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.