Command Style


Dutch officer Lt. Jacques Arnould Obreen had this to say about Americans and orders:

"The civilian pride of keeping individual liberty and independence, whichis so disastrous in the military sphere, can be found in the American army in all ranks.  In the higher ranks it manifests itself intoo many deliberations and discussions over operations, which led to theundermining of the initiative and the decision making of the commander inchief.  Besides that the orders given too often miss that decisive toneof authority which are essential.  Often orders are not being followedbut argued and commented against.  When instructions and officialorders have the character of diplomatic dispatches then it leads to the tendency of negotiating instead of being ordered and obeying thoseorders." 

Stonewall Jackson was known for secrecy and for not calling councils of war, and he met with success.  Even still, Lee gave him this advice in the summer of 1862 when detached from Lee's army:

"AP Hill you will, I think, find a good officer with whom you can consult, and by advising your division commanders as to their movements much trouble can be saved you in arranging details, as they can act more intelligently.  I wish to save you trouble from increasing your command."

Lee is frequently criticized for using discretionary orders, but this was necessary due to circumstances, and it was actually one of the great strengths of his army. Particularly considering  the terrain, his inadequate staff, and the difficulty of getting timely and accurate information, it was to Lee's advantage to give latitude to his subordinates.  Ewell is often condemned for failing to take Cemetery Hill and Culps Hill on the first day of Gettysburg, which, it is said, Jackson surely would have done.  The effects of this failure are clear - 140 years later - but Ewell had good reasons for his actions. His corps was disorganized, and a large Union force was on his flank, right at the foot of Benner's Hill.  Had he been attacked in his flank,the wisdom of his decision wouldn't be questioned.  The Prussian observer Scheibert quotes Lee as saying, "You have to realize how things stand with us.  Recognize that my orders then would do more harm than good.  I rely on my division and brigade commanders.  How terrible if I could not.  I plan and work as hard as I can to bring my troops to the right place at the right time.  I have done my duty then.  The moment I order them forward, I put the battle and the fate of my army in the hands of God."  (Scheibert 42)

Interestingly, Lee's statement mirrors the 1861 writing of Andrew Steinmetz in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution:

"One salient result of modern tactics emphatically suggests the difficulty of the situation : the field of battle will be immensely more extended at its commencement: the troops posted by their officers according to the new system, will be for the most part lost sight of by the general-in-chief.  Hence the increased labour, solicitude, and anxiety of colonels of battaliosn and captains of companies in the employment of their troops, and following out the scheme of the battle as preconcerted.  The generals of armies will scarcely have more to do than superintend the general dispositions of the plan, and take means to obviate accidents.  After having laid down his plan of battle, the general-in-chief will become a simple spectator and observer; all he can do is to be ready to interpose at the proper time, and in the proper place.  It can scarcely be expected from him, at the present day, will be done, if done at all, by his subordinates of all degrees, who will now be required to be masters of their art, full of depth and penetration, and, above all, endowed with the faculty of being always able to appreciate the march of events on a field of battle."

GFR Henderson, on page 342 of his Jackson book states,

"The natural initiative of the American,the general fearlessness of responsibility, were as conspicuous among the soldiers as in the nation at large.  To those familiar with the Official Records, where the doings of regiments and even companies are preserved, it is perfectly apparent that, so soon as the officers gained experience, the smaller units were as boldly and efficiently handled as in the army of Germany under Moltke."

In addition to trusting his subordinates on the battlefield, Lee also sought the advice of his subordinates.  Speaking to Henry Heth about criticism in newspapers, Lee confirms this, saying,"After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made. I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late, and you, and all my officers, know that I am always ready and anxious to have their suggestions." (Freeman's R. E. Lee : A Biography, Vol. 3 (1935) )   In "Conquering the Valley", Robert Krick states that Ewell also sought input from his subordinates.  Lee and the Confederates in the East were using something like what is now known as 'mission command', a doctrine most often associated with the Prussian army.  Americans of that time, however, were more often inspired by French methods, which were similar.  

Christopher Perello in "The Quest For Annihilation" states that activity by subordinates was vital to success with this command system.  As an example, he states that at Glendale, as Longstreet was attacking the Union center at the Glendale crossroads, inactivity by Jackson at White Oak Swamp and by Huger to the north, as well as inactivity by Magruder at Malvern Hill to the south, allowed the Federals to shift troops and stop Longstreet's assault.  Not all subordinates were happy with Lee's command system - and they may not have understood it. Having received orders to proceed to either Cashtown or Gettyburg according to circumstances, a confused Ewell, complaining of "indefinite phraseology" asked, "Why can't a commanding-general have someone of hisstaff who can write an intelligible order?"  Before Pickett's Charge,Longstreet delegated to his artillery commander Porter Alexander to judge when the bombardment had been successful and to signal when tobegin the attack.  Instead, Alexander agreed to simply tell Pickettwhen the bombardment was at its most effective.  In his book after the war, Alexander criticized Lee's use of discretionary orders. Although this criticism gets a great deal of attention, it, like everything else, should be viewed with some skepticism.    

The highest levels of command tended to be West Pointers, but by necessity untrained civilians became generals.  At Spotsylvania, AP Hill was angered at a brigade commander, a trained lawyer.  In Freeman's biography, Lee explained to Hill,

"These men are not an army; they are citizens defending their country.  General Wright is not a soldier; he is a lawyer.  I cannot do many things that I could do with a trained army.  The soldiers know their duty better than the general officers do, and they have fought magnificently...  You'll have to do what I do.  When a man makes a mistake, I call him into my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time." 


Battlefields were large, theaters of war were larger.
A commander could not always meet his subordinates;
he had to trust them.

On the Union side, William T. Sherman also seems to have favored what is now called "mission command", having expressed, "When a detachment is made, the commander thereof should be informed of the object to be accomplished, and left as free as possible to execute it in his own way." Burnside seems to have had a similar attitudes.  Although typically seen as incompetent, more recent interpretations like that of William Marvel are kinder, indicating that at Fredericksburg his subordinates failed him and that he naively believed that history would vindicate him.  At the Crater his plan to use the USCT division in the first wave was overruled by Meade and Grant, dooming the attack, but using the "drawing straws" method to select another division was too laissez faire.  In the Army of the Potomac, there were instances of commanders taking the initiative.  At Gettysburg, Meade delegated to Hancock the decision whether to fight at Gettysburg after the first day's action.  Early on the second day, Slocum vetoed Meade's plan to attack on the army's right flank, citing a reconnaisance with Warren, the army's topographical engineer.  Later in the day, Sickles took the initiative - contrary to orders - and advanced his line forward to the Peach Orchard.  Then Warren, on his own initiative, diverted troops to Little Round Top.  Despite examples like these, the Army of the Potomac was very different from its opponent.  On pages 670-71 of his Stonewall Jackson book, GFR Henderson contrasts Lee's army with the Army of the Potomac:

"But while Lee and Jackson, by every means in their power, fostered the capacity for independent action, following therein the example of Napoleon, of Washington, of Nelson,and of Wellington, and aware that their strength would thus be doubled, McClellan and Pope did their best to stifle it; and in the higher ranks they succeeded.  In the one case the generals were taught to wait for orders, in the other to anticipate them.  In the one case, whether troops were supported or not depended on the word of the commanding general; in the other, every officer was taught that to sustain his colleagues was his first duty.  It thus resulted that while the Confederate leaders were served by scores of zealous assistants, actively engaged in furthering the aim of their superiors,McClellan, Pope, and Fremont, jealous of power reduced their subordinates, with few exceptions, to the position of machines, content to obey the letter of their orders, oblivious of opportunity, and incapable of co-operation...  In the Army of the Potomac,centralization was the rule.  McClellan expected blind obedience from his corps commanders, and nothing more, and Pope brought Porter to trial for using his own judgment...  Thus the Federal soldiers, through no fault of their own, laboured for the first two years of the war under a disadvantage from which the wisdom of Lee and Jackson had relieved the Confederates.  The Army of the Potomac was an inert mass, the Army of Northern Virginia a living organism, endowed with irresistable vigour."

Jacob Cox in his "Reminiscences of the Civil War", p 184, states:

"I was once ordered to support with my command a movement to be made by another.  It was an important juncture in a campaign.  Wondering at delay, I rode forward and found the general officer I was to support... but he had no explicit orders to begin the movement...  (He said), "If you had been in the army as long as I have, you would be content to do the things that are ordered, without hunting up others."

Cox explained that this was common, sometimes caused by "mental indecision or timidity", but, "It was sometimes also the result of education in an army on the peace establishment, where any spontaneity was snubbed as an impertinence or tyrannically crushed as a breach of discipline."  Cox went on to explain that like in the wars of the French Revolution, "the infusion of the patriotic enthusiasm of a volunteer organization was a necessity."

 On page 614, Henderson discussed the Union command at Antietam,writing, "The subordinate generals... showed no initiative and waited for orders instead of improving the opportunity."  In Congressional testimony about the Gettysburg Campaign, Gouverneur Warren was asked his opinions on command in the Union army.

Question: And there seems to be a want of determination and resolution in our aggressive movements?

Warren: One defect in the corps commanders is that, I think, they do not go enough to the front to see for themselves; they rely too much upon the directions and information sent to them; they do not depend enough upon their own knowledge.

Question: Do they approach the enemy near enough to feel of him, and find out in that way?
Warren: I do not think they do.  I think there is too much reporting "the enemy in force," or "the enemy in position," when there is nothing there.  False reports have been the real cause of our failures.

Question: And this over-caution in approaching the enemy seems to be the reason that you do not know more of them?

Warren: Yes, sir; that is it.

Character is key to the command system known as 'mission command', and character was a trait lacking in the Union generals that Henderson notes - McClellan, Pope, and Fremont.  Character was also lacking in Hooker, among others.  A commander must have the humility to see that he does not have all of the answers and humility to see that his subordinates know and understand things that he does not.  A commander must have the character to trust his subordinates and support their decisions regardless of their results.  All levels of command must work selflessly together as a team.  After the battle of Bristoe Station, Lee was upset with the decisions of AP Hill, but rather than criticize him and discourage his initiative, Lee is purported to have said to an apologetic Hill, "Well, well, general, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it."  In the Union Army of the Potomac, in contrast, generals would bicker and undermine each other and even take their complaints to the President.

The President and the Secretary of War became too deeply involved in decisions - this made possible by communication technology.  Lecomte writes (p76-77):

"The telegraphs are managed with not less boldness and activity.  In the Army of the Potomac, for example, the staff of the general in command rarely stops more than two or three days without being connected with all its divisions, and with the Government at Washington.  Whether it were on the boats at anchor in the bays, or in the midst of the marshes of the Peninsula of Yorktown, or in the bosoms of thick forests, while the routs were not even traced for the wagons, one could see rising all around him the network of wires with wondrous rapidity.  More than one officer of the staff has recovered his direction in the forests of Virgina by means of the posts, or the trees truncated for this purpose, of the telegraphists, - and the latter have often unrolled their wires as rapidly as the army marched."

"The telegraph connected not only the various fractions of one and the same army, but also the different armies themselves together, through the medium of the central office at Washington.  The Government has thus at each instant, and at pleasure, news of the operations over many hundred leagues of extent."

 Political problems within the Army of the Potomac combined with its top-down command mentality made for a dysfunctional organization.  Let's take a look at the Grant/Meade era, a time when the worst of the army's problems were seemingly in the past.  Subordinates were still given specific instructions with little latitude to think for themselves.  At the Wilderness, one of Warren's divisions was sent forward to Saunder's Field without support on its flanks despite Warren's protests.  Another division with the opportunity to remain on the high ground at the Chewning Farm was ordered to pull back.  At Spotsylvania, Warren was ordered to attack when this was an obvious waste of human life.  Having not been given simple, common sense discretion, by the time of the battle at Cold Harbor, Union troops - from corps commander to private - were taking discretion.  Instead of wasting lives in suicidal attacks, many units instead made only token attacks.  This sabotaged any hopes of success that neighboring units had,making the broader effort futile.  In Michael Bonura's "Under the Shadow of Napoleon" the author argues that Grant's orders for the failed June 3, 1864 attack at Cold Harbor gave corps commanders the freedom to manage the attacks as they thought best.  As admirable as this may be, these very corps commanders were deeply pessimistic of the attack, and their views were not sought or welcomed - they were ignored, and many men died in a fruitless attack.  Emory Upton, an exception, successfully lobbied that his brigade sit out the attack; in letters home he railed against lazy and incompetent general officers.  Upton was critical of Grant.  In recent books by Frank Varney and Joseph Rose, Grant, likely because of insecurities, felt the need to control subordinates or, failing that, he ruined their careers.  

Subordinates must be encouraged to think for themselves - told what to do, but not how to do it.  Their input and ideas must be sought.  This makes the most of their intellect and talents and prepares them for higher command.  This was Napoleon's way, and this would be the way of the German Army in World War II, which is the model for the current US Army system of "mission command" or "operational analysis".  To deprive commanders of discretion invites the failings of a top-down system, just like in a totalitarian government - or a business where the CEO doesn't want to hear bad news.  Lee's Confederate army was far from perfect -  but at least in terms of its system and philosophy of command, it was clearly superior. 

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Bassford, Christopher, Clausewitz in English

Michael A. Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon

J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.,  Buff Facings and Gilt Buttons

Bowden and Ward,  Last Chance For Victory

DeChanal, The American Army in the War of Secesion

David Chandler, Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, TheCampaigns of Napoleon

Phillip Cole,  Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, Command and Communications Frictions in the Gettysburg Campaign

Jean Colin,  Transformations of Warfare

Christopher Duffy,  Instrument of War: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War

Lee W. Eysturlid, The Formative Influences, Theories, and Campaigns of the Archduke Carl of Austria

Steven Fratt, The Guns of Gettysburg - North & South August 2004

Gates, David, The British Light Infantry Arm, c. 1790-1815

Paddy Griffith  Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Forward Into Battle, Battle

Edward Hagerman, The Civil War and the Origin of Modern Warfare

William Hazen, A Narrative of Military Service

GFR Henderson, The Science of War

GFR Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War

Earl Hess, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War

Earl Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics

Ian Hope, A Scientific Way of War

Wayne Hsieh, West Pointers and the Civil War

BP Hughes,  Firepower

Prince de Joinville, The Army of the Potomac

Robert K Krick, Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain

Moten, Matthew, The Delafield Commission and the American Military Profession

Brent Nosworthy Anatomy of Victory, With Cannon Musket and Sword, The Bloody Crucible of Courage

Lt. Jacques Arnould Obreen, De Noord-Amerikaansche oorlog van 1861-1865

Peter Paret, The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806

Christopher Perello, The Quest for Annihilation

Robert Quimby, Background of Napoleonic Warfare

Fred Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy  

Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other

Justus Scheibert, A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer

Bernard Christian Steiner and David Nelson Camp, Life of Henry Barnard The First United States Commissioner of Education, 1867-1870

Jim Stempel, The Battle of Glendale

Frank Varney, General Grant and the Rewriting of History

Arthur Wagner, Organisation and Tactics

SGP Ward, Wellington's Headquarters

Geoffrey Wawro,  The Austro-Prussian War, The Franco-Prussian War



Copyright 2008-24, John Hamill


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