Military Theory, Education, and Command Style

Ideology and Military Education

In the mid-1800s,
when Winfield Scott adopted French manuals and methods for the army, the French influence on the American army began. (see Michael Bonura's "Under the Shadow of Napoleon")   Despite the translation of French drill manuals, there was little or no attention given to foreign techniques for the management of large armies.  McClellan's study of the Crimean War, for example, made mention of minutia but nothing of staffs.  Henry Halleck's book spent little time with staff duties and instead referred the reader to a number of other books.  Why should there have been this neglect?  Only the Mexican army was a threat, and they had been easily thrashed!  Edward Hagerman, in "The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare" argues that ideology explains the stunted staff development.  A standing army was distrusted in the English-speaking world, and a Prussian style general staff, or even a French style staff, was seen as another step toward a militaristic and anti-democratic state.  William T Sherman, on page 405 of his memoirs confirms this, writing, "(Staff officers) too commonly construe themselves into the elite, as made of better clay than the common soldier...  This is all wrong; utterly at variance with our democratic form of government..."  Despite this prejudice against a general staff, after the war, General William Hazen recommended a Prussian style general staff and a school to go along with it, stating that although West Point and its cadets were good, the academy was not adequate for the purpose of preparing staff officers.  But real staff reform would only come decades later.  

Ideology affected military education as well as staffs.  Historian Carol Reardon points to an American Romantic era mentality that was sympathetic to the genius concept  - it was believed that formal education actually hindered the development of a natural genius.  George Washington and Andrew Jackson had been successful commanders without formal military education, after all.  
Although a few schools for post West Point education were established, they did not last long.  Some doubt the the quality of the students at West Point.  Education reformer Henry Barnard in 1863 spoke out for competitive examinations for entry into West Point and against the system of appointment by members of Congress, a system that he believed resulted in many unsuitable appointments - he stated that of 54 new students at West Point, only 10 were fit to enter high school. (Steiner 95)  For that matter, many historians doubt whether a West Point education provided Civil War commanders much in the way of theoretical background.  Engineering curriculum at West Point, many believe, hampered a cadet's ability to understand war and stifled creativity, making officers poorly prepared for a large war.  Winfield Scott doubted the wisdom of West Point's extreme focus on math, and faculty even suggested that more attention be given to the arts.  In 1819, General Wool stated that great victories, "were not achieved by the 'rule and compass' or measurement of angles.  They were the product of enlarged minds, highly cultivated and improved by a constant and accurate survey of human events."  (Hope 72)  None other than Henry Halleck wrote about the ante-bellum army, "Our standing army is but a bad and ill-organized militia, and our militia not better than a mob.  Nor have defects in these been supplied by Lycees, Prytanees, and Polytechnic schools.  The morbid patriotism of some, and the false economy of others, have nearly obliterated every thing like military knowledge among us."  Field service did little to improve the situation.  Famously, Richard Ewell stated that during his service in the West, he learned everything about commanding fifty dragoons and forgot everything else - not exactly a ringing endorsement of officers' preparation for high command.  None other than Ulysses Grant, a veteran of the Mexican War, had never seen a battalion drill together and only came across a copy of Hardee's tactics manual early in the Civil War.  Jacob Cox, a volunteer who rose corps command, wrote about post West Point study (p185),

"How far the officers of the engineers and of the staff corps applied themselves to general military study, would depend upon their taste and their leisure.  Their opportunities for doing so were much better than those of line officers, but there was also a tendency to immerse themselves in the studies of their special department of work.  Very eminent officers of engineers have told me since the war that the pressure of their special professional work was such that they had found no time to read even the more noteworthy publications concerning the history of our great struggle."

Cox went on the explain the difficulties officers faced to continue their educations on their own (p187):

"The valuable books were all foreign publications in costly form with folio atlases, and were neither easy to procure nor easily carried about with the limited means and the rigid economy of transportation which marked army life in the far West."

In a footnote, Cox recounts Congressional testimony from John Gibbon, an artillerist, showing how little historical knowledge professional, West Point educated officers had:

"Question:  You have studied the history of battles a great deal: Now, in the battles of Napoleon, had they at any time half as many artillery engaged as there were at Gettysburg. 
Answer:  I am not sufficiently conversant with military history to tell you that.  I think it very doubtful whether more guns were ever used in any one battle before."

But at Gettysburg, Cox states, 200 guns were used while at Leipzig in 1813, 2,000 were used.  Cox believed that armies learning the hard way was an unfortunate necessity - "the history of European conflicts proves that there also the theoretical preparation of military men had not, up to that time, saved them from the necessity of learning both generalship and army administration in the terrible school of experience, in the first year in the field when a new war broke out after a long interval of peace." 

To Cox, the personal attributes of a commander were much more important than education.  European experience,

"like ours, showed that the personal qualities of a commanding officer counted for much more than his theoretical equipment, and that a bold heart, a cool head, and practical common sense were of much more imprtance than anything taught at school.  With these, a brief experience would enable an intelligent man to fill nearly any subordinate position with fair success...  The supreme qualification of a general in chief is the power to estimate truly and grasp clearly the situation on a field of operations too large to be seen by the physical eye at once, and the undaunted temper of will which enables him to execute with persistent vigor the plan which his intellect approves... With (proper qualities) his acquired knowledge will be doubly useful, but without it an illiterate slave-trader like Forrest may far outshine him as a soldier."


In "A Scientific Way of War", Ian Hope differs with the negative assessment of American military education, noting that West Point was designed in opposition to the genius system, that its purpose was to make all officers competent rather than rely on the genius of a few, and he believes that it largely succeeded in this.  The curriculum, Hope believes, although heavy on science and math and engineering,  incorporated enough study of military principles and military history, to make a reasonably well rounded officer.  Student papers submitted to the voluntary Napoleon Club could be 30-60 pages in length or even longer.  (Hope 179)  Additionally, cadets were trained to be members of any and all of the branches.  The philosophy underlying West Point was that war should be studied scientifically - that it could be completely understood through science.  In 1893, JB Wheeler suggested that through the application of scientific principles, chance in war might be eliminated.  Although Hope doesn't say so, this is obviously an improper use of science - scientism - the belief in the universal applicability of science to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.  We can only wonder what harm has been caused by this deluded philosophy over the decades.  Dennis Hart Mahan wanted officers to use good judgment in the field, and he hoped to teach cadets how to think.  But Mahan, at least regarding engineering matters, although he did not want students to slavishly follow prescribed methods, he discouraged debate and encouraged learning by rote, thinking that debate would lessen time spent on gaining knowledge and would compromise faith in principles.  This type of thinking solidified doctrine, potentially to the point of making it dogma.  (Hope 197-9)

This so called 'scientific way of war' was inspired by Enlightenment ideals.  Enlightenment military theory focused on maneuver strategy, elevating strategy to a science while believing that tactics were an art.  It taught that strict regulations on commanders were necessary and that the chaos of battle should be avoided in favor of 'predictable' maneuver.  Prussian theorist Heinrich von Bulow went so far as to state that battle was the result of mistakes.  Enlightenment theorists sought universal concepts; to them, the rules of war were mechanical and could be taught.  Archduke Carl of Austria wanted obedience to orders rather than subordinates take initiative or use creativity.  He believed that a focus on tactics rather than strategy invariably led to a long, indecisive conflict - his objective was to force peace terms on the enemy rather than destroy his army.

These Enlightenment views contrasted with the newer Romantic view, exemplified by Carl von Clausewitz, that war was inherently chaotic - a view embraced by the Prussian army that met with great success in the years following the American Civil War.  Clausewitz and the Prussian way came about only after the disastrous 1806 campaign in which Napoleon crushed the militaristic Prussian state.  Although Clausewitz was highly theoretical, the Romantic view placed more attention on the specifics of a situation rather than slavishly following theory, and it allowed for subjective judgments - it allowed initiative to subordinates.  Theory, to the Romantics, must take into account things like psychology, morale, and the political situation - things that geometry and math cannot explain.  Army command, in Clausewitz's mind should go to the creative, and the commander should be guided by theory but not see theory as something that should precisely guide him.  Clausewitz and the more realistic Romantic way of thinking gained renown and credence only after Prussian successes in 1866 and 1870; Civil War era Americans had been exposed to Prussian ways, but the Prussian system had not yet proven its superiority.
  Ironically, Clausewitz's way of thinking would have been more acceptable to practical-minded English speakers, who tend to be skeptical of theory because it often fails to take into account the specifics of a situation. 

Pictures can be worth a thousand words - Enlightenment art at left; Romantic art at right

West Point, Ian Hope argues, although it was based on Enlightenment ideals and focused on math and science, provided a much better preparation for high command than it is often given credit for, and, he argues, prepared the cadets well for both staff work and for serving as general officers.  True or not, the Union and Confederate armies shared the same background.  Wayne Hsieh points out that many of the decisive battles of world history were fought between radically different armies in which one side had a clear advantage.  In contrast, the commanders of Civil War armies had the exact same military backgrounds so neither side had a clear advantage in terms of doctrine or system of command.  This, Hsieh argues, contributed to the indecisive nature of Civil War combat, and there is much truth to this argument.  

There was little staff tradition in the army, and when civil war broke out, few people had the insight or knowledge to see a better way - or perhaps more importantly, the desire to challenge the status quo.  Faulty staff work all too often ruined good plans with the potential for decisive results.  Former West Point cadets, raised to the highest levels of command during the Civil War, left barely trained volunteer officers to serve on staffs.  Even Lee, perhaps the greatest commander that the war produced, despite increasing the number of couriers to transmit orders, sought to economize on his staff.  



Command Style


Obreen had this to say about Americans and orders:

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

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)  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 his staff 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 to begin the attack.  Instead, Alexander agreed to simply tell Pickett when 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."  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.  On the second day, in an abuse of the system, Sickles took the initiative - contrary to orders - to advance his line forward.  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 resul 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, wrote, "The subordinate generals... showed no initiative and waited for orders instead of improving the opportunity."  In Congressional testimony about the Gettysburg Campaign, Gouvernor 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.  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 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.

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 problem were 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 two recent books, Frank Varney shows that Grant, likely because of insecurities, felt the need to control subordinates or, if that was impossible, 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

David Chandler, Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, The Campaigns 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

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

Arthur Wagner, Organisation and Tactics

SGP Ward, Wellington's Headquarters

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



Copyright 2008-20, John Hamill


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