Monday, December 24, 2012

The 1962 Stinson Study: Seventh 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 seventh entry from his report: Appendix D-The "Ambush" Question.

"Appendix D-The 'Ambush' Question
The West Woods 2013

Efforts have been made during the past year or so, on the part of the staff of the Antietam National Battlefield Site, to have the term 'ambush' condemned as a description of Sedgwick's defeat in the West Woods. The effort has been successful to the extent that labels in the new visitor center will refrain from use of the word. However, the heading 'Jackson Prepares an Ambush' has not yet been changed in the battlefield Handbook, nor the story of a deliberately laid trap which follows. Popular accounts of the battle have also propagated this misconception. There are two major reasons why it is important that Sedgwick's defeat should not be called an ambush.

1. An 'ambush' is defined as 'a post or tactical trap of troops in wait, concealed for the purpose of attacking an enemy by surprise.' The term carries a connotation of stealth and deliberate concealment. For reasons that will be denoted later, this simply did not occur. Use of the term 'ambush' implies that they did and is therefore incorrect.

2. Other parts of the battle story must conform when the term 'ambush' is used, thereby, giving rise to further false information. This is particularly true with the operations of Greene's Division and those of the 34th New York and 125th Pennsylvania, both of which must be misrepresented to clear the area where the 'ambush' is supposed to have been set up.

It is hope that the Operations section of this report has supplied evidence to discredit use of the term 'ambush' in connection with Sedgwick's defeat. The following points should bolster the facts in that section and prove beyond any doubt that no ambush took place in the West Woods.

1. Jackson made every effort to contain Sedgwick's advance and to drive him from the West Woods before McLaws and Walker arrived. This is evident by the artillery fire directed at Sedgwick during his approach and the desperate resistance encountered by Gorman's Brigade.

2. The 125th Pennsylvania and later the 34th New York were engaged in the very area where an ambush would have to have been set up, before the main part of Gorman's Brigade crossed the Pike.

3. If the above was not sufficient warning that trouble might be expected from the left, the fact that the two regiments were driven out before all of Sedgwick's Division entered the woods surely was. Colonel Owen of Howard's Brigade even suggested that the brigade oblique to the left to meet the danger. None of this implies the sudden springing of a carefully laid trap.

4. Confederate reports indicate that their reinforcements were committed to the attack upon arrival with no attempt at concealment or waiting for the opportune moment to strike. The following extracts from the reports of the commanders directly concerned with Sedgwick's defeat are offered to support this point. 

A. (Maj. Gen. T. J. Jackson) 'The force in front [of Early] (the 125th Pennsylvania and 34th New York) was giving way under this attack when another heavy column of Federal troops was seen moving across the plateau on his left flank. By this time, the expected re-enforcements...arrived, and the whole, including Grigsby's command, now united, charged upon the enemy, checking his advance, then driving him back with great slaughter entirely from and beyond the wood..." [1]

B. (Brig. Gen. J.G. Walker) '...we at once formed line of battle, and...the division, with Ransom's brigade on the left, advanced in splendid style, firing and cheering as they went, and in a few minutes cleared the woods, strewing it with the enemy's dead and wounded.' [2]

C. (Maj. Gen. L. McLaws) 'My advance was ordered before the entire line of General Kershaw could be formed. As the enemy were filling the woods so rapidly, I wished my troops to cross the open space between us and the woods before they were entirely occupied. It was made steadily and in perfect order, and the troops were immediately engaged, driving the enemy before them in magnificent style at all points, sweeping the woods with the perfect ease and inflicting great loss on the enemy.' [3]

D. (Brig. Gen. J.A. Early) (Narrative begins just after Early's Brigade had drive out the 125th Pennsylvania and 34th New York.) 'I also discovered another body of the enemy moving across the plateau on my left flank, in double-quick time, (Dana and Howard) to the same position, and I succeeded in arresting my command and ordered it to retire, so that I might change front and advance upon this force. Just as I reformed my line...McLaws' division came up, and the whole, including Grigsby's command, advanced upon this body of the enemy, driving it with great slaughter entirely from and beyond the woods..." [4]

To conclude this discussion it may be said on the basis of all available evidence, use of the term 'ambush' in reference to Sedgwick's defeat is not only misleading but grossly incorrect." [5]

Next: Appendix E--Confederate Order of Battle


Statements and words bracketed by (  ) and [   ] above are Stinson's.

[1] "O.R., 956 (Jackson)." 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]."

[2] "O.R., 915 (Walker)."

[3] "O.R., 858 (McLaws)."

[4] "O.R., 971 (Early)."

[5] "Longstreet 246 exhibits a diagram which shows Sedgwick's Division moving through the West Woods, passing across the fronts of J.R. Jones on its right and Walker on its left. Longstreet's account of the operation (pp. 245-248) is as incorrect as his diagram and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the West Woods action which it is supposed to be describing. This work is completely useless as reference material for this phase of the Battle of Antietam." James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co., 1896). 

{Author's note: "Ambush" in the West Woods has a long history. While neither Palfrey or Walker use the term in their studies of the fight in the West Woods, Carman, writing later, states "It would be a simple matter to say that Sedgwick's Division of 5,000 men marched into an ambush, ..." About a hundred years later,  September 2013 tour participants were promised that they would "walk the advance of Sedgwick's division to their impending ambush in the West Woods." }

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