A prominent Union general officer, Edwin V. Sumner was the first new general to be appointed in the United States Army after the beginning of the American Civil War.
Edwin Vose Sumner was born on January 30, 1797 at Boston, Massachusetts. He was one of seven children born to Elisha and Nancy Sumner. Sumner's father was a merchant who moved his family to Milton, Massachusetts sometime between 1800 and 1803. As a youth, Sumner attended several private schools in the Milton area. Following his education, Sumner followed in his father's footsteps and became a merchant in Troy, New York, probably in 1816. After tiring of his career as a businessman, Sumner secured an appointment as a second lieutenant in the United States Army on March 3, 1819. His appointment was facilitated by his business associate Samuel Appleton Storrow, a friend of Major General Jacob Brown.
Sumner began his army career with the 2nd Infantry Regiment, at Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor, New York. While stationed there, Sumner met Hannah Wickersham Forster, the daughter of a Revolutionary War officer from Erie, Pennsylvania. The couple married on March 31, 1822 at Sackets Harbor. Their marriage lasted for forty years and produced six children.
Sumner was promoted to first lieutenant on January 25, 1823. Between 1823 and 1831, Sumner performed recruiting and administrative duties for the army at various places, including Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Boston, Massachusetts, Fort Mackinac, Michigan, and back at Sackets Harbor.
In 1832, Sumner was transferred to Illinois, where he participated in the Black Hawk War. During that time, he became acquainted with other officers who would play important roles in his later career, including Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and William S. Harney. While in Illinois, Sumner also began studying cavalry tactics, which led to his promotion to captain of Company B in the newly-formed U.S. 1st Dragoons in 1833. Sumner spent the next few years dealing with American Indian issues in the West and on recruiting campaigns in the East.
Due to his infantry background, combined with his service with the dragoons, Sumner was selected to command a newly-created cavalry school of practice at Carlisle, Pennsylvania on March 19, 1838. His new appointment was confirmed on May 14. Following four successful years at Carlisle, Sumner was reassigned to Fort Atkinson, Iowa Territory, in 1842. He served there for three years, most of them as the post's commander.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846-February 2, 1848), Sumner was promoted to major with the 2nd Dragoons on June 30, 1846. By 1847, he was serving with General Winfield Scott's expeditionary force during the campaign against Mexico City. On April 17, Sumner was brevetted to lieutenant colonel for his performance at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. During that engagement, a Mexican musket ball reportedly bounced of off Sumner's head, earning him the nickname "Bull Head." During the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, Sumner directed the U.S. reserve forces. He later was brevetted to colonel for his valor on September 8, 1847 during the Battle of Molino del Rey.
Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Sumner was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 1st US Dragoons on July 23, 1848. He served in that capacity until 1851 when he was appointed military governor of the New Mexico Territory. During his tenure as governor, Sumner established Fort Union in 1851. The post would later play an important role in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.
On March 3, 1855, Sumner was promoted to colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry and reassigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For the next three years, he struggled to curtail violence during the Border War between anti-slavery Free Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians, which was precipitated by the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. When not attending to the Bleeding Kansas crisis, Sumner also campaigned against the Cheyenne Indians during the First Cheyenne War (1856-1858) in Nebraska and in western Kansas.
In 1858, Sumner was assigned as commander of the Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. He remained in that position until 1861, when General Winfield Scott appointed Sumner as the senior officer to accompany President-elect Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC for the presidential inauguration on March 4. On March 12, Lincoln nominated Sumner to replace Brigadier-General David E. Twiggs, who outgoing President James Buchanan had dismissed from the army. On April 3, 1861, the War Department issued General Order No. 8 announcing Sumner's promotion to brigadier-general, effective March 16, making him one of only three brigadier-generals in the U.S. Army at that time. Sumner was also the first new general to be appointed after the beginning of the secession crisis. Soon after Sumner's promotion, he was sent west to replace Brigadier-General Albert Sidney Johnston as commander of the Department of the Pacific, after Johnston sided with the Confederacy. Sumner spent the next year in California and, thus, did not participate in any combat during the first year of the Civil War.
Following the Union disaster at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), the US President Abraham Lincoln called upon Major General George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort. McClellan soon set about reorganizing the Union armies in the field, but Lincoln had his own designs. On March 8, 1862, the President issued War Order No. 2, consolidating the Army of the Potomac's divisions into five corps. Lincoln went on to name Major General Irvin McDowell, Sumner, Brigadier-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, Brigadier-General E. D. Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps respectively. Dutifully, on March 13, 1862 a disgruntled McClellan issued General Order No. 101 (Army of the Potomac), confirming the President's selections, including Sumner as the 2nd Corps commander.
In the spring of 1862, McClellan launched his ill-fated Peninsula Campaign. Sumner's leadership during the offensive was mixed. He did not perform well at the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862), ordering Brigadier-General William F. "Baldy" Smith to halt his division's advance against Confederate lines, leaving Brigadier-General Joseph Hooker's division to confront the Rebel defenders in isolation. Later in the day, Sumner reluctantly assented to Brigadier-General William F. "Baldy" Smith's request to dispatch Brigadier-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade to take two unmanned Confederate redoubts. Not realizing the importance of Hancock's advance, Sumner responded to Hancock's request for reinforcements to secure his position by ordering him to fall back. Just as Hancock grudgingly began to comply with Sumner's orders, the Rebels counterattacked, giving Hancock justification to hold his ground.
Despite the delays at Yorktown and Williamsburg, by late May, the Army of the Potomac was encamped along both sides of the Chickahominy River, only several miles from Richmond. When heavy spring rains flooded the Chickahominy, Confederate General Joseph Johnston's forces attacked McClellan's army while it was divided by the swollen river. On May 31, Confederate troops launched assaults against the isolated 3rd and 4th Corps near Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, Virginia. The advancements were poorly executed, but the Rebels made some initial headway. When Sumner heard the sounds of the fighting from his position on the north side of the Chickahominy, he hurriedly assembled his corps at the river's edge and awaited McClellan's orders to advance. After receiving McClellan's approval, Sumner's soldiers crossed the Chickahominy and reinforced their besieged comrades, averting a Union disaster. Johnston was seriously injured during the action, and the Confederate offensive fizzled the next day. On July 24, 1862, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 87, brevetting Sumner to major general in regular army "to date from May 31, 1862, for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia.
After the Battle of Fair Oaks (also known as the Battle of Seven Pines), McClellan re-deployed most of his army south of the Chickahominy River and planned for a siege of Richmond. In the meantime, Robert E. Lee, who Confederate President Jefferson Davis had named to replace the wounded Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, went on the offensive. Taking advantage of McClellan's inactivity, on June 25, Lee launched the first of six assaults on Federal troops in seven days, collectively known as the Seven Days Battles (June 25 to July 1, 1862). After the Confederate victory at the Battle of Gaines' Mill (June 27, 1862), Sumner's corps held off Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's command at the Battle of Savage's Station (June 29, 1862), buying time for McClellan to withdraw down the Virginia Peninsula. On the next day, Sumner received a slight wound to his arm during the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862).
Near the conclusion of the failed Peninsula Campaign, the War Department ordered Sumner's 2nd Corps to the vicinity of Washington, DC, to support of Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. On August 2, 1862, the War Department issued General Order No. 93, promoting Sumner to major general in the regular army, effective July 4, 1862. During the Confederate victory at the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28–30, 1862), McClellan refused to authorize Sumner's corps to advance to Manassas in support of Pope.
Following Pope's defeat, Robert E. Lee decided to take the war onto northern soil, marching the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland on September 4, 1862. An anxious President Lincoln reluctantly turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reinvigorate the Federal forces to stop Lee's advance. On September 2, 1862, Lincoln placed McClellan in command of, "the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital." McClellan merged the Army of the Virginia with his Army of the Potomac and moved to halt Lee's incursion. Sumner's corps was held in reserve during the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Three days later, on the single bloodiest day of fighting in American military history (September 17, 1862), Sumner ordered an ill-conceived and uncoordinated attack by Major General John Sedgwick's division that contributed to the high casualty total at the Battle of Antietam (September 16-18, 1862).
After the Battle of Antietam, Lee returned to Virginia. McClellan chose not to pursue Lee's retreating army, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to issue an executive order on November 5, 1862, replacing McClellan with Major General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The next week, on November 14, Burnside issued General Order No. 184, which reorganized his new command into three "Grand Divisions." He named Sumner to lead the Right Grand Division, which consisted of II Corps, IX Corps, and a division of cavalry led by Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton.
Prodded by President Lincoln and other Washington officials to quickly move into action, just one month later, Burnside launched an offensive against Lee that culminated in a Union disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862). During this engagement, on December 13, Burnside ordered Sumner to attempt a frontal assault against Lieutenant General James Longstreet's well-fortified line on Marye's Heights. Sumner's troops moved forward shortly before noon. After two hours of bloody fighting, four Federal divisions suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate while failing to dislodge the Rebel defenders. The 2nd Corps alone lost an estimated four thousand men.
Burnside's command of the Army of the Potomac was short-lived. Following another failed offensive, known as the Mud March, the War Department issued General Order No. 20 on January 25, 1863. In addition to relieving Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac, at his own request, the order relieved Sumner from duty in the Army of the Potomac, also at his own request.
On March 9, 1863, the War Department issued General Order No. 57, reassigning Sumner to command the Department of the Missouri. While traveling to St. Louis to assume his new command, Sumner stopped to visit his daughter in Syracuse, New York. While there, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of sixty years on March 21, 1863. Three days later, the War Department issued General Order No. 71, announcing Sumner's demise and stating that, "The regrets of the whole army go with him. He will be lamented and remembered, not for his soldierly traits alone, but for his generous and courteous bearing, the offspring of a true and noble nature."
Sumner's remains were buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.
Cite this Entry
"Edwin Vose Sumner," Ohio Civil War Central, 2022, Ohio Civil War Central. 22 Jan 2022 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1390>
"Edwin Vose Sumner." (2022) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved January 22, 2022, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1390
- Abraham Lincoln
- Albert Sidney Johnston
- Alfred Pleasonton
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Army of Virginia
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Bull Run I
- Battle of Bull Run II
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gaines' Mill
- Battle of Glendale
- Battle of Savage's Station
- Battle of Seven Pines
- Battle of South Mountain
- Battle of Williamsburg
- Bleeding Kansas
- Erasmus D. Keyes
- General Orders, No. 184 (Army of the Potomac)
- General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 57 (U.S. War Department) (1863)
- General Orders, No. 93 (U.S. War Department)
- George B. McClellan
- Irvin McDowell
- James Longstreet
- Jefferson Davis
- John Pope
- Joseph E. Johnston
- Joseph Hooker
- Kansas-Nebraska Act
- Mexican-American War
- Nathaniel P. Banks
- Peninsula Campaign
- President's War Order No. 2
- Robert E. Lee
- Samuel P. Heintzelman
- Seven Days Battles
- Siege of Yorktown
- Thomas J. Jackson
- William B. Franklin
- William F. "Baldy" Smith
- William S. Harney
- Winfield S. Hancock
- Winfield Scott
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