Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The 1962 Stinson Study: Sixth Entry

Fifty years ago, National Park Service historian Dwight E. Stinson, Jr. set out to “present a definitive study of the operations of Sedgwick’s Division at the Battle of Antietam.” What follows is the sixth entry from his report: Appendix C-Accusation of Rashness.

"Appendix C--Accusation of Rashness

It is hoped that the complexities of the situation facing Sumner prior to his ordering Sedgwick forward have been discussed thoroughly in the Analysis Section of this report. Because of them, many writers of the battle have sought a simple explanation requiring little space but still satisfying the reader as to why a corps commander would voluntarily expose one of his divisions to annihilation and allow the other two to stray off without his guidance. This has led to two theories, which, because of their widespread belief, should be commented on.
Francis A. Walker
Duke University

The most common of these, seemingly coined by Palfrey and Walker, is that Sumner had spent 'all his life in the cavalry' and 'had the instincts of a cavalry commander.' [1] The implication of irresponsible charges at the head of madcap horsemen is clear and conveys the thought that Sumner plunged into the West Woods with the same amount of consideration he would have given to an attack against a band of hostile braves. The fact is, that while most of Sumner's 43 years service had been in the cavalry he was a trained officer and quite aware of the capabilities and employment of infantry. At least his first four years in the army had been spent as a lieutenant in the 2nd Infantry. [2] More significant is that his recent experiences as commander of an infantry corps on the Peninsula surely had made him aware that his capacity was no longer that of commanding a few companies on the Indian frontier.

The "headstrong" concept is carried along in the second theory and frequently the two are combined. This centers around the fact that Sumner had been ordered to hold the II Corps in readiness to march one hour before daybreak yet had not received the order to advance until 7:20. It is often said that Sumner became so agitated at the delay that when he finally was released, he rushed headlong into the action. But even in granting that he was not happy with a passive role, it is going beyond sound historical judgment to assign his hasty advance solely to this reason. It is unreasonable to suppose that an officer of Sumner's experience would discard common sense merely to get into action.

Two other theories should be given more credence and are, when the situation and Sumner's orders are considered, certainly more plausible. Ropes has stated one of these as follows:

'There can be little doubt that representations made to General Sumner of the urgent need of reinforcements on this part of the field of battle influenced him greatly, and account in great part for the impetuosity of his attack. ' [3]

This is closely allied with the fourth theory, advanced by Sumner's son, to the effect that the XII Corps has just about spent its offensive potential and to keep up the momentum of the attack Sumner had to throw in Sedgwick immediately. [4]

In summation, careful study of every known ramification of the problem leads the writer to the conclusion that the last two theories are correct. If the XII Corps successes were to be exploited they would have to be done so immediately, and by the II Corps, which, after all, had been committed for that very purpose in the first place. As we have stated in the analysis, Sumner's error was not in ordering an immediate advance but in accompanying it personally to the exclusion of this other units which would be needed to protect Sedgwick and drive the attack home."

Next--The "Ambush" Question

Source: Dwight E. Stinson, Jr. Operations of Sedgwick's Division. Unpublished, National Park Service Report, 1962. This typescript report is at the Antietam National Battlefield Library and Archives. All notes to Stinson's report are enclosed in quotes; bibliographic citations are from Stinson.

1. "Walker, 103." Francis A. Walker, History of the Second Corps in the Army of the Potomac (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886).
2. "Heitman I, 936." Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. 2 Volumes (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903).
3. "Ropes, 365-366." John C. Ropes, The Story of the Civil War: The Campaigns of 1862 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1898). 
4. "14 HMSM, 10 (S.S. Sumner)." Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts. Volume XIV. Paper read by S[amuel] S. Sumner before the Society on 2 January, 1917.

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