Monday, March 30, 2009

"I was never in such a fix"--Edwin Vose Sumner and the West Woods

One of the central figures in the West Woods is Major General Edwin Vose Sumner, commander of the Union II Corps. There are a number of unsettled questions regarding the West Woods and some of Sumner's activities and decisions are among them.

One such controversy is noted in the Wikipedia entry for Sumner: "Sumner has been condemned by most historians for his 'reckless' attack, his lack of coordination with the other corps commanders, accompanying Sedgwick's division personally and losing control of his other attacking division, failing to perform adequate reconnaissance prior to launching his attack, and selecting an unusual line of battle formation that was so effectively flanked by the Confederate counterattack." Recently, however, historian Marion V. Armstrong has given us a different view of Sumners actions that day. In Unfurl Those Colors: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign Armstrong persuasively argues that Sumner showed leadership, competence, and bravery in leading Sedgwick's advance into the Woods and directing William "Blinky" French and Israel Richardson to take up on his left. More to come on that subject in future postings.

Three days after the battle, on September 20th. Gen. Sumner wrote home to his wife Hannah Wickersham Foster.

Below is my transcription of the letter. The original can be found at the Library of Congress, in the E.V. Sumner Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.
Camp on the Battle field, Sept 20/62.

My own dear Wife

The battle is over and we are safe. The enemy has fled from Maryland and I do not think we shall meet them again for some time, for it will take a little time to make preparations before we [pursue] them. It was a terrific battle. Scores generally under my command were wounded. Mansfield was killed early in the action, he had only had command of his Corps two days, that Corps (Banks) is under my command in addition to my own. I did not like the way in which the troops were put into battle, they went in Corps after Corps instead of being all formed in battle array before we engaged.

On the right Hooker went first, and then my second Corps under Mansfield and then my own corps. The consequence was that we were not strong enough. Sedgwick was wounded and his division broke, and never did I have to make such exertions as I did to rally that division.

I succeeded finally and got them again into line and held my position.

The enemy fought like maniacs to give you an idea of it. Nineteen of their men lay dead about a piece of artillery that one of my batteries knocked to pieces. Two of my staff were wounded. Col. Revere and young Audenried, they have both gone home.

Our dear boy behaved splendidly, he was much more anxious about me than about himself. He was as cool and manly as an old veteran.

Col. Revere left before he knew the fate of his brother the doctor, he was shot through the heart and killed instantly, but it was not known till the next day. I have sent his remains home in charge of an officer, the battle has been unusually fatal to officers, and especially to those of high rank. I think I was never in such a fix as when that division broke. I was obliged to shout in such a way, that I could not speak loud for sometime afterwards. We have been on the field ever since the battle, to today I have got the command a little more comfortably fixed, and we are all enjoying the rest.

I don't know what their plans will be. I think every thing we can raise should be pushed upon them at once and grind them to powder. If there should be a pause in the operations, I will come home, dear, and rest for I do feel that I need your care and love.

Fathers love to all--dear father. E--


To me this letter is remarkable in a number of ways. First, it is one of the first documented analysis of the tactical failures of the Federal actions on the 17th--and this coming less than 72 hours after the battle--"I did not like the way in which the troops were put into battle, they went in Corps after Corps instead of being all formed in battle array before we engaged." Second, despite some accounts, Sumner was more than willing to pursue Lee immediately--"I think every thing we can raise should be pushed upon them at once and grind them to powder." Third, why would the second in command of the Army of the Potomac not know what the next move would be on the 20th? That he wrote then "if there should be a pause in the operations, I will come home..." seems to indicate no knowledge that the Army was about to "pause" for over a month before following Lee into Virginia.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


The West Woods, December 28, 2005, 4:15 p.m.

In 1869, a veteran of the 15th Massachusetts, who fought along with his comrades in the West Woods wrote "These brave soldiers are gone. They have left their foot prints on the sands of time, a lesson for the nation. It was a hard struggle and consumed men and money. Let us all, every spring of roses, revive their memory."

My name is Jim Buchanan and I am a volunteer at the Antietam Battlefield National Park. On most weekends you can find me sitting under the Maple tree in the foreground of this picture. The footprints that Elmoine Clemans, the probable author of the reminiscence above, are still there. Not only are they of our ancestors who struggled mightily in this place but they come from those who visit this hallowed ground.

Most folks visiting this part of the field know that they are at Stop 5 on the Antietam Tour Map and pause to read the markers, survey the field, take in the air. Many are families with small children in tow. There are couples sharing time together on a beautiful afternoon. There are groups of brothers-in-laws who are just happy to be free for a few hours while their better halves flank regiments of bargains at the outlet malls up the Hagerstown Pike. All are delightful to chat with.

Then there are historians--professional and otherwise who come from as near as Hagerstown and as far as Turkey. They visit year round but mostly on the edges of the summer season and throughout the winter--"you can see the field then." Some are regulars who visit once or twice a month; others are here for the first time and are trying to make sense of the three-dimensional nature of the ground they have read about but only could imagine. These are the ones that say--"You have to walk the field to understand it--to feel it." Maps, even topographical, can only take you so far. I learn more from these visitors than I give. For these folks, all that is required is to orient them North and South. Soon, the recognition borne of years of reading kicks in (the "aha" moment) and off they go--some with GPS; some with maps; others with dead reckoning.

Every so often individuals will visit the Woods with a different purpose. They are here to connect to an ancestor once lost and now found. "Excuse me but can you tell me where the 1st Minnesota fought?" "I am looking for the 15th Virginia--do you know where they were?" Thanks to the maps that I carry with me, I can usually walk them to the part of the field where their ancestor stood. Once placed, we usually part.

It is now late March and spring is slowly coming to the field. The Maple is starting to bud and before long will bear leaves once again. The footprints are appearing in greater numbers; the families, the husbands and wives, the brothers and sisters, foreigners, Americans coming once again to this hallowed ground. The words of Elmoine Clemans call us: "Let us all, every spring of roses, revive their memory."