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, in 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.
U.S. Army Officer
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 business associate Samuel Appleton Storrow, a friend of Major General Jacob Brown, helped secure the appointment.
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.
The army promoted Sumner 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.
Black Hawk War
In 1832, the army transferred Sumner to Illinois, where he took part in the Black Hawk War. During the conflict, 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 campaigning against American Indians in the West and on recruiting campaigns in the East.
Because of his infantry background, combined with his service with the dragoons, army officials selected Sumner to command a newly created cavalry school of practice at Carlisle, Pennsylvania on March 19, 1838. They confirmed his new appointment on May 14. Following four successful years at Carlisle, the army reassigned Sumner 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), army officials promoted Sumner 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 received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his performance at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. During that engagement, a Mexican musket ball reportedly bounced off Sumner’s head, earning him the nickname “Bull Head.” During the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, Sumner directed the U.S. reserve forces. Army officials later brevetted him to colonel for his valor on September 8, 1847, during the Battle of Molino del Rey.
Military Governor of the New Mexico Territory
Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the army promoted Sumner to lieutenant colonel of the 1st US Dragoons on July 23, 1848. He served in that capacity until 1851 when officials appointed Sumner as 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, the army promoted Sumner to colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry and reassigned him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For the next three years, Sumner struggled to curtail violence during the Border War between anti-slavery Free Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians. 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, army officials assigned Sumner 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.
Soon after Sumner’s promotion, the War Department sent him 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 take part in any combat during the first year of the Civil War.
Army of the Potomac Corps Commander
Following the Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), the U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called upon Major General George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort. McClellan soon began reorganizing the Union armies in the field, but Lincoln had his own designs. On March 8, 1862, the President issued War Order No. 2, merging the Army of the Potomac’s divisions into five corps. Lincoln named 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 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 the swollen river divided it. On May 31, Confederate troops launched assaults against the isolated 3rd and 4th Corps near Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, Virginia. The Rebels executed their advancement poorly, but they 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 War Department issued General Orders No. 87, breveting Sumner to major general in the 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).
Northern Virginia Campaign
Near the conclusion of the failed Peninsula Campaign, the War Department ordered Sumner’s 2nd Corps to the vicinity of Washington, DC, to support 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 Second Battle of Bull Run (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 took 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 Virginia with his Army of the Potomac and moved to halt Lee’s incursion. McClellan held Sumner’s corps in reserve during the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Three days later, on the bloodiest day of fighting in American 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).
Army of the Potomac Grand Division Commander
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 comprised 2nd Corps, 9th Corps, and a division of cavalry led by Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton.
Battle of Fredericksburg
President Lincoln and other Washington officials prodded Burnside to move against Lee quickly. Just one month after his appointment, Burnside launched an offensive against Lee that culminated in a Union disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862). During that 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 4,000 men.
Relieved of Command
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. Besides 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 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 family buried his remains at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.