Unfurl Those Colors! McClellan, Sumner, & the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign

by Marion V. Armstrong Jr., University of Alabama Press, 2008, 362 pages, $39.95.

Marion Armstrong’s military background as a U.S. Army reserve officer is evident from the first pages of Unfurl Those Colors! McClellan, Sumner & The Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign, his thorough, readable and convincing reevaluation of Union Major General Edwin Vose Sumner as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps from its withdrawal from the Virginia Peninsula in late August 1862 to the conclusion of the Maryland campaign in mid-September.

Armstrong points out that in accounts of the Maryland campaign, the II Corps has often been characterized as “a veteran command mishandled by its commanders” and that it “has always been inextricably and centrally identified with the Federal failure at Antietam.” He contends, how – ever, that Sumner was actually “among the most experienced and competent career officers in the regular army.” At 65, the Boston native was also the Union Army’s oldest serving field officer, and he had led the II Corps through the Peninsula campaign with admirable courage and energy. The II Corps’ division and brigade commanders were also competent and experienced, and Armstrong manages to bring them to life via capsule biographies.

The II Corps’ 30 regiments suffered 2,420 killed, wounded and missing during what became known as the Seven Days’ campaign. All the regiments were well below full strength by the time they headed to Antietam. Nevertheless, 17,000 officers and men of the II Corps stepped off around noon on September 9 from their encampments just north of Washington, D.C., to join General George McClellan’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.

Few in the ranks could have imagined that within a few days Sumner’s divisions would be shredded and shot to pieces in the West Woods and the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane), names that would become inexorably linked with the II Corps’ history and synonymous with wholesale slaughter as well as uncommon valor. On September 20, the II Corps’ Consolidated Morning Report showed that 5,138 casualties had resulted from the fighting of September 17. That was more than double the loss of any of the Army of the Potomac’s other corps.

Despite its devastating losses, the II Corps continued to serve with distinction in the Army of the Potomac until April 1865. In January 1863, Edwin Sumner asked to be relieved of command and assigned to a post in the Western theater. But while he was on leave before leaving for St. Louis, he came down with pneumonia. He died on March 21, 1863.

Armstrong clearly demonstrates that casting a fresh eye on long-accepted historical truths can bring new insights to even the most frequently scrutinized events and battles. His 32 maps and provocative analysis will please students of the Maryland campaign and will surely bring on a new round of debates about what happened to the II Corps on the bitterly contested ground just west of Antietam Creek.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.