Bull of the West Wood

by Fred Ray on April 5, 2009 · 0 comments

Thanks to Brett for his pointer to Jim Buchanan’s Walking in the West Woods. And thanks to Jim for the pointer to Gen. Sumner’s papers at the Archives and for publishing his post-battle letter.

Sumner’s letter would seem to support those of us who criticize his performance in the West Wood by showing pretty conclusively that he in effect became the commander of Sedgwick’s division after that officer’s wounding.

This is a direct violation of military protocol i.e. that in the event of the loss of the commander the senior subordinate takes command, not his superior. The reason ought to be clear—the higher commander can’t do his own job and that of his subordinates (that’s why he has them). Sumner simply could not handle both Sedgwick’s division, which was in chaos, and command his corps. The senior brigade or regimental commander should have taken command and left Bull Sumner to concentrate on the employment of French and Richardson.

So I repeat my earlier criticism of Sumer’s performance that day—he was too far forward and far too involved in the immediate situation, enough so that he lost effective control of his corps.

It’s worthwhile to keep in mind that the generals of 1862 were not so much incompetent as inexperienced. There had never been armies this large on the American continent and it took time to learn how to handle them. Sumner had been a regimental commander before the war, but had not actually commanded anything larger than a company in combat. Commanding a corps was quite a different proposition.

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