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Sumner and French at Antietam

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 67-92 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In considering the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, modern historians have consistently interpreted the fight for the Confederate center, that is, the Battle for the Sunken Road or Bloody Lane, as having resulted from an error of movement made by Brig. Gen. William H. French, commanding the Third Division of the Second Army Corps. This division had been organized just a few days previously as the Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, marched into Maryland to counter the invasion of that state by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. On the morning of the battle, French’s division, along with the Second Division of the Second Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, was bivouacked in the vicinity of McClellan’s headquarters at the Pry House east of Antietam Creek. At approximately 7:20 a.m., the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, was given orders to take Sedgwick’s and French’s divisions across Antietam Creek to support an attack on the Confederate left, which had been initiated earlier that morning by the First and Twelfth Army Corps. Sumner marched immediately, with Sedgwick’s division in the lead. As the standard interpretation of the battle goes, during the march French’s division fell considerably behind Sedgwick’s and did not come onto the field for some twenty to thirty minutes after Sedgwick. Being separated from Sedgwick, French lost track of that division, and instead of continuing west toward the West Woods as Sedgwick had done, French moved south on his own authority to precipitate the fight for the Sunken Road (map 1). A more careful and complete consideration of the source of this interpretation, the situation on the right of the Federal line on the morning of the battle, the actions and orders of Sumner as the commander on the right, and the movements of French and his division, however, support a different interpretation.

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Figure 1. 

Troop positions as shown on Map 8, 9:00–9:30 a.m., Antietam Battlefield Board Maps. Illustration by author.

The source of the interpretation that French was late and misdirected began with the 1882 publication of The Antietam and Fredericksburg, a volume by Francis W. Palfrey in the Scribner’s Campaigns of the Civil War series. At Antietam, Palfrey was the lieutenant colonel of the 20th Massachusetts

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Map 1. 

Area of the Federal right and Confederate Left. Illustration by the author.

in Sedgwick’s division and was severely wounded. Palfrey wrote that after crossing Antietam Creek behind Sedgwick near the Upper Bridge as the First and Twelfth Corps had done on September 16, French “marched about a mile from the ford, then faced to the left, and moved in three lines toward the enemy,” engaging them near the Roulette farm. Palfrey saw this as the reason for the separation of Sedgwick and French, because “troops which marched toward that house from the ford would take quite a different route from that followed by troops which marched from the same ford through the East Woods to the West Woods” as Sedgwick had done. Indeed, a line of march from the Upper Bridge to the East Woods would be at an angle some twenty-one degrees different from a line of march directly from the Upper Bridge to the Roulette farm. Palfrey went on to speculate: “Why French so separated himself from Sedgwick does not appear. Whether it was by accident or under orders, it proved a most unfortunate divergence.”1

In a paper he read before the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts in 1885, Palfrey modified his original account by admitting that he was now sure that Sedgwick [and French] had crossed Antietam Creek not near the Upper Bridge, but “much farther south, viz., a little south of the Newkirck [Neikirk] house, almost due east of the Dunker Church, and marched nearly west to the south edge of the east woods.” Even though this meant that the line of march of both divisions would not have been so separated because of the shorter distance, Palfrey chose not to modify his original conclusions about French’s divergence.2...

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