American Civil War: Major General Edwin V. Sumner

Major General Edwin V. Sumner
Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Born January 30, 1797 in Boston, MA, Edwin Vose Sumner was the son of Elisha and Nancy Sumner. Attending the West and Billerica Schools as a child, he received his later education at the Milford Academy. Pursuing a mercantile career, Sumner moved to Troy, NY as a young man. Quickly tiring of business, he successfully sought a commission in the US Army in 1819. Joining the 2nd US Infantry on March 3 with the rank of second lieutenant, Sumner's commissioning was facilitated by his friend Samuel Appleton Storrow who was serving on the staff of Major General Jacob Brown. Three years after entering the service, Sumner married Hannah Foster. Promoted to first lieutenant on January 25, 1825, he remained in the infantry.

Mexican-American War

In 1832, Sumner took part in the Black Hawk War in Illinois. A year later, he received a promotion to captain and transferred to the 1st US Dragoons. Proving a skilled cavalry officer, Sumner moved to Carlisle Barracks in 1838 to serve as an instructor. Teaching at the cavalry school, he remained in Pennsylvania until taking an assignment at Fort Atkinson, IA in 1842. After serving as the post's commander through 1845, he was promoted to major on June 30, 1846 following the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Assigned to Major General Winfield Scott's army the following year, Sumner took part in the campaign against Mexico City. On April 17, he earned a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his performance at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. Struck in the head by a spent round during the fighting, Sumner gained the nickname "Bull Head." That August, he oversaw American reserve forces during the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco before being brevetted to colonel for his actions during the Battle of Molino del Rey on September 8.

Antebellum Years

Promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 1st US Dragoons on July 23, 1848, Sumner remained with the regiment until being appointed military governor of the New Mexico Territory in 1851. In 1855, he received a promotion to colonel and command of the newly-formed US 1st Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Operating in the Kansas Territory, Sumner's regiment worked to maintain peace during the Bleeding Kansas crisis as well as campaign against the Cheyenne. In 1858, he assumed command of the Department of the West with his headquarters at St. Louis, MO. With the beginning of the secession crisis following the election of 1860, Sumner advised president-elect Abraham Lincoln to remain armed at all times. In March, Scott directed him to escort Lincoln from Springfield, IL to Washington, DC.

The Civil War Begins

With the dismissal of Brigadier General David E. Twiggs for treason in early 1861, Sumner's name was put forward by Lincoln for elevation to brigadier general. Approved, he was promoted on March 16 and directed to relieve Brigadier General Albert S. Johnston as commander of the Department of the Pacific. Departing for California, Sumner remained on the West Coast until November. As a result, he missed the early campaigns of the Civil War. Returning east, Sumner was selected to lead the newly-formed II Corps on March 13, 1862. Attached to Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, II Corps began moving south in April to take part in the Peninsula Campaign. Advancing up the Peninsula, Sumner directed Union forces at the inconclusive Battle of Williamsburg on May 5. Though criticized for his performance by McClellan, he was promoted to major general.

On the Peninsula

As the Army of the Potomac neared Richmond, it was attacked at the Battle of Seven Pines by General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate forces on May 31. Outnumbered, Johnston sought to isolate and destroy the Union III and IV Corps which were operating south of the Chickahominy River. Though the Confederate assault did not materialize as initially planned, Johnston's men put Union troops under heavy pressure and ultimately flanked the southern wing of IV Corps. Responding to the crisis, Sumner, on his own initiative, directed Brigadier General John Sedgwick's division across the rain-swollen river. Arriving, they proved critical in stabilizing the Union position and turning back subsequent Confederate attacks. For his efforts at Seven Pines, Sumner was brevetted to major general in the regular army. Though inconclusive, the battle saw Johnston wounded and replaced by General Robert E. Lee as well as McClellan halt his advance on Richmond.

Having gained the strategic initiative and seeking to relieve pressure on Richmond, Lee attacked Union forces on June 26 at Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville). Beginning the Seven Days Battles, it proved a tactical Union victory. Confederate attacks continued the next day with Lee triumphing at Gaines' Mill. Beginning a retreat toward the James River, McClellan complicated the situation by frequently being away from the army and not appointing a second-in-command to oversee operations in his absence. This was due to his low opinion of Sumner who, as senior corps commander, would have received the post. Attacked at Savage's Station on June 29, Sumner fought a conservative battle but succeeded in covering the retreat of the army. The following day, his corps played a role in the larger Battle of Glendale. In the course of the fighting, Sumner received a minor wound in the arm.

Final Campaigns

With the failure of the Peninsula Campaign, II Corps was ordered north to Alexandria, VA to support Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. Though nearby, the corps technically remained part of the Army of the Potomac and McClellan controversially refused to allow it to advance to Pope's aid during the Second Battle of Manassas in late August. In the wake of the Union defeat, McClellan took command in northern Virginia and soon moved to intercept Lee's invasion of Maryland. Advancing west, Sumner's command was held in reserve during the Battle of South Mountain on September 14. Three days later, he led II Corps onto the field during the Battle of Antietam. At 7:20 AM, Sumner received orders to take two divisions to the aid of I and XII Corps which had become engaged north of Sharpsburg. Selecting those of Sedgwick and Brigadier General William French, he elected to ride with the former. Advancing west towards the fighting, the two divisions became separated.

Despite this, Sumner pushed forward with the goal of turning the Confederate right flank. Operating with the information on hand, he attacked into the West Woods but soon came under fire from three sides. Quickly shattered, Sedgwick's division was driven from the area. Later in the day, the remainder of Sumner's corps mounted a series of bloody and unsuccessful assaults against Confederate positions along a sunken road to the south. In the weeks after Antietam, command of the army passed to Major General Ambrose Burnside who began reorganizing its structure. This saw Sumner elevated to lead the Right Grand Division which consisted of II Corps, IX Corps, and a division of cavalry led by Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton. In this arrangement, Major General Darius N. Couch assumed command of II Corps.

On December 13, Sumner led his new formation during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Tasked with frontally assaulting Lieutenant General James Longstreet's fortified lines atop Marye's Heights, his men moved forward shortly before noon. Attacking through the afternoon, Union efforts were repulsed with heavy losses. Continued failures on the part of Burnside in the following weeks saw him replaced with Major General Joseph Hooker on January 26, 1863. The oldest general in the Army of the Potomac, Sumner asked to be relieved shortly after Hooker's appointment due to exhaustion and frustration with infighting among the Union officers. Appointed to a command in the Department of Missouri shortly thereafter, Sumner died of a heart attack on March 21 while in Syracuse, NY to visit his daughter. He was buried in the city's Oakwood Cemetery a short time later.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Edwin V. Sumner." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Major General Edwin V. Sumner. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Edwin V. Sumner." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).