Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Edwin V. Sumner to his wife, September 20, 1862: "I think I was never in such a fire as when that division broke"

Here is another recent find from my research in various collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The below is the transcript of a letter which Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, to his wife three days after Antietam. It is very candid and informal, and he relays his thoughts on the recent battle, as well as Union strategy going forward from Antietam.

My own dear Wife,
The battle is over and we are safe. The enemy has fled from Maryland and I do not think we shall meet them again for some time, for it will take a little time to make preparations before we pursue them. It was a terrific battle. Some generals under my command were wounded. Mansfield was killed early in the action. He had only had command of his Corps two days, that corps (Banks) is under my command and in addition to my own. I did not like the way in which the troops were put into battle. They went in corps after corps instead of being all forward in battle array before we engaged.
On the right Hooker went [forward], and then my second corps under Mansfield and then my own corps. The consequence was that we were not strong enough—Sedgwick was wounded and his division broke and never did I have to make such exertion as I did to rally that division. I succeeded finally and got them again into line and held my position.
The enemy fought like maniacs to give you an idea of it. Nineteen of their men lay dead about a piece of artillery that one of my batteries knocked to pieces.—Two of my staff were wounded. Col. Revere and young (illegible). They have both gone home.
Our dear boy behaved splendidly. He was much more anxious about me than about himself—he was as cool and manly as an old veteran.
Col. Revere left before he knew the fate of his brother the doctor, he was shot through the heart and killed instantly, but it was not known till the next day. I have sent his remains home in charge of an officer. The battle has been unequally fatal to officers, and especially to those of high command. I think I was never in such a fire as when that division broke—I was obliged to shout in such a way that I could not speak loud for some time afterwards—We have been on the field ever since the battle but today I have got the command a little more comfortably fixed, and we are all enjoying the rest.
I don’t know what their plans will be—I think everything we can raise should be pushed upon them at once and grind them to powder—If there should be a pause in the operations I will come home, dear, and rest for I do feel that I need your care and love.
Fatherly love to all
Dear father,
(Sumner Family Papers, Box 1, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)

This letter fascinates me on many different levels. First off, it is a personal note from Sumner to his wife just after the battle, relaying to her his private thoughts on the fighting at Antietam. Seeing his descriptions of his son's conduct in battle is particularly interesting in this regard. For Sumner, escaping combat unscathed was not just about him, but about his son as well. His closing lines about hoping to come home soon for her love and care are particularly moving as well.

In regards to the battle itself, Sumner's letter adds some colorful descriptions of the fighting involving Sedgwick's division in the West Woods. By describing how loud he was yelling when trying to rally the men, the letter provides an excellent personal account of what the West Woods fight was like for the 2nd Corps commander that morning. When over 7,000 Confederate slammed into Sedgwick's left flank, the route was on, and it was all Sumner could do to save himself and attempt to salvage what was left of the division he had led so confidently into the woods just a few moments before.
Also, his comment objecting to the piecemeal manner in which troops were committed that day holds true to his reported impatience on the morning of the 17th. While the 1st and 12th Corps were plunging into battle, Sumner was still at McClellan's headquarters awaiting his go ahead to take his corps across the creek.

Sumner's comments regarding the necessary time it would take to regather the army after the battle are illuminating as well. It highlights the exhausted nature of the men following the fight, something which many armchair general historians too easily forget. I really like his line regarding his desire to "grind them to powder." It certainly displays his firm resolve to end the war and the rebellion sooner rather than later. 

It is also worth making a point of clarification. Sumner writes of having two corps under his command. During the advance of the Army of the Potomac from Washington, Sumner commanded the army's center wing, consisting of his 2nd Corps and the 12th Corps, formerly the 2nd Corps of the Army of Virginia, previously commanded by Nathaniel Banks (the corps formally switched its designation on September 12). The right wing consisted of the 1st and 9th Corps, and was commanded by Ambrose Burnside, and the left wing consisted of the 6th Corps and Darius Couch's 4th Corps division, and was commanded by William B. Franklin. By the time the army reached the banks of Antietam Creek, this three wing formation was all but dead: the 1st and 9th Corps were on opposite ends of the battlefield, and on the night of the 16th, the 12th Corps was sent across the creek without its 2nd Corps counterpart for the center wing. Indeed, at the start of the battle, only Franklin's wing of the army was still together, being located several miles away in Pleasant Valley. Thus, despite demise of the three wing command by the time the opening guns were firing at Antietam, Sumner was still writing as though he was still the commander of the center wing of the army (both his 2nd Corps and the 12th Corps) three days after the battle.


  1. Dan,
    You are uncovering some very good material. I look forward to your final conclusions and presentation in September.
    Jim Rosebrock

  2. Dan,

    I can only echo Jim's observations. Well done!