Symposium Fallout: Is Leading from the Front All that Bad?

This weekend’s symposium gave me a lot to think about on my drive home from the Jackson Shrine on Sunday. The thought bubbles did not stop popping up when I got home either. There was a lot to think about regarding turning points–they come on the battlefield as well as the homefront and in various shapes, sizes, and iterations.

Do we think Jackson’s decision to reconnoiter in front of his lines on the night of May 2, 1863, was a poor decision because it led to his death?

But there was one strain of thought I could not get out of my head, dealing with the important actions (perhaps turning points) of three leaders: Albert Sidney Johnston on April 6, 1862, Stonewall Jackson on the night of May 2, 1863, and John Reynolds on July 1, 1863. All received some criticism over the weekend for not being in their proper places when they were shot. Surely, Johnston was too close to the front lines to direct his army on April 6, Jackson was wrong to ride out in front of his lines on the night of May 2 and Reynolds made a poor decision on the morning of July 1, my fellow conversationalists reasoned. But, with the gift of hindsight, do we view their actions negatively because, in the end, they are mortally wounded or killed?

Examples abound of leaders commanding attacks or rallying troops that we also view as heroic, that are the stuff of battlefield legend. James Longstreet and D.H. Hill after the collapse of the Sunken Road position at Antietam, Stonewall Jackson rallying his troops at Cedar Mountain, William T. Sherman at Shiloh (though he was wounded), and George Meade on Gettysburg’s second day, are just a few examples that come to mind. These actions, which required commanders to put themselves on the front lines and in harm’s way, often come out in a more positive light. Again, none of them resulted in the death of these commanders.

Part of being an effective battlefield leader is not just having a good strategy or knowing tactics well. It’s also about inspiring your troops to carry out one’s tactical prowess, especially in trying times. John Reynolds, a native Pennsylvanian, no doubt sought to inspire his soldiers when he led them into the Herbst Woods on July 1, 1863. There are numerous examples of Albert Sidney Johnston trying to do the same with his green soldiers on April 6.

Winfield Scott Hancock’s famous words on July 3, 1863 sum up this concept best. With Confederate artillery shells sailing over his head and over his troops, an unnerving phenomenon no doubt, Hancock mounted his horse and rode up and down the lines so that his soldiers saw him. His men lay huddled behind a stonewall, some scraping into the ground to create as much cover as possible. An officer soon implored Hancock to dismount and head to the rear for safety. “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count,” Hancock replied.

Hancock’s July 3 ride has become the stuff of legend. This Dale Gallon painting portrays it and it is heroically shown in the movie “Gettysburg.”

Hancock did not mean that his life did not count. What he meant was at that trying time for his troops, his role as a corps commander was defunct. As a corps commander, he should have been behind the lines, directing the movements of his corps. Instead, Hancock adopted the other part of being an effective battlefield commander, of being a leader and setting an inspiring example, of promising to not send his troops into a place where he would not accompany them and showing that.

Getting shot while out on the front lines does not make an army or corps commander a bad one or necessarily make their decision to ride along the front lines a poor one. With hindsight, we can pick and choose what moments on Civil War battlefields where generals placed themselves at the decisive point of action were a good decision or a bad one based on the known outcome. Regardless, as was discussed multiple times at the symposium, a general inspiring his soldiers to stand firm in stressful situations or one becoming a casualty under fire can be a true turning point on a battlefield.

17 Responses to Symposium Fallout: Is Leading from the Front All that Bad?

  1. If you ask Sheridan his expectation of leading from the front and whether Gov Warren should lead from the front, you’d get a direct answer

    1. I don’t quite understand your point, but if you are somehow implying that Warren did not lead from the front, you are mistaken. No one every questioned Warren’s personal bravery in the heat of battle. Look at his actions at Gaines’s Mill, Second Manassas, and Spotsylvania, to name a few. The problem at Five Forks was that Warren was not within arms reach of Sheridan during Sheridan’s moment of rage and instead Warren was attached to another division at that moment. Also, Sheridan was looking for any excuse to fire Warren.

      1. I think Eric Wittenberg has given us some good discussion points about Sheridan. And any objective look at Five Forks probably requires rejection of Little Phil’s allegations.

  2. The most obvious example of consistently leading from the front is Nathan Bedford Forrest. In his Farewell Address he said “I have never asked you to go where I was unwilling to go myself.” His soldiers knew that was true.

  3. Good question, Kevin. I’d draw a distinction between defensive crises, like the ones you cite above with Hancock, Longstreet, and the like, and offensive operations when the commander seems to usurp a role of a lower-ranking commander. In a defensive crisis, the leader needs to be present and active in rallying troops. I’d go so far as to say that senior leadership is key to success or failure in those moments.

    As one who criticizes Old Jack, Reynolds, and to a lesser extent Johnston, my criticism is more about the fact they’re the only men on the field who have a full understanding of the situation and in at least two cases, the offensive plan. In short, the battle’s course hinges in fair measure on them and their decisions. They need to focus more on things that only they can do, otherwise the mission’s success is imperiled. Given that, their decisions to do things that others could just as easily do is being out of place.

    Coincidentally, this view above is why his troops four times send “Lee to the Rear” at Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

    Other leaders who have led from the front have made sure others (staff and/or subordinates) are briefed and prepared if they are out of touch or become a casualty. See the Army of Tennessee when McPherson goes down, Erwin Rommel 1940-42, or Robert Eichelberger at Buna.

  4. At high command levels leading from the front has always been a bad idea IMHO. Especially at army and corps levels, in the 19th century a commander could not be doing his job by acting like a field officer. He would be reducing his effective command radius from army/corps at a centralized location to those who could hear him or see him. I don’t discount the occasional inspirational effect – Sheridan at CC, Grant at Shiloh – but the cost benefit analysis argued against it. That’s the reason I don’t believe that a Phil Kearney was suited for anything above the division level of command. His near-killing on the Peninsula and his ultimate death at Chantilly showed why. Chris makes some good points. I might disagree with the point that this sort of leadership was appropriate on the defensive – again because of the limited scope of actual command a leader could exercise even in those cases – but it’s certainly a plausible position. This became recognized more and more as our military evolved. It’s why Eisenhower, Bradley, et al. were not out in the lead tank or Nimitz on the bridge of a heavy cruiser. Dugout Doug wasn’t either although he purveyed the image (such as the orchestrated photo shoot in the surf at Leyte, which required 3 or 4 takes).

  5. It depends on the situation. Period. George Washington’s performance at Monmouth was an example of superb leadership ‘from the front’. While both sides lost commanders both good and bad during the Civil War because those commanders were in the front, the Confederacy in particular seemed to pay such a heavy price because of this. I always wondered if the fact that they tended to have much smaller command staffs contributed to that? Lee was known to perform mundane tasks best suited for staff work, because his staff was so small. Their generals often HAD to be out front so they could get the situational information they needed. And much of that is perfectly understandable, given how fluid battlefield situations could be, and that signals communications could be impacted by enemy movements, smoke, etc. Plus the routes couriers might have to take to dispatch and/or receive orders and sitreps could be interdicted at any given time. So many other variables put leaders out front.

  6. Washington at Monmouth is probably the best test case. While his exploit was the quintessential turning point in the battle, and battle as something of a turning point in terms of proving the American army had come of age, losing that battle would not have meant losing the war. By contrast, had Washington been killed the rebellion quite possibly would have failed. It comes down to risk versus reward regardleschs of whether they lived or died.

    1. True One thing to keep in mind about the AWI is that the armies were much smaller than in the ACW, the largest formations were the equivalent of divisions in the later war, and combat was generally linear and relatively compact (although somewhat more open as it evolved than on the Continent). Staffs were also correspondingly smaller or non-existent. So command and control were possible/necessary even though the commander was closer to the front. I think your conclusion about the effects of Washington being killed is on point. Good thing that Patrick Ferguson decided to play by gentlemen’s rules at Brandywine.

  7. I agree that the mentality of the 19th Century leader and soldier was for his commander to show courage and leadership at the proper time. I.E. to encourage his men to stand up to the enemy who were facing them in the heat of battle. But I think it is an entirely different set of circumstances and thought process for a leader to lead his own reconnaissance mission especially at night, and between the lines of two armies that had just finished savagely fighting each other in a death struggle. This type of misplaced action can only lead to disaster, which it did in the case of Jackson at Chancellorsville.

    1. That’s an important point. Jackson wasn’t killed leading from the front. He was riding around in the gloaming and in heavily wooded terrain on a scouting mission. An obvious job for a staff officer, at most. The irony is that Sumner has been blasted for eons because in the West Woods he was riding at the head of Sedgwick’s division rather than exercising proper c&c (see, for example, Catton in Mr. Lincoln’s Army). Yet Stonewall has been largely immune from criticism for also acting like a cavalry subaltern.

    2. A good point Ted, but here is another consideration. At least some of those officers tended to do things that had served their purposes in the past. Jackson’s reconnaissance at Chancellorsville was not the first time he had done such a thing. And it is possible that Jackson is more of a unique case, given that he was a bonafide ‘odd duck’ in the way he engaged in his affairs (like not communicating to his subordinates). Him ascertaining his own information seems perfectly understandable given his personality and his methods. Not smart, but understandable.

      1. Doug,

        I think you said it all about “Old Jack”. But, I wonder sometimes about his, shall we say, inability to trust others that deserved his trust. Maybe it was his entire life, if there was anyone who could be said was a “self made man”, it was Jackson. I am of the opinion that this description fits his personality to a tee. But is this a good attribute for a combat leader to have? Especially for one who commands troops in the 19th Century?

  8. As a Post script, I remembered that A.P. Hill was also out that night on a reconnaissance mission (Chris brought up this fact at his battlefield talk last week). As a result, he was also wounded by a artillery barrage and incapacitated to the point that he was unable to continue his responsibilities as a division commander and saying nothing of him being able to take on the additional responsibilities of being Jackson’s replacement. So, the two top commanders of Jackson’s Corps were physically removed from command at a critical time in one horrendous incident. .

    1. Good point. The ultimate irony is that Hill was killed on April 2, 1865 doing something similar, Hardly a game-changing event at that point but another illustration of why it was generally just a bad idea.

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