Late last evening I was working on a project involving the First Battle of Fredericksburg. Jotting notes about the Army of the Potomac’s Grand Divisions, I could not find the right Mr. Sumner. My searches turned up “Charles Sumner” and I knew that wasn’t correct while I was certain the general’s last name was Sumner.
Time to pull out the official order of battle. Answer ahead: Edwin Sumner!
As I retrieved that order of battle, I remembered my early experiences with such documents. About the time I really got interested in military history (around age ten), I started making lists of commanders at the Battle of Gettysburg since that conflict was my reading focus at that time. Whenever I found a new general’s name in one of those kid’s books, I wrote it down and tried to figure out which corps, division, brigade, etc. the fellow commanded during the Gettysburg fight. The army and corps commanders were easy enough, but it wasn’t always clear after that.
Then, I found a treasure at my grandfather’s library. Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray. For weeks, I’d call Grandfather, saying, “Could you please check-out and bring me those general books again?” The books started “living” in my school desk until the day I had to return them…again…and get them checked out…again.
I didn’t have a “book-buying budget” when I was a kid, but I finally saved up enough money from recycling cans and bottles and doing yard work to buy my very own used copies of Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray. After that, my order of battle lists started developing faster.
I can still remember leaning on the kitchen counter, complaining to my mom that somebody who had more time and resources should have made a complete list of all the generals and units at Gettysburg by this time. (Yeah, I was rather dense…) But if no one had, I would definitely be the first!
The joyous day of reality came. I don’t remember how old I was, but I found it in the back of a BIG Gettysburg book. An order of battle with the army, corps, division, brigade, and regimental commanders! The unit strengths and losses were even listed and cited. A true “eureka moment.” I felt so excited but also really foolish. My scribbled notes and neatly written lists didn’t matter anymore. All the answers were here.
I’ll make one more confession – this one about Fredericksburg and that order of battle. I spent weeks on the east coast when I was fourteen probably driving Park Service rangers and volunteers crazy with my question. “How did the 20th Maine get from Hancock’s command to the Fifth Corps at Fredericksburg?” I gave those rangers and volunteers the runaround all because I had the very wrong impression of chain of command, courtesy of the movie Gods and Generals.
If I’d checked an order of battle list, I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself, but I still hadn’t quite discovered that every Civil War battle has such a document (or one can be created with comparative ease). I’m sincerely sorry for causing so much trouble and wonder if I possibly troubled my future colleagues at ECW with that Fredericksburg question.
The answer, by the way, is that the 20th Maine was with the V Corps at Fredericksburg. They never served under General W.S. Hancock’s direct command.
- Find and study order of battle lists because they’re good references and help the battle maneuvers and chain of command make sense.
- If you don’t have Generals in Blue or Generals in Gray on your resource shelf, you might want to make an investment.
- Check available resources before creating your own order of battle sheets. Seriously, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
- Ask lots of questions!
And now, I must wrap up this story because as fate would have it…I have to finish compiling an order of battle list for my manuscript today.