Following General French

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)

thumbnail map - French's pathclick to see larger image

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.

8 Responses to “Following General French”

  1. Brian Downey says:

    Fred replied here today. Thanks Fred.

  2. Stephen Keating says:

    The impression I got from reading “Disaster in the West Woods” was that Sumner had intended the whole corp to go on line and sweep south towards Sharpsburg. French mistakens Green’s men as Sedgwick and makes the turn, not seeing Sedgwick getting clobbered in the West Wood. Is there something that renders this explination implausable?

  3. Brian Downey says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the question.

    Fred did a nice job of raising the issues in his original post (if you haven’t already visited it here).

    For me, why French’s Division hit the Sunken Road is up in the air, but I suspect the route he took from Pry’s Ford, if we knew it, would help answer the question.

    The truth may be as simple as you and Mr Armstrong suggest, but I have reservations because I don’t think French would have seen Greene until he was fairly close – not, at least, until after he’d crossed the Roulette Farm and crested the rise just east of the Lane. I’ll have to walk that ground again to see for myself.

    By that time French was already well south of where you’d expect if he intended following in close support or immediately to the left of Sedgwick.

    Alternately, if he’d first popped out on the battlefield through the East Woods, rather than by the ‘dark blue’ path I conject, Sedgwick’s rear brigades and the viscious combat in the West Woods should have been obvious directly west, with Greene’s men a smaller ‘target’ off to the southwest.

    There are many possibiliteis, and there really isn’t a huge controversy here, btw, just some speculation about something that doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface.

  4. Fred Ray says:

    I’ve seen that explanation before — that French mistook Greene’s men for Sedgwick’s, but it never made sense to me. I haven’t walked the ground, but as you say there are some visual issues there.

    French claims to have formed next to Sedgwick, but if he was thinking Greene was Sedgwick, then he was still way left of where he should have been. Had he actually formed just left of Greene (who was stationary) he would have seen his mistake, or so it would seem. In fact the axis of his advance seems to have nothing to do with any other unit.

    Ultimately this was Sumner’s responsibility to correct, but he was too busy.

  5. Stephen Keating says:

    Although I found Mr Armstrong’s description very interesting, the one point that he does not address, and I can’t help but wonder, is did anybody from French’s division bother to ask Greene’s division who they where? The mistaking Greene for Sedgwick is certainly plausable, and given the distance French was behind Sedgwick and where French might have expected Sedgwick to be. I will be using your map when I visit next time to walk the route myself.

  6. Stephen Keating says:

    I went to the battlefield last Saturday and went to the spot marked ‘a’ on your map. Although I see your point about taking the draw instead of the road up, I have two questions; 1) Given that only Sedgwick had gone this way before, would not the turned-up condition of the road point to his direction, given that it had rained the night before? and 2) Although there are no doubt more trees and taller ones to block your vision, than at the time of the battle, I’m not sure the rise in elevation would have been that daunting a sight. Slow for the green troops, yes, but not that bad. Either way, this helped make my visit all the more enjoyable, giving a new twist to what I usually visit. Thanks for your work.

  7. Brian Downey says:

    Thanks again, Stephen – it was Fred’s original posit that sent me off the battlefield, so thanks to him.

    I hadn’t thought about the damage an army division would do to a country road – an obvious trail to follow …

    I’ve some analysis forwarded to me from another battle authority, and if I get permission from the author, I’ll post that. He agrees with you that the more traditional view of French’s route is probably the correct one.

    I’ve enjoyed taking the contrary–if only a little–to explore the possibilities. I doubt I’ve contributed to any profound knowledge, but taking the track less traveled has further broadened my view of Antietam. I’m glad to hear your experience was also a good one.

  8. Brian Downey says:

    I also have the following comments from Scott Hartwig by email, through Harry, and he has consented to their posting here.

    Brian’s blog is interesting but if French took the route he speculates he did, then Carman’s battlefield tablets are dead wrong. Tablet 116 states “upon nearing the East Woods, changed direction to come in on Sedgwick’s left and protect that flank. Tablet 40 states that after crossing the Antietam French’s division marched about one mile before facing to the left.

    This, of course, would be impossible if he turned south where Brian speculates he might have. If French marched as far as Carman states he did then he almost certainly could have seen Greene. Further evidence that French did march nearly to the East Woods and that he did see Greene’s men before turning south is found in Nathan Kimball’s report, which states that his brigade “formed into line of battle on the left of General Sedgwick’s division.” Since we know that Sedgwick was in the West Woods at the time Kimball formed his brigade, the only troops he could have formed on the left of were Greene’s.

    I’ll check my files at home and see if I have anything that sheds further light on this.

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