of Hill’s brigades had been detached earlier to Jackson’s command and had been badly pummeled. So it’s unlikely that these brigades, most of which were in fragments at the time, put out a picket that far away. It is most likely that they came from Hill’s two unengaged brigades, the North Carolina brigade of Brigadier General George Anderson and the Alabama brigade of Brigadier General Robert Rodes.
Rodes’s Alabamians are a good candidate, because Rodes had used a similar arrangement three days before at South Mountain. His brigade had suffered heavily there, losing a third of its men, and his advanced pickets had been mostly captured because they had attempted to fight rather than withdraw. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to the sharpshooters at the Roulette farm. Unless new information comes to light, however, this must remain speculative, since the Union reports give no clue to their identity and neither Rodes or his commander, D. H. Hill, mention them.
Still, I think this is a plausible explanation (and so far, the only one), of why French and Richardson went so far astray – so far that that afternoon their commander, who was reorganizing the scattered Union commands at the north end of the battlefield, had completely lost track of them.