Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of Armstrong: "OPPOSING THE SECOND CORPS AT ANTIETAM: The Fight for the Confederate Left and Center on America's Bloodiest Day"

[Opposing the Second Corps at Antietam: The Fight for the Confederate Left and Center on America's Bloodiest Day by Marion V. Armstrong Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2016). Hardcover, 41 maps, notes, select bibliography, index. Pages main/total:175/211. ISBN:978-0-8173-1904-5. $39.95]

In 2008, the University of Alabama press published Unfurl Those Colors: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign, Marion V. Armstrong's minutely detailed tactical account of the desperate fighting in the West Woods and Sunken Road from the Union perspective. The quality of the study's intensive scrutiny of a key sector of the Antietam battlefield remains well respected by military students of the war. In terms of attempts at historiographical revision, the book also significantly softens traditional criticisms aimed at Second Corps commander Edwin V. Sumner, whose order sending John Sedgwick's division into the West Woods on a narrow front and without adequate reconnaissance has been roundly condemned ever since. From a desire on the part of the author to present the material using only information known to Union forces at the time, the Confederate perspective was intentionally blurred. Without knowledge that a companion volume would eventually be produced, this limitation was a source of some criticism. In his new book, Opposing the Second Corps at Antietam: The Fight for the Confederate Left and Center on America's Bloodiest Day, Armstrong now explores in matching depth and focus the very same events from the Confederate point of view.

The Confederate left at Antietam, commanded by Stonewall Jackson, suffered devastating losses in the process of repelling the early morning assaults of the Union First (Hooker) and Twelfth (Mansfield) Corps across Miller's Cornfield and into the surrounding woodlots. With Sumner's Second Corps on the way to deliver the knockout blow, Confederate reinforcements were urgently needed by mid-morning on September 17 to stave off total collapse in the sector. Robert E. Lee immediately dispatched reserves to his crumbling northern front, and it is at this critical moment that Armstrong's examination of the Army of Northern Virginia's battle on the left and center begins.

In the book, Armstrong weaves together official reports and other participant accounts into a masterfully crafted combat narrative of the West Woods and Sunken Road fighting. The text is remarkably comprehensive, pinpointing the positions and movements of each Confederate regiment and battery during both the devastating offensive counterstroke into the West Woods that nearly destroyed Sedgwick's division and the doomed defense of the Sunken Road by the divisions of D.H. Hill and R.H. Anderson. The book additionally covers a multitude of smaller scale actions on the part of individual regiments and brigades in support of the main events. An exception to the uneasy stalemate conditions that existed along most of the Confederate left and center during the later hours of the battle, the scramble to check a brief afternoon advance by the U.S. Regulars up the Boonsboro Pike is also recounted.

Charting the progress of the fighting at short intervals, the book's 41 maps comprise an immensely helpful support tool. Unlike the cartography of far too many modern battle studies, Armstrong's maps are original creations intimately tied to the narrative. Seemingly every action described in the text, large and small, is represented on map and at the appropriate small unit (regiment and battery) scale. Equal attention is given to the landscape of the battlefield, with the entire range of tactically relevant natural and man-made terrain features fully rendered. Elevation contour lines are also present, an often neglected aspect of battle cartography that is nevertheless essential to the understanding of a battle largely fought over open, gently rolling fields where even the smallest ground undulation provided tactically significant advantages and disadvantages. The only suggestion for improvement would have been to make the maps larger for greater ease of viewing.

The nature of the study is primarily descriptive, but there is some broader analysis present. The traditional conception of why battle was offered at Antietam stems from a tacit admission by Lee that the aims of his Maryland Campaign were effectively foiled by the unexpectedly rapid Union response, with Antietam representing the aggressive general's desire to not abandon the campaign entirely without first offering battle. Armstrong agrees instead with the idea that the Confederate stand at Antietam was a temporary measure designed to keep Lee's offensive options open (the road north to Hagerstown being unobstructed prior to the battle)*. Lee's orders late on the 17th, after his army was already badly battered, to assemble a force to pass behind the Union far right and secure a road north supports this view. As Armstrong shows, the movement was aborted when it was discovered that the Union flank (covered by a powerful massed battery of up to 30 guns) rested on the Potomac, the inward bend of which was a source of surprise [and, according to the author, an unwarranted surprise given that J.E.B. Stuart had plenty of time before the battle to scout the road network north of Sharpsburg] to the Confederates.

Fully complementing each other, the maps and battle narratives of the companion studies Unfurl Those Colors and Opposing the Second Corps at Antietam together comprise the literature's clearest and most complete tactical history of the West Woods and Sunken Road phases of the Antietam battle. These volumes should be regarded as essential components of the 1862 Maryland Campaign bookshelf.

* - The chapter notes to this discussion of Lee's true intention at Antietam are heavily referenced to the pair of works authored by historian Joseph Harsh—Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862 (1998) and Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 (1999)—and presumably it is a point of agreement between the two authors.

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