Marion Armstrong on French’s Attack on The Sunken Road

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 Antietam.  It was with interest then, that I read a recent interview with Marion Armstrong conducted by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation over at Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings.  In the interview, the author lays out the three reasons why he believes Sumner issued French a specific order to attack the Sunken Road, an interpretation much different from the currently orthodox chain of events:

SHAF: Perhaps the most controversial aspect of your book, “Unfurl Those Colors”, is your argument that Sumner ordered French to attack the Sunken Road position, which flies in the face of the conventional interpretation that the separation of the corps was unintentional. In brief, on what do you base your theory?

MVA: First, Sumner’s reconnaissance as he arrived on the battlefield brought him to the high ground in the vicinity of the junction of the Smoketown Road and the Mumma farm lane. This was at the point in time when Rhodes’s and Anderson’s brigades were moving into the Sunken Road, something that was clearly visible from where Sumner was. Sumner had just received instructions from McClellan to continue the attack to the south and west of Sharpsburg, which would necessarily involve seizing the West Woods. He could not accomplish this and leave the Confederate force in the Sunken Road in his rear. His decision was to send Sedgwick’s division to the West Woods and have French’s handle the forces in the Sunken Road.

Second, after Sedgwick seized the West Woods, Sumner was on the Hagerstown Pike in front of the DunkerChurch and sent an order to French to press his attack. The order was carried by Sumner’s son and aide, Captain Sam Sumner. Sam did not ride back to the East Woods to find French, which he would have done if French were lost or late, but rode east past Tompkins’s battery to the vicinity of the Sunken Road because he knew this is where French would be directing the attack on the Sunken Road. Also, it should be noted that the order was to “press the attack,” not “begin the attack,” because the attack on the Sunken Road had been previously ordered.

Third, French in his battle report mentions Sam Sumner delivering the order to press the attack. The point in time when Sam arrived was after French had already committed Weber’s and Morris’s brigades, and based on the order he committed Kimball’s brigade to the attack. Sedgwick’s attack toward the West Woods and French’s attack toward the Sunken Road were simultaneous events that could only have occurred simultaneously if both had been given orders to start at the same time.

So what do TOCWOC readers think?  Are you convinced by Mr. Armstrong’s evidence?  I’d love to hear what others think on this one!  Leave a comment below if you are interested in participating.

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One response to “Marion Armstrong on French’s Attack on The Sunken Road”

  1. Fred Ray Avatar
    Fred Ray

    Two obvious problems:

    First, I question whether Sumner would have seen Rodes (not Rhodes) and Anderson moving into the sunken lane. The lane is behind a rise of ground. IAC Confederate accounts make it clear that these two brigades did not move there until they saw French head their way. Until then Rodes was in the orchard behind it. To say Rodes and Anderson were somehow approaching *behind* II Corps is stretching things more than a bit, as it is to say that two understrength brigades somehow threatened the corps.

    Second, Sumner was well forward with Sedgwick and had no idea where French was. How could he have seen that French was just then attacking the sunken lane? By the end of the afternoon Sumner had completely lost touch with French and Richardson.

    I remain unconvinced.

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