18 September 2006
Last month Fred Ray posted some interesting discussion on the question of why French swung his division south into the Sunken Road, rather than pushing more westerly, directly behind Sedgwick at Antietam.
These two generals led divisions in Edwin Sumner’s Federal Second (II) Corps on the Maryland Campaign. Brigadier General John Sedgwick, with “Bull” Sumner in the van, crossed the Antietam over the upper bridge, and at Pry’s ford just downstream, between 7:30 and 8 o’clock in the morning of 17 September 1862. BGen William French crossed his men at the ford 15 or 20 minutes behind Sedgwick.
… the division, marching in three columns of brigades, Max Weber on the left, the new regiments in the center, and Kimball’s brigade on the right. When my left flank had cleared the ford a mile, the division faced to the left, forming three lines of battle adjacent to and contiguous with Sedgwick’s, and immediately moved to the front …
(BGen French, from his Report)
Carman has Sedgwick slightly in advance of French at point “a” on the map by about 8:30 am. I believe that’s the spot where French says he faced left and formed lines. It would have been the last place he would have been likely to actually see Sedgewick, if, in fact he was even in contact at that point.
I drove and walked the ground from the East Woods, through that spot, to the Upper Bridge and near Pry’s Ford Saturday afternoon. I’d never been up that way before. What an eye-opener.
This is rough country to walk. Up and down, up and down, with 3 steep ridges and corresponding valleys across your track beween the East Woods and Antietam Creek. The ‘modern’ road through there is only an asphalt farm track, about 1-1/2 car widths. This would have been difficult marching.
Between the elevation changes and the trees, visibility is rarely more than a few hundred yards in any direction. I think General French was very much alone out there once he lost contact with Sedgewick.
Here’s my theory* about how it went:
He had marched his division to the the point where he says he formed lines, and meaning to stay on Sedgwick’s left, was faced with two choices: take the climbing road in front of him to the right (faded blue route), heading northeast, or stay in the small valley and follow it along the road to his left (dark blue route).
I think it likely he chose the latter, picking the path of least resistance going in approximately the right direction.
French was alone and making decisions without much to go on. He certainly wasn’t basing them on seeing other troops–either friend or foe. Steep, rocky hills topped with forest surrounded him. They are all there is to see from that point. Given the heights between him and the battle, I don’t think he’d have been able to hear enough to ‘march to the guns’, either.
Following the road to the left brings you out on the battlefield just east of the Roulette Farm (point “d”). French says that’s where he first encountered the enemy, and that’s where Carman puts the Division by about 9:30am.
But, suppose my theory is crap, and French followed Sedgwick’s path, climbing the road to the right instead.
He wouldn’t have seen anything of the Battle until he got near the East Woods, about point “b” on the map. There, he would have had an excellent view of the rear-most of Sedgwick’s brigades less then half a mile away across the plateau east of the West Woods. He would have had to ignore them and the roar of combat on their front (“c”), left, and rear, and turn left about 90 degrees, instead, to charge toward Roulette’s. That seems less likely to me.
That is the route that at least one Battlefield Tablet suggests though, so it can’t be discounted out of hand. The tablet text doesn’t explain the radical change of direction, however. [It does mention that Richardson’s Division followed by moving to the ravine beyond the high ground east of Roulette’s – they very path I think French used.]
And how about that meeting with General Sumner’s aide and son?
… At this moment Captain Sumner communicated to me, from the general commanding the corps, that his right divisions were being severely handled, and directed me to press the enemy with all my force. Appreciating the necessity of the order, without waiting for the new regiments to recover from the disorder incident to their long march in line through woods, corn-fields, and over fences, I left them in reserve, and ordered Kimball to charge to the front. With an unsurpassed ardor this gallant brigade, sweeping over all obstacles, soon crowned the crests of the hills on our left and right, flaunting the regimental banners in defiance to those of the rebels who, flushed with a supposed victory, dared to face us …
By the time the young Captain found General French and relayed the orders, French was already far south of the track the senior Sumner expected him to be on. To French, the enemy in question would have been obvious: the skirmishers in front of him, and the mass of Confederates in and above the Sunken Road immediately beyond.
You know the rest of that story …
* Theory. n. 1. As in “not history”. All I can establish is that the route I propose for French’s Division is feasible, possible, even likely. That doesn’t mean they traveled that way. I haven’t presented much historical evidence. More research is required.