Question of the Week 12/14 – 12/20


This week’s QotW comes from Chris Kolakowski who asks,

“In this post ( I discuss two leaders who rose to the occasion when threatened with catastrophic failure and destruction. Can you think of others who have done the same? In contrast, what leaders fumbled at similar moments?”

10 Responses to Question of the Week 12/14 – 12/20

  1. Grant’s decision at Ft Donelson to attack with his left when he learned his right was falling back under heavy pressure. Prentiss’ stand in the Hornets Nest at Shiloh to buy time to secure the landing & build up for the counterattack. Thomas stand at Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga. Hancock’s decision on July 2nd to launch the 2nd Minnesota’s suicide counter attack to save the Federal center after Sickles Peach Orchard debacle.

  2. As to one who rose to the occasion: General Lee in the Maryland Campaign, first deciding to curtail the campaign and reunite the Army on or south of the Potomac (akin to Gort’s decision), then deciding to stand at Antietam upon receiving the word of Harper’s Ferry surrender (akin to Rosecrans’ or better Thomas’ decisions, as Lee displayed a serious calm around his subordinates that was quite different from Rosecrans’ frantic and irate displays on his battlefields).

    Yet, Gort is praised for saving his army at Dunkirk while McClellan is reviled for curtailing the Seven Days Campaign and “shifting base” to Harrison’s Landing, when his flank is crushed and his supply line imperiled at Gaines Mill. I must think about the distinction between these decisions.

  3. Interesting comment David, as I would argue McClellan (along with Hooker at Chancellorsville) was an example of one who fumbled. Gort committed all his reserve and was about to be cut off from the coast, after the German thrust to Abbeville cut the BEF’s landward communications into the French interior.

    McClellan made two decisions that contrast with Gort’s reaction. First, McClellan insufficiently supported Porter’s corps north of the Chickahominy and failed to take any other positive action allowing Lee to dictate the battle – this in contrast to Gort’s attack at Arras and subsequent redeployment of the BEF to meet the dual threats to its rear. McClellan was right to change his base to the James after Gaines Mill, but the entire Army of the Potomac did not also have to retreat to the river – unlike Gort, McClellan did not face the prospect of being surrounded away from his waterborne support.

    The essential difference is this: Gort and Rosecrans met the threat actively, gripping the battle as best they could and acting positively to use all the resources at their command to weather the crisis.

  4. Grant at Donelson, Shiloh and in the Wilderness: attacked and in danger of losing the various battles, he calmly made the appropriate decisions to stabilize and then attack. Part of his greatness was his demeanor, appearing to everyone that he had everything well under control. Indeed, IIRC, in the Wilderness someone saw USG in his tent, beating his fists on the ground. But when Grant walked out he was totally in control.

    You mentioned Rosecrans at Stones River. In contrast is Old Rosie’s erratic behavior at Chickamauga where he lost control of what was happening, leading directly to Wood’s being ordered out of the line, leaving the gap Longstreet hit. Then Rosecrans rode off to Chattanooga, abandoning his army.

    Of course, McClellan ran off from the Malvern Hill battlefield, and hid out on a navy gunboat.

    My favorite hard military decision occurred at about 2130 hours British Double Summer Time, 4 June 1944, when Eisenhower had to make the decision on whether to invade France and possibly create a national disaster which might lead to German victory over Europe or attempt a two-week delay – which, as it turned out would have been in the middle of a major storm. Ike told that the weather was marginal and the airborne troops would be massacred. He said to go, and then wrote out a press release announcing the failure of the invasion, and he was withdrawing the troops. “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

    Can anyone imagine McClellan writing such a message? It is easy to see Grant or Lee writing it.

    1. Excellent example from 1944, and one that illustrates the point perfectly. Taking the mantle of command is not something that should be assumed lightly.

  5. Successful examples: Lee at Chancellorsville! And how about Union General Hancock at Gettysburg.
    For not successful attempts, Union General Banks in the Shenandoah Valley (1862) and McClellan come to mind.

  6. Cox at Franklin. The Confederates were breaking through because of Wagner’s mistake, and he rallied his troops to stem the tide.

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