The Civil War and General Jim Mattis: Command relationship “trust up and down the chain” (Part 3)

This series was inspired by Jim Mattis’s Call Sign Chaos.  In Part II, we looked at the relationships between Lincoln, Grant and Sherman to see how trust, respect, and communication aided senior Union leadership in their use of a multi-directional command style from 1864–1865.

Now, for the final installment in this series, what about the Confederates, and is there an example illustrating trust up and down the chain?  The answer is, “Yes.”  There is a great illustration at the grand tactics or operational level.  During the Second Manassas Campaign (August 9-September 3, 1862), at least two instances show how trust, respect, and communication benefited General R. E. Lee and his senior subordinates, Major Generals Thomas Jackson and James Longstreet.

General Lee accepted command of the Confederate forces in the eastern theater just three weeks before his first large-scale campaign, the Seven Days Campaign (June 25-July 1, 1862).  The operation . . . well, he and a few of his senior officers had a not-so-great performance.  Lee was physically run down, and his planning was plagued by unreliable maps.  Jackson had a rough campaign as well.  He was late attacking at Savage Station, and his advance was checked at Frazier Farm.  Despite these setbacks, other commanders stepped up.  Longstreet and Major General Ambrose P. Hill performed well, as did Major General D. H. Hill and Major General William Whiting.  In the end, the Confederates prevailed.

After the victories of the Seven Days, Lee rested the Army of Northern Virginia (65,000) and intently observed the Union forces.[1]  His main opponent, Major General George McClellan, appeared to be nursing his wounds as the Army of the Potomac (100,000) lay idle and recovering at Harrison’s Landing under the guns of the Union navy.  What worried Lee was a second Union army.  In early July 1862, Major General John Pope began organizing a new force, the Army of Virginia (51,000), in Northern Virginia.  If Lee hesitated, his army could get caught between two armies.  He had to act swiftly and decisively.

What happened?  Lee remained confident in himself and his men and made an intuitive decision.  He first divided his army into two large corps or wings.  He gave one corps to Longstreet and directed him to remain near Richmond and watch McClellan.  As to the other, Lee gave Jackson command.  Why Jackson?!  Wasn’t he the one who failed to get his soldiers to the battlefield on time at Seven Days?!  That is the one.  Look, Lee knew outside circumstances had hindered Jackson in the peninsula.  The General also was aware that his senior commander was quite competent as the two had worked together during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  In the Valley, Jackson proved he operated well independently and executed directives in a timely manner as he could push his “foot cavalry” beyond accepted Army norms.  He also had become  quite familiar with Northern Virginia and the Union division commanders who were assembling in that region.  Lee trusted his subordinate’s capabilities, so much so that he unleashed his initiative by giving him discretionary orders to take half of the Army of Northern Virginia ahead, along with some cavalry, push toward Gordonsville and meet Pope’s threat closer to Washington City.  Jackson concurred with the directive and began moving out in mid-July.

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

For about six weeks, Jackson operated on his own, hunting down and engaging the enemy.  He first struck a contingency from Pope’s army at Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County on August 9.  Again, Jackson’s performance was less than stellar but superior numbers and his own personal bravery on the field salvaged a victory.  The defeated Union corps withdrew back toward Pope’s main force.  In an effort to finish off his wounded prey, Jackson moved around Pope, cut his supply line at Manassas Junction, and waited to ambush the retreating Federals.  Jackson hit them at Brawner’s Farm late in the afternoon on August 28, 1862.  The Union troops, though, held their position and escaped utter destruction.

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

Both sides now maneuvered in the early morning of August 29, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Manassas.  Pope ordered his army to concentrate around the Bull Run battlefield, north of Manassas Junction.  Four corps from the Army of the Potomac and the Kanawha Division also made their way to reinforce him.  Pope had 62–77,000 men at his disposal.  Jackson met this threat by deploying his divisions in a strong defensive line in an unfinished railroad cut from Warrenton Turnpike toward Sudley Springs.  He counted less than 30,000 as Longstreet’s corps was still fighting its way to the region.[2]

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

The heaviest fighting of the Second Battle of Manassas lasted two days.  Mid-morning of August 29, the Union guns opened up.  Pope then launched a series of uncoordinated assaults along Jackson’s line.  The blue-clad waves slammed into the grey defenders and melted in front of the railroad cut; but, as the minutes ticked by, the Confederates began running out of ammunition.  The Union troops broke through at one point; Jackson reacted by throwing reinforcements into the gap.  It was a desperate, bloody fight from late morning into the evening.  On August 30, Longstreet’s divisions (25-30,000) smashed into the Union’s left flank.  Though the Union troops held their ground against this onslaught, Pope began withdrawing his army that night.  The next day the Confederates struck again and hurried their adversaries retreat along.

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

Hold on . . . where’s the other incident showing trust, respect, and communication?  That occurred during the battle.  On August 29, Lee and Longstreet had a running command-feedback discussion.  It started when the latter arrived on the field about the time the Union guns opened up, 10:00 a.m., and deployed his divisions on Jackson’s right flank.[3]  Lee hoped Longstreet’s vanguard could attack “as soon as practicable.” [4]  The exact location of the enemy, however, was unknown in this sector.  Longstreet asked if he could confirm who was on his right flank and how many Union soldiers.  Permission was given.  The reconnaissance found Major General John F. Porter’s V Corps tucked away on Longstreet’s right flank.  If he attacked, his right flank would be exposed.  Lee was disappointed, yet he listened to Longstreet and kept his subordinate’s divisions in line of battle.[5]  By late afternoon of August 29, the Union corps was no longer threatening the Confederate right flank.  Lee ordered Longstreet to make a full-scale assault and relieve pressure on Jackson.[6]  This time Longstreet asked if he could wait as it was too late in the day.  He proposed instead to make a “reconnaissance in force” just before nightfall and follow up in the morning with a full-scale assault on Pope’s left flank.[7]  Lee thought for a moment and then consented.[8]  The rest is history.

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW

In my assessment, the Second Manassas Campaign remains Lee’s greatest operation and shows how trust, respect, and communication allowed him and his senior lieutenants to establish a strong command relationship and, in turn, overcome overwhelming odds.  With the threat of getting caught between two armies, Lee acted swiftly and decisively and used an autocratic method with Jackson, ordering him on his mission.  The subordinate, in turn, complied without deliberation.  Conversely, the General employed a multidirectional approach with Longstreet, and the two had a discussion, nothing more.  Longstreet was not being insubordinate or trying to control Lee as suggested by one of Jackson’s officers.[9]  Was it the best time to have a debate?  No, time was of the essence here as well.  All the same, reacting too fast could have been a disaster, and Longstreet had a responsibility to protect his corps from getting flanked or hit from the rear.  Moreover, as the senior commander, Lee at any time could have said “General, take your corps immediately in,” but he didn’t.  He respected and trusted Longstreet’s judgment.  Now, none of this academic discussion takes away the agony Jackson’s men, like my ancestor in the 7th Tennessee, endured in that railroad cut.[10]  It was sheer determination and a miracle the line held until Longstreet’s corps made their assault, compelling Pope to retreat and sending his army back across Bull Run, much the same as the year before. 

Further Reading:

Henderson, G. F. R.  Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War, vol. 2.

Hennessy, John.  Return to Bull Run.

Longstreet, James. From Manassas to Appomattox.

O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 12, pt. 2, 546–51.

[1] All numbers provided are approximate.  All maps are from the open-source, Wikipedia. 

[2] Lee and Longstreet’s corps began catching up to Jackson August 13, 1862.

[3] General Lee sites Union artillery starting their bombardment around 10:00 a.m. on August 29, see R. E. Lee’s official report in O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 12, pt. 2, 555.  For the time Longstreet arrived see Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, 180–81.

[4] Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, 181. Phrase sound familiar, hint Gettysburg?

[5] Longstreet, “Our March Against Pope,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 2, 519.

[6] This was around 5:00 p.m., see John Hennessy, Return to Bull Run, 460–61.

[7] Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, 183.

[8] Longstreet, “Our March Against Pope,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 2, 520.

[9] G. F. R., Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War, vol. 2, 201–02.

[10] John Hennessy covers the debate quite well, Return to Bull Run, 459–61.

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4 Responses to The Civil War and General Jim Mattis: Command relationship “trust up and down the chain” (Part 3)

  1. David Corbett says:

    Enjoyable article. I agree, this probably was Lee’s best offensive battle.

  2. William T. Anderson says:

    “War at the speed of trust.” Another great quote from Gen Mattis.

  3. That show of trust reminds me of when Warren refused to charge at Mine Run and the Wilderness when Meade gave the order to charge the Confederate earthworks. Reading about that show of insubordination astounded me, but it saved lives, just as Longstreet’s call to check his flank saved lives. Great article! Thank you!

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