Review: Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, & the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign

Marion V. Armstrong, Jr. Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press (March 26, 2008). 424 pages, 32 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0817316006 $39.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Does Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps at Antietam, deserve praise or disdain for his actions on September 17?  Marion V. Armstrong, Jr. attempts to answer that very question in his controversial new book Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign.  Armstrong believes Edwin Sumner has been unfairly castigated for his actions on the field that day and sets out to show readers why this is so in a detailed tactical analysis of the situation.  Armstrong only partially succeeds in his goals, but his work is sure to promote new looks into the actions of the Second Corps and its leaders at Antietam.

The Maryland Campaign of 1862 saw both armies in a worn out condition after the Seven Days and Second Bull Run earlier in the year.  The battle of Antietam was fought less than three weeks after Second Bull Run.  In addition, the Union command structure was jumbled.  The Army of the Potomac of the Peninsula Campaign, the Army of Virginia, and Burnside’s IX Corps had to be merged into a new Army of the Potomac.  Add to this the numerous new regiments formed as a result of the reverses suffered by the Federal army.  George McClellan, able organizer, was called in to handle the task.  The Second Corps, like the others, saw an infusion of new units, both brand new regiments and veteran organizations which were new to the corps.  A third division was formed under William French as a result.  Armstrong follows the Second Corps throughout the campaign, from the march to Frederick, the battles for South Mountain, and eventually on to Antietam, where the corps saw its first large scale combat of the entire campaign.  Sedgwick’s division assaulted the Confederate-held West Woods and suffered a disaster.  French and Richardson assaulted the Sunken Road, eventually driving away the Confederate defenders after suffering many losses.  The Maryland Campaign ended very quickly after the battle, and the Second Corps saw no further combat.

In this detailed tactical study, Armstong follows the Second Corps and its leader Edwin Vose Sumner by looking at what was known at the time, on the ground.  This approach is very similar to that used by Joseph Harsh in Taken at the Flood, his masterful book on the Maryland Campaign.  Armstrong’s goal throughout is to reassess the performance of George McClellan, Edwin Sumner, and his Second Army Corps throughout the campaign.  He believes the book will change the way readers view the performances of Sumner and his men, especially at the battle of Antietam.

The battlefield movements of the Second Corps divisions and batteries of artillery throughout the campaign are covered in great detail.  Sedgwick’s assault into the West Woods and the attacks by French and Richardson on the Sunken Road take up 85 pages of the text.  Throughout, Armstrong describes what he believes were the views available to Edwin Sumner as he came onto the battlefield and while his units were in battle.  The Confederate leaders and units are hardly mentioned by name, instead showing up as shadowy figures opposing Sumner and his men.  This technique differs from some of the other established titles on the subject, including Stephen Sears’ Landscape Turned Red, which take a more “God’s eye” look at the battle.  Fans of detailed tactical history will not be disappointed here.

I was a little puzzled but pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a discussion of unit formation and tactics during the Civil War period.  It’s a great primer for those looking to get into reading detailed battle studies, but my assumption was that anyone looking to read an account of a specific corps in a campaign probably already is familiar with the tactics and formations of the time.  In any event, this makes Unfurl Those Colors! a great first read for those new to the minutiae of this type of study.  The book includes detailed diagrams showing infantry formations (page 35) and artillery formations (pages 42-43).

I found I agreed with Armstrong on some points in his reappraisal of Sumner’s role at Antietam, while in others I either disagree completely or need more convincing.  Let’s start with the good.  The author pointed out that Sedgwick’s Division did have flank support on both sides when the division moved into the West Woods.  Some have argued that Sumner went into the West Woods without that all-important support.  Armstrong also convinced me that if not for some bad luck involving the 34th New York of Gorman’s brigade getting separated from its parent unit and a ravine which led into the resulting gap, the disaster which befell Sedgwick’s division would not have been as bad as what actually occurred.  In addition, I agree with the assertion that the attack wasn’t as foolhardy as is commonly portrayed.  Sumner saw the one area where an attack seemed imperative in order to provide the right wing with a clear path to advance on a united front to the south towards Sharpsburg.  If the West Woods had Confederate units in it, it had to be cleared.  Lastly, I agree that George McClellan should bear a lot of the blame for fighting the battle piecemeal, leading to the conditions which Sumner found as he approached the battlefield.  If the I, II, and XII corps had all attacked from the beginning of the battle (with one of the three in reserve), the Confederates would have had a much more difficult time fending off this powerful assault.  As the battle was fought in actuality, Jackson was able to fend off each successive attack as it came.

There were several points which I immediately disagreed with or need more convincing on.  First, Armstrong makes the assertion that Sumner specifically ordered French to attack the Sunken Road at the same time he ordered Sedgwick into the West Woods.  I do not see how this is possible.  French’s division was far enough behind Sedgwick and Sumner was so involved with Sedgwick’s division that I’m convinced Sumner did not even know where French was.  French and some of his subordinates more than likely mistook Greene’s XI Corps division, facing south towards the Sunken Road, for Sedgwick and his men.  In any case, the evidence submitted by Armstrong is not nearly enough to create a reasonable case for his theory, especially since other theories make more sense and fit the available evidence better.  I believe this theory must have been developed within the last few years since the author’s earlier work Disaster in the West Woods does not mention this.  Armstrong also relieves Sumner of any blame for the failure of the Federal right to renew the attack on the Confederate lines after Richardson’s division took the Sunken Road.  I can partially see his point, but Sumner argued vehemently to McClellan that the troops on the Federal right were barely in condition to form a cohesive defense line, much less renew the assault.  Franklin, with his fresh VI Corps and Couch’s division of the now-defunct IV Corps, wanted to press on.  McClellan was cautious by nature and probably would have suspended the assault anyway, but even an aggressive man would have had to think twice when their senior subordinate, a man on the field for hours and known for his tendency to attack, tells you to stay on the defensive.  As that senior leader on the field, Sumner bears almost as much blame as McClellan for not renewing the fight.  With that said, just how capable were the men of the three corps already involved in heavy fighting (I, II, and XII) to renew the assault in tandem with Franklin’s VI Corps?  In any case, some of Armstrong’s main points in this book just do not hold up satisfactorily under scrutiny.

The 32 maps and 7 diagrams in Unfurl Those Colors! had good and bad points.  First, the detailed tactical maps go along well with the text and were obviously situated in the text for ease of use.   I rarely had to turn more than one page to see any map referred to in the text.  Each time a map was mentioned, the page number it fell on was also listed.  I found this to be a very helpful feature.  Obviously the large number of maps was also a plus.  Too often today maps are shortchanged.  In a detailed tactical study of this nature, maps are not only not secondary but critical to the text.  I am pleased to say the author and The University of Alabama Press recognized the importance of maps and fully delivered in this department.  The diagrams showing troop formations were also welcome additions to the text.  However, I did not particularly like the maps depicting the entire battlefield.  The triangles for each brigade and division encircled to depict larger formations just did not impart to me what was happening on the battlefield.  Actual battle lines are not indicated in any way.  This also is sometimes the case on some of the more detailed tactical maps as well.  I can understand doing so for the Confederates since the text describes only the Union part of the battle, but this lack of actual battle lines also occurs for some Union units as well.

Wargamers interested in the battle of Antietam will enjoy this book tremendously.  Scenario designers will find much material to use in the book, including a look early on at the armament for every regiment and battery in the corps.  Unfortunately this comes prior to the mention of some of the new units added to the corps as the campaign progressed.  The maps, as mentioned above, provide great detail as well.

I enjoyed Armstrong’s writing style and found the book to be a pleasant and interesting read.  While I did not entirely agree with the author’s conclusions, his book is sure to provoke discussion within the Civil War community about the actions of the Second Corps at Antietam.  Readers interested in this subject may also look to purchase his earlier book Disaster in the West Woods to see how the author’s views have changed over the last several years.

Marion Armstrong’s Unfurl Those Colors! is an attempt to reassess the role of Edwin Sumner and his Second Corps in the Maryland Campaign, especially at the battle of Antietam.  Unfortunately some of Armstrong’s conclusions do not fit the historical evidence, especially his assertion that Sumner ordered William French to assault the Sunken Road.  Despite this, I would highly recommend Armstrong’s work to those interested in detailed tactical studies, those interested in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, wargamers, and students of either Edwin V. Sumner or his Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  The book’s conclusions will cause readers to take their own new look at an often discussed battle and draw their own conclusions.

Thank you to Shana Rivers at The University of Alabama Press.

Did you enjoy this blog entry?  Subscribe to TOCWOC’s RSS feed today!

Read more Civil War Book Reviews here at TOCWOC!

Note: The role of the II Corps at Antietam has been discussed at TOCWOC before.  First, take a look at Fred Ray’s review of Marion Armstrong’s earlier book Disaster in the West Woods.  Then check out two posts by Fred, one by Brian Downey at behind Antietam on the Web, and my own take on French’s division and the Sunken Road several days ago.  I would love to hear your own take on French.  Why did he attack the Sunken Road at Antietam?

Note: This is the first of three reviews I’ll be entering in the Strategist’s Personal Library Military History Reading Challenge.


4 responses to “Review: Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, & the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign

  1. jmnlman Avatar

    Looks like a very interesting book. I just posted the first review post. Sorry it took me so long.

  2. admin Avatar

    It definitely caused me to go over what I thought I knew about Sumner at Antietam again, even if I remained convinced on many of my previously held notions about the subject.


  3. […] it will be something much easier to get your name in the hat.  The book to be given away is…Marion Armstrong’s new book Unfurl Those Colors!, concentrating on Edwin Sumner and the Union II Corps during the Maryland Campaign of […]

  4. […] you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!Some longtime readers may recall from my review of Marion Armstrong’s Unfurl Those Colors! that I was unconvinced Edwin Sumner ordered French’s Division to attack the Sunken Road at […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *