Author and historian Marion V. Armstrong will be the featured speaker and tour leader in a SHAF-sponsored event taking place October 10 & 11, 2008. His new book, Unfurl Those Colors: McClellan, Sumner and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign, is receiving critical acclaim and will be the featured topic of the event.
On Friday night, October 10, at 6:30 p.m., SHAF will host a dinner at the Old South Mountain Inn, followed by a lecture focusing on the early actions of the campaign. On Saturday morning, October 11, Mr. Armstrong will lead a morning walking tour of the Second Corps’ attack in the West Woods. After a break for lunch (on your own), he will lead a walking tour of the Second Corps attack at the Sunken Road.
This is a special event that is a unique opportunity for personal contact with a nationally-recognized authority on this portion of the battle of Antietam. The cost for the entire program is $50 for SHAF members – the public is also invited to attend for $60. Dinner attendance is limited to 45 due to space limitations. Reservations, details on menu, and start times for the walking tours will be posted later on www.SHAF.org, or call 301-432-2996. Use the “Contact Us” link on the website to make a reservation and for info on payment procedure.
Mr. Armstrong recently took some time to answer some questions for SHAF.
SHAF: Mr. Armstrong thanks for conducting this tour for SHAF members. Can you start off by telling us a little about your background?
MVA: I’m a native of Maryland, born and raised in Havre deGrace. I graduated from the University of Scranton in 1969, and then served six years on active duty as an infantry officer with tours in Viet Nam and Korea. After that I worked for the Army as a civilian and remained active in the Army Reserve. I have had a life long interest in history, which I indulged with a master’s degree in history from Old Dominion University and a doctoral degree from Middle Tennessee State University. After retiring in 1995, my wife and I moved to Tennessee where I began teaching history as adjunct faculty for various colleges in the Nashville area.
SHAF: What first got you interested in the Battle of Antietam in general and the role of the Second Corps in the campaign in particular?
MVA: I can’t remember a time when I was not interested in the Civil War. I was a teenager during the Civil War centennial and my father brought me to the centennial reenactment of the Battle of Antietam in September 1962. That was my first visit to Antietam National Battlefield. Thereafter Antietam was always my favorite Civil War battle.
As I became more knowledgeable about the battle I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the standard interpretations of the role of General Sumner at Antietam. It always seemed to me that there was more to his story. So after completing my master’s degree in the early 1990s I decided to see if I could discover the details of his actions and orders at Antietam. That led to the publication of Disaster in the West Woods, which is a defense of Sumner as commander of the Second Army Corps at Antietam.
For my doctoral dissertation I wanted to do an operational study that would illustrate how Civil War tactical doctrine—the subject of my master’s thesis—was applied and practiced in the field. Since the army corps was the operational unit of the Civil War army, and since I already had a large amount of research on Sumner and Antietam, the Second Army Corps in the Maryland Campaign was the natural choice. I completed the dissertation in 2004 and it was published earlier this year by the University of Alabama Press as Unfurl Those Colors!
SHAF: Perhaps the most controversial aspect of your book, “Unfurl Those Colors”, is your argument that Sumner ordered French to attack the Sunken Road position, which flies in the face of the conventional interpretation that the separation of the corps was unintentional. In brief, on what do you base your theory?
MVA: First, Sumner’s reconnaissance as he arrived on the battlefield brought him to the high ground in the vicinity of the junction of the Smoketown Road and the Mumma farm lane. This was at the point in time when Rhodes’s and Anderson’s brigades were moving into the Sunken Road, something that was clearly visible from where Sumner was. Sumner had just received instructions from McClellan to continue the attack to the south and west of Sharpsburg, which would necessarily involve seizing the West Woods. He could not accomplish this and leave the Confederate force in the Sunken Road in his rear. His decision was to send Sedgwick’s division to the West Woods and have French’s handle the forces in the Sunken Road.
Second, after Sedgwick seized the West Woods, Sumner was on the Hagerstown Pike in front of the DunkerChurch and sent an order to French to press his attack. The order was carried by Sumner’s son and aide, Captain Sam Sumner. Sam did not ride back to the East Woods to find French, which he would have done if French were lost or late, but rode east past Tompkins’s battery to the vicinity of the Sunken Road because he knew this is where French would be directing the attack on the Sunken Road. Also, it should be noted that the order was to “press the attack,” not “begin the attack,” because the attack on the Sunken Road had been previously ordered.
Third, French in his battle report mentions Sam Sumner delivering the order to press the attack. The point in time when Sam arrived was after French had already committed Weber’s and Morris’s brigades, and based on the order he committed Kimball’s brigade to the attack. Sedgwick’s attack toward the West Woods and French’s attack toward the Sunken Road were simultaneous events that could only have occurred simultaneously if both had been given orders to start at the same time.
SHAF: What do you think of the new trails at the park, specifically the West Woods trail?
MVA: I applaud wholeheartedly the effort to give visitors greater access to the battlefield through the development of interpretive trails. This is especially true of the West Woods trail. Not only does it allow greater access to the limits of Sedgwick’s advance, it also allows access to the ravine in the West Woods which led Barksdale’s brigade to the gap between the 125th Pennsylvania and the 7th Michigan. This is what led to the reverse suffered by Sedgwick’s division. How we interpret the battle is based in large measure on what we can see and know of the field itself. There is much more of the battlefield available today than ever before—thanks in no small measure to the efforts of SHAF—and our understanding of the battle is increased exponentially when we are able to walk it and see it as the participants did.
SHAF: Is there anything in particular that you are looking forward to or wish to accomplish with the upcoming SHAF tour of Second Corps at Antietam?
MVA: Much of my interpretation of the role of McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Corps at Antietam is dependent on being able to see the battlefield as the participants did. The visual prospective is critical to understanding decisions, orders, movements and outcomes during the battle. SHAF and its members have been key to acquiring and restoring the battlefield. This gives historians an invaluable source for interpreting the battle. On the tour I hope to show the SHAF membership how my access to the battlefield influenced my interpretations. I owe a large debt of gratitude to SHAF for making that resource available.