Cut These Guys Some Slack

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about combat leadership in the Civil War and elsewhere – specifically senior leadership. Sometimes I wonder if we judge commanders, especially early-war and mid-war commanders, too harshly.

Looking back through the lens of conflict after 1861, we sometimes miss factors that commanders had to deal with between 1861 and 1863. Corps and armies have been a feature of every American war since 1861, giving leaders examples (and often staff experiences in those commands) of how to move and fight such large organizations. Those examples and experiences were not available to the officers of the first half of the Civil War.

Three factors need to be kept in mind when considering the performance of Civil War commanders. Let me explain.

In no particular order, they are:

1. Size. The armies of the Civil War were the largest formations ever fielded in American history to that time. Before the summer of 1861, the largest force commanded in battle by an American was George Washington’s 17,000-strong Franco-American army at Yorktown in 1781. By contrast, W.S. Hancock’s Union II Corps in the Army of the Potomac entered the Wilderness in 1864 with 27,000 men. Both armies at First Manassas were the largest yet seen in American military history, and all commanders needed to learn how to move and fight those units on a scale never seen before – without benefit of courses at the War College or the Command and General Staff School, both of which were founded much later. Simply by marching 30,000 men out to Manassas, Irvin McDowell became the most experienced commander in U.S. history.

2. Organization. Before early 1862, the chain of command went Army Commander -> Division Commanders. As the war entered its first full year, both sides introduced a level in between – the corps. The Union Army numbered them, while Confederates used a variety of terms and designations. The corps itself was almost 60 years old, having first been used in the Napoleonic Wars. Commanding a corps, each often about the size of the entire prewar U.S. Army, was a complex endeavor, and one no American had ever attempted before the Civil War. Small wonder, then, that some new corps commanders had difficulty directing and coordinating their formations on the battlefield.

3. Staff. Generals’ staff structures were very different from what they are today. I blogged about this before here.

These may seem like dry organizational details, but they were critical to a Civil War general officer’s ability to understand and execute his duties as a leader. While there are justifiable grounds to criticize many commanders for their performances, these factors should be kept in mind and indeed may generate some sympathy and understanding of their situations.

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28 Responses to Cut These Guys Some Slack

  1. Lyle Smith says:

    Totally agree.

  2. This is one of the best articles I have read in years. Great work, Chris!

  3. Lyle Smith says:

    Communications I guess would fall under all three of your points, but that was a serious impediment as well.

    I know Rosecrans wasn’t removed from command until 1863, but lots of people think he was a weak general for having been defeated at Chickamauga, yet he might have been the best Union general at managing these three problems up to his removal from command.

  4. Todd Berkoff says:

    Prior to the Battle of First Manassas, McDowell served as an aide de camp and staff officer for over 20 years and had never before commanded more than a dozen soldiers.

    I wonder if it made sense to retain the US army command structure that existed during 1862-1863 when a corps was about 9-12,000 troops? In some ways, this structure was more manageable than the reorganized and “trimmed down” corps structure of the Overland Campaign where each corps was 25-30,000 men. This larger corps structure seemed to work well for Lee’s army during the war.

    The “grand division” experiment of Burnside’s tenure as army commander in late 1862 was basically just the super corps structure that the army would use in the Overland Campaign — about 30,000 in each grand division. However, these grand divisions didn’t have a chance to fight as cohesive units during the Battle of Fredericksburg for various reasons and were thrown into combat piecemeal at the battle.

    As we saw on the Orange Plank Road at the Wilderness, brigades from the 2nd Corps, 5th Corps, 6th Corps, and 9th Corps fought as a jumbled mass of men, and many commanders refused to take orders from generals in different corps. At Spotsylvania on May 12, Hancock and Wright effectively lost control of their commands and the battle became another confused mess of brigades, contributing to the tactical stalemate that occurred later in the day.

    Lastly, I will never understand Grant’s decision to make the 9th Corps under Burnside separate from the normal chain of command in the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign. This was inviting disaster and goes against every notion of unity of command. If Burnside refused to take orders directly from Meade–which was the rationale for the awkward command relationship–he should have been fired before the campaign began. The men of the 9th Corps would have been better off for it.

    • John Foskett says:

      I’d cut Grant some slack on the Burnside arrangement. Burnside had seniority by commission over Meade. Grant made the IX Corps independent to avoid controversy over command of the Army of the Potomac. This wasn’t the first time that Burnside occupied a murky status. Command arrangements for the Union left/IX Corps were a bit usual at Antietam.

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Why should Grant, the General-in-chief of all US forces, be responsible for a single corps in the Army of the Potomac? It makes no sense. Sedgwick outranked Meade, yet Sedgwick didn’t raise a fuss about falling under Meade’s command in 1864. Grant should never have allowed it. Never was there another example of an entire corps falling outside the responsibility of the army commander in the Army of the Potomac.

        Your comparison to Antietam is not a good one since McClellan was still responsible for the 9th Corps. However, it does illustrate Burnside’s fragile ego and is another example of a confused command structure. Burnside was commander of the Right Wing (1st and 9th Corps) during the march to Antietam. McClellan broke up the two corps when they reached the battlefield. Yet Burnside insisted he remain a “wing commander” in charge of only the 9th Corps, with Jacob Cox exercising operational command of the corps. In short, the 9th Corps had two commanders on September 17th. This awkward command relationship contributed to the slowness of the 9th Corps that day.

      • John Foskett says:

        Actually, the analogy is a good one because it, too, involved a convoluted command issue – whether McClellan could have been ordering Cox to get going on the left or had to do it through Burnside. As for Grant, you have your opinion and I have mine, Everybody has one, just like …

      • 67th Tigers says:

        The 9th Corps was in fact “on loan”. It had been prepared for an amphibious desant on Fort Fisher. Hence it was at Annapolis awaiting transportation. Grant had intelligence that Longstreet’s Corps was going to the Shenandoah to cut across the back of the AoP, and used this to have the 9th Corps “temporarily” moved to Manassas to block such a move. Grant then ordered Burnside to reinforce him against the wishes of Lincoln, who was heavily invested in the Fort Fisher operation.

        Hence the issue is that the 9th Corps isn’t actually legally assigned to Virginia.

  5. John Foskett says:

    Chris: Another thought-provoking post. One interesting offshoot is how some officers figured out a more modern, effective staff component and others never really did. In the first group was Grant. In the second was Lee – a little puzzling because he had served as a staff officer for Scott in Mexico.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      Is this the truth? I’m not so sure. Porter Alexander definitely thought Lee’s staff was too small, but Lee built the staff he wanted and he was successful with them. Was it a modern staff no, but was Grant’s really either? I think Grant just upgraded his staff competence when he had better talent to choose from. I would argue Grant had more talent to draw from. Lee needed to place as many competent men as possible in the front line. I don’t think Lee was really wrong in thinking that as he saw his officer pool made hors de combat battle after battle.

      • John Foskett says:

        No doubt Grant may have had better/more talent to pull from but they also appear to have exercised more specialized authority. Lee’s staff never really evolved despite the blatant failures in the Seven Days and to some extent at Gettysburg,

  6. Nate says:

    These are some great thoughts. I make my arguments based off how well they utilized Vauban, Clausewitz, and Jomini. I do not want to be an armchair general, nor do I want to say I could have done better. They all faced tough scenarios, and those that overcame them learned from past mistakes and possessed the inward eye.

  7. I entirely agree. There is way too much “judgmentalism” (can’t think of a better word, so I made one up) in many corners of CW writing. Military command was a tough thing to try and do, everyone was figuring it out on the fly, and lots of mistakes were made. But some people have to go on at length on how certain officers were “obviously” total fools. I’ve been reading a lot of WW2 stuff lately, and there is much less of this crap there. Did Halsey screw up at Leyte? Of course he did. No need to go on for 5 pages about how this proves he was unfit for any command at all …

    • Lyle Smith says:

      I think think that is good word James. Hopefully it makes its way into the OED.

    • John Foskett says:


      That’s a valid point, although I wouldn’t hire Bull as my meteorologist. One typhoon mistake, maybe he gets a pass. Two? I think he stayed in his alternating command with Spruance because – like MacArthur – his stateside PR machine made a change unpalatable. But his poor decisions at Leyte and in the two typhoons start to look like a track record. The KIA/MIA telegrams that were sent following those three events were largely avoidable.

      • John, I take it you are not an invited guest at Halsey family gatherings? 😉

        I am more inclined to “give him a pass” on the typhoons, given the state of weather science in 1944 (no satellites), but his decision to go north and expose the Taffy groups was inexcusable. Besides, if he had left Lee with the BBs and one air Task group to watch San Berbardino Strait, he could have destroyed Kurita’s force as well as Ozawa’s.

        But, in a very real sense, this conversation is a perfect example of my larger point. Military command is a hard thing to do. Mistakes will be made. As students of history, we would do better to simply acknowledge them, and then move on. Halsey was a fine commander, but he had flaws; those flaws got the better of him in late 1944. Similarly, US Grant was a fine commander, but he had flaws. Some of those flaws got the better of him on the spring of 1862. The mistakes (in both cases) do not invalidate the merits of either commander.

      • John Foskett says:

        Jim: Haven’t got the invite yet.

        In the larger picture I agree. And I agree that Bull’s being duped into the wild goose chase north was the worst of the three decisions, but – regardless of the state of mid-1940’s meteorology – in both typhoons his choice to keep the task force together was a big mistake. Certainly after the first bad guess the second was inexcusable and a lot of the USN command agreed. There’s little doubt that his home front PR plus the rotation back to Spruance saved his backside. But, while I’m not sure Halsey is the best example, I think your point is a good one.

    • Douglas Pauly says:

      I’m not so harsh on Halsey as many are these days. I do admit that it has been some time since I’ve read anything new concerning Halsey or Leyte Gulf. Yes, he did get caught with his pants down when he took off for Ozawa’s carrier force. However, the other side’s carriers still remained prime targets, and were still viewed as a if not the prime threat against US forces. I have never read any accounts of US intelligence having absolute knowledge of the sorry state Japanese naval aviation was by that time. Kurita’s force had been turned back after being mauled. The fast battleships were arguably the best anti-aircraft platforms in the US fleet because of the plethora of guns they carried for that purpose. It is important to note that both Halsey and other commanders (Kincaid and I think, THINK, Sprague) were cited for allowing the Japanese Central Force to get to the Taffy groups undetected. Also, Halsey had not violated any orders when he moved to attack Ozawa. But yes, the Japanese were able to use Halsey’s well known aggression against him..

      Per the typhoons, at least with the first one, Halsey’s orders at that time were to support Gen. MacArthur’s offensive on Luzon. He was not given accurate weather forecasts. He did call his staff and commanders together to plan out what they would do as best they could. I believe the ships that capsized and sank were riding on mostly empty fuel tanks, because refueling ops had been impacted as the storm bore down and it intensified. Halsey still had operational considerations to deal with while engaging an uncertain and intense weather situation. Much of that can also be said about the second typhoon off Okinawa in 1945. Best as I can determine, and I say again that I have not read up on any of that in some time, the moves he made for dealing with that were quite logical. Unfortunately, the storm itself dd not cooperate, it did not take the track it was ‘supposed’ to. It happens. Halsey earned his command, and when the USA needed some good news in the Pacific in the first couple of years of the War, he was often the one who provided that. I will say this. If you read up on his responses to the criticisms leveled at him after the war, it seemed that some pages were taken from Civil War times. The back-and-forths between him and the likes of ‘Ziggy’ Sprague and others were often quite intense.

  8. Leroy Brister says:

    There is one other factor I would consider. A good portion of the officers and commanders of that war was suffering from medical conditions that would prevent them from serving in today’s military. There are some extreme examples like John Bell Hood, but enough of the others suffered limiting physical and medical conditions that it is a wonder to me that they accomplished anything.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      This is another good point. Someone tell me if I’m wrong, but in reading the recent biography on Robert E. Rodes, the biographer argues Rodes was very sick the on July 1st and ideally should have passed command on to a subordinate. I often read nothing about this in general histories on the Battle of Gettysburg, just that Rodes was new to Division command.

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Robert Rodes’s performance at Gettysburg was downright miserable. If he wasn’t one of Lee’s favorite generals, he would have lost his command after the battle. Many commanders under Lee lost their commands for far less. Rodes’s division suffered 3100 casualties in a series of disjointed and piecemeal attacks on July 1st, including Iverson’s charge, and then wasn’t engaged for the remainder of the battle. Pickett’s division lost fewer men on July 3rd (2700). Heth’s division fought all day on July 1st and participated in Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd and lost only 600 more men (3700).

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I have often thought this as well. The older I get and the more my own body malfunctions, the more amazed I am that Civil War officers got as much done as they did. Lovely post, great discussion!

  9. mark mccurdy says:

    A nice piece. We need to work hard to remember to judge actions by what was going on at the moment, not by what we know using hindsight.

  10. Steward T. Henderson says:

    A very good article, Chris. I have had to discuss the command situations at the beginning of the Civil War on our battlefields in the Fredericksburg area. I often remind our visitors that we cannot look at the Civil War with our modern standards of the army, but must go back and look at it the way it was from 1861 to 1865. I also remind them of the role that politics played in many of the decisions made by the generals.

  11. Buck Buchanan says:

    Chris, you nailed it.

    As a former Army Officer myself I think of some of the bonehead mistakes I made in my career. Fortunately they were all in training and no one got hurt…except my pride.

    I make this very point when I lead staff rides on various battlefields.

    And I especially point out what happened when leaders became casualties. Look at both army’s command structures after both Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign.

  12. Kevin Pawlak says:

    Excellent post and points Chris. Giving battlefield tours, there’s often very little chance to explain these to visitors but it is important to do and to remember these points when “grading” Civil War generals.

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