Brian Downey has a new blog post up about a subject I mentioned in August — General French’s march away from the West Woods toward the Sunken Lane. This really is the mystery of the battle and I’ve often wondered why so many historians have sort of passed over it with little or no comment. For whatever reason French changed his axis of advance nearly 90 degrees. French seems to have had a problem with being where he was supposed to be, and eventually got canned after Mine Run for it.
Downey, who points out that Antietam was a terrain-driven battle, went out and walked the ground and has some interesting takes on it.
This is rough country to walk. Up and down, up and down, with 3 steep ridges and corresponding valleys across your track between the East Woods and Antietam Creek. The ‘modern’ road through there is only an asphalt farm track, about 1-1/2 car widths. This would have been difficult marching.Between the elevation changes and the trees, visibility is rarely more than a few hundred yards in any direction. I think General French was very much alone out there once he lost contact with Sedgwick.
He posits that both French and Richardson advanced through a ravine after losing touch with Sedgwick, in essence because it was the easiest way to go. Brian helpfully includes a map with the possible routes outlined.
Possible…but I’d like to see a comparison of the tree cover then and now (which is often quite different), and to have some idea of what was visible not only on the ground but from horseback.
The obvious objections are that first, French says in his report (quoted on Brian’s blog) that he had “cleared the ford a mile” before changing direction. That would put him far past the ravine. Second, we know that French advanced toward the left side of the Sunken Road, which is consistent with his description of where he was and hard to square with his using the ravine. With Richardson’s division (which attacked the right side) it fits perfectly.
Still, French says that he formed up “adjacent to and contiguous with Sedgwick’s” division, which is highly unlikely. Much more likely, as I said before, that due to the number of green regiments and their slow marching he had lost touch with Sedgwick altogether. Surely it didn’t take an Indian scout to see where an entire division had gone, and why would he take off across country?
I think there’s much more to be done here, and I plan at some time in the future to check some lower level sources — manuscripts, letters, and the like — to get a better feel for what was going on. But thanks, Brian, for taking the time to walk the ground. Perhaps we will solve this riddle, but I suspect the answer is forever locked inside the head of General French.