Sunday, November 18, 2012

The 1962 Stinson Study: Third Entry

"Uncle" John Sedgwick, Library of Congress
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 below is the third entry from his report: Part III: Conduct of Attack and Summation.

Conduct of Attack

Most of the points connected with the conduct of Sedgwick’s attack are obvious in reading the Operations section of this report.[1] The 75 yard interval between the brigade lines was far too close to permit the execution of a movement to cover a flank attack.[2] In addition, the designated order of battle rendered staff work above the regimental level almost impossible, particularly in a wooded area. This is to say that the brigade commanders could not coordinate their units properly because the line of battle was over a quarter of a mile long. This condition was exemplified by the 34th New York becoming separated from its brigade without its commander of Gorman realizing it. When Dana’s Brigade was hit he was forced to remain with the two left regiments thereby leaving the other three without a commander. Almost any formation would have been better than the one used by ideally it should have been with the brigades formed in column of regiments. While these criticisms are valid, it must also be remembered that the dispositions were made under the impression that French’s whole division would be covering the left.

The forward movement was conducted at double time, perhaps to minimize the effect of Confederate artillery fire[3]. But by moving on the double all the difficulties of keeping reign on the already unwieldy battle lines were magnified. Furthermore, a telescopic effect was produced when the first line was brought to an abrupt halt on the farther edge of the woods. The rear lines kept moving forward until they had almost closed up on Gorman.

The total effect was that if the movement had been conducted in maneuvers rather than combat confusion would have resulted the moment the first line was ordered to halt. In other words, the formation was built-in confusion and it remained only for 7,000 Confederates to turn confusion into disaster.
Edwin Vose Sumner, Library of Congress


1. McClellan’s Responsibility. Although it is often done, McClellan should not be censored for the piecemeal attacks of Sedgwick and French. From the time he released the II Corps the conduct of the operation was in the hands of Sumner both in fact and theory. As Clausewitz has said, the army commander gives the direction of march to his corps commander and points out the enemy as the objective and victory as the goal. McClellan did this and from then on had to rely on Sumner to see that it was done. McClellan’s only tampering with the original order was to withhold Richardson’s Division temporarily and this had no bearing on the results or conduct of the operation.

2. Corps Command. There is little to praise in Sumner’s conduct as commander of the II Corps. Although he did so for what he considered good reason, Sumner separated himself from 2/3 of his corps and acted the part of a division commander. He did not coordinate his two lead divisions properly nor did he even know the whereabouts of one of them when Sedgwick began to give way. This is proved by the following message which was signaled to McClellan during the crisis: ‘Reinforcements are badly wanted. Our troops are giving way. I am hunting for French’s and Slocum’s Divisions. If you know where they are, send them immediately.[4]

Sumner felt that the situation warranted immediate attack. His most serious mistake was not in making the attack, but in not allowing Sedgwick to command it while he (Sumner) remained in the rear to coordinate the corps.

3. Artillery Support. The wooded nature of the terrain and the comparative shortness of the conflict combined to render the artillery to an insignificant role in Sedgwick’s operations. No batteries moved west of the Hagerstown Pike with the divisional advance, in fact Woodruff’s Battery of the division did not come into position south of the Cornfield until the infantry was already falling back.[5] Many Federal batteries contributed to the breakup of the Confederate attempt to pursue Sedgwick but their activities will be the subject of a later study.[6]

4. Result. The II Corps was committed to attack and, if possible, break the confederate left. Two-thirds of it did not even hit the Confederate left and the division that did, suffered a crushing defeat. On the basis of this, the result was a total failure. However, Sedgwick’s defeat was so complete that Sumner was convinced that further attacks in the sector would result in disaster. This undoubtedly saved at least one division of the VI Corps from launching an attack which could gain no decisive result.[7] The operation also resulted in obliging General Lee to commit all of his reserves and to strip his extreme right of a division.[8] This weakened other portions of the Confederate line and eased the task of the IX Corps considerably. 

Next, Appendices

Notes ====

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.

1. The Operations Section of the Stinson Report will be uploaded in a future post.

2. Stinson directs the reader to Appendix B of his report. This will be uploaded in the next few days.

3. Stinson note: “Although descriptions of Sedgwick’s advance to the West Woods are often written to sound as if the division moved at parade cadence, there is ample evidence in the reports of the unit commanders that it was done at double time.”

4. “12 O.R., 134 (Signal Corps Report). There is no time on the message.” Stinson notes in his bibliography that "All references [to the Official Records] are from Volume XIX, Part I unless otherwise cited. "[References] will be cited O.R. followed by the page number and the name of the person who submitted the report, as follows: O.R., 275 [Sumner].”

5. “13 O.R., 309 (Woodruff). Hanson, 50, claims that Woodruff’s Battery was the only one to accompany Sedgwick into the West Woods but there is no evidence to support this.” Stinson’s “Hanson” reference is to Joseph Mills Hanson, A Report on the Employment of the Artillery at the Battle of Antietam, Maryland, With A view to Marking Battery Positions at the Antietam National Battlefield Site. Unpublished. National Park Service Report, 1940.

6. Stinson’s reference to a “later study” on artillery has not been found.

7. “14 B&L, II, 579 (Franklin). This is thoroughly discussed in Sunken Road Report, 34-39.” B&L is R.U. Johnson and C. C. Buell, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. 4 vols. (New York: The Century Co., 1884-1888); the Sunken Road Report is identified in his bibliography as Dwight E. Stinson, The Attack on the Sunken Road: Operations of Richardson's and French's Divisions. Unpublished, National Park Service Report, 1961.

8. This was John Walker’s Division.

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