Our Army Would be Invincible if…” Confederate Leadership Pt.1

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the first part of a chapter that I am revising for my Gettysburg text. It deals with the problems faced by Robert E. Lee as he attempted to reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia following his victory at Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson. 

Over the next few days I will be posting sections on each of the Confederate army corps and J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Division. The later sections will be largely biographic sketches of the leaders of the Confederate Corps, Divisions and Brigades. Eventually I will have a similar chapter on the leadership of the Army of the Potomac.

Have a great night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+  

Lee1

General Robert E. Lee C.S.A.

An issue faced by armies that are forced to expand to meet the demands of war is the promotion and selection of competent leaders at all levels of command. It has been an issue throughout American military history including during our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The expansion of forces, the creation of new units, combined with the operational demands to employ those units often creates a leadership vacuum that must be filled. Sometimes this results in officers being promoted, being given field command or critical senior staff positions, who have critical deficiencies of leadership, character, intellect, experience or lack the necessary skill sets to do the job.

We may not see this as often in a long term professional military which has been at war for a significant amount of time, but during the Civil War it was something that both sides had to wrestle with, even for high level commanders. The nature of the armies involved, the high proportion of volunteer officers and political appointees coupled with the dearth of officers who had commanded anything larger than a company or widely scattered regiment made this a necessary evil.

To be fair, some officers of limited experience or training do rise to the occasion and perform in an exemplary manner. Others do not. Those leaders that do not are quite often weeded out over the course of time but often not before their lack of experience, or incompetence proves disastrous on the battlefield. As Barbara Tuchman so eloquently put it:

“When the moment of live ammunition approaches, the moment to which all his professional training has been directed, when the lives of the men under him, the issue of the combat, even the fate of a campaign may depend upon his decision at a given moment, what happens inside the heart and vitals of a commander? Some are made bold by the moment, some irresolute, some carefully judicious, some paralyzed and powerless to act.” [1]

Of course the selection of competent and experienced leaders is essential to the planning and execution of all aspects of Joint Planning and Mission Command, as is the proper supervision and command and control on the battlefield. As was noted in Infantry in Battle:

“Of course, a leader cannot be everywhere, but he can and should weigh the capabilities and limitations of his subordinates, determine the critical point or time of the action, and lend the weight and authority of personal supervision where it is most needed.” [2]

The Death of Stonewall Jackson and the Reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia

Stonewall_Jackson

Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson C.S.A

Stonewall Jackson was dead, and with his death after the Pyrrhic victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee was faced with the necessity of reorganizing the Army of Northern Virginia. Jackson’s loss was disastrous for Lee, for he lost the one man who understood him and his method of command more than anyone, someone for whom he had a deep and abiding affection. Months before Jackson’s death Lee said of him: “Such an executive officer the sun has never shown on, I have but to show him my design, and I know that it if it can be done it will be done.” [3]

Jackson’s loss loomed large over the Army and the Confederate nation. Jefferson Davis told his wife Varina at Jackson’s funeral “saw a tear escape her husband’s eye and land on Jackson’s face. “You must excuse me,” Davis said later after silently ignoring a fellow mourner’s conversation. “I am still staggered from such a dreadful blow. I cannot think.” [4] Davis telegraphed Lee and described Jackson’s death “A great national calamity has befallen us.” [5] Lee was devastated, but stoic. When he told his Chief of artillery, Brigadier General William Pendleton of Jackson’s death he wept. Lee told his son Custis “It is a terrible loss. I do not know how to replace him. Any victory would be dear at such a cost. But God’s will be done.” [6]

Jackson’s loss was felt throughout the Confederacy, and not just from a military point of view. Southerners saw the war “as a spiritual and religious crusade, a test of the superiority of their devoutness and culture.” [7] As such victory was seen as part of God’s blessing and defeat or loss of Divine punishment. Jackson was a part of that, his legendary piety, valor and success on the battlefield had imbued the spiritual dimension of the Confederate cause with proof of God’s favor. He had been sent by God, and even in death his memory inspired Confederates, one poet “described Jackson as the Confederate Moses who would not get to the Promised Land” [8] although others most certainly would. In a war where death had become more pervasive and affected almost everyone in the South in a personal way, through the loss of family, friends, or home it was easy to lose sight of “basic values and transcending causes. Jackson’s death brought those values and causes to the fore. To what end remained unclear. The certitude of a holy cause that greeted the war’s onset slid into doubt….” [9] After the war soldiers, journalists and civilians pointed to Jackson’s death as “a premonition of their coming defeat.” One wrote “The melancholy news affected the Confederates in the same way that various omens predicted, before Troy could be captured affected the city’s defenders.” [10]

A forlorn Southern woman wrote: “He was the nation’s idol, not a breath even from a foe has ever been breathed against his fame. His very enemies reverenced him. God has taken him away from us that we may lean more upon Him, feel that he can raise up to Himself instruments to work His Divine Will.” [11] An officer in the Army of Northern Virginia wrote: “One of the greatest heroes of the war has been called from us by an all-wise Providence, no doubt as a punishment for ascribing to a mere man praises due to God for giving us Jackson with the virtues and talents he possessed.” [12] Seeing Jackson’s death in light of the defeat at Gettysburg and other major Confederate reverses in the summer of 1863 Virginia Presbyterians decided that Jackson’s “Untimely” death marked a “further chastisement for sins, especially ingratitude, pride, and dependency on an arm of the flesh.” [13]

After Jackson’s loss Lee said “I had such implicit confidence in Jackson’s skill and energy that I never troubled myself to give him detailed instructions. The most general suggestions were all that he needed.” [14] Lee met the loss with “resignation and deep perplexity,” his words displayed that sense of loss, as well as his sense of faith and trust in God’s providence “I know not how to replace him. God’s will be done. I trust He will raise someone up in his place…” [15] In losing Jackson Lee lost a commander who had the ability to make his most imaginative plans come to life and find fulfillment and despite his efforts he never succeeded in finding a suitable replacement. Jackson was not a great tactician, but unlike any other Confederate commander he could implement Lee’s plans through his:

“single-mindedness of purpose, his unbending devotion to duty, his relentlessness as a foe, and his burning desire at whatever cost, for victory….He possessed an unmatched ability to impose his will on recalcitrant subordinates and on his enemies.” [16]

In addition to the loss of Jackson, Lee was desperately short of qualified senior and mid-level officers and Lee “understood how the diminishing numbers of quality officers impacted the army’s effectiveness.” [17] The problem was serious throughout the army, even though Lee had been victories in many battles, was that it suffered badly from high casualty counts, not just in the aggregate number of troops lost, but in leaders. “From the Seven Days to Chancellorsville, few if any regiments had not lost multiple field grade officers. Casualties among colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors surpassed 300 in total in all of the engagements.” [18]

A major part of Lee’s problem was organizational. In 1862 Lee inherited an army that was a “hodgepodge of forces” [19] which was organized in an “unwieldy divisional command system, where green commanders out of necessity were given considerable independence.” [20] That organization was tested and found wanting during the Seven Days campaign where on numerous occasions division commanders failed to coordinate their actions with those of adjacent divisions or failed to effectively control their own troops during movement to contact or combat.

Shortly after the Seven Days Lee reorganized the army, working with the material that he had. He divided the army into two wings since “Confederate law still did not allow for corps commands” [21] under Jackson and James Longstreet. Each wing was composed of four divisions and consisted of about 30,000 troops apiece. Both would be appointed Lieutenant Generals and their command’s recognized officially as the First Corps and the Second Corps in October 1862. These were massive forces, each nearly three times the size of a Union Corps in the Army of the Potomac.

While both Longstreet and Jackson were technically equals, and Longstreet Jackson’s senior by one day, it was Jackson to whom Lee relied on for the most daring tasks, and whom he truly considered his closest confidant and his “executive officer.” The relationship between Lee and Jackson was one of the most remarkable collaborations in military history and Lee owed much of his battlefield success to Jackson, and as J.F.C Fuller wrote: “Without Jackson, Lee was a one armed pugilist. Jackson possessed that brutality essential in war; Lee did not” [22]

The organization worked well at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, although Longstreet’s corps was detached from the army at the time of the latter. When Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville on the first night of that battle neither A.P. Hill nor J.E.B. Stuart were able effectively commanded Second Corps during the remainder of the battle.

The temperament and personalities of Longstreet and Jackson served to balance each other, and each enjoyed the trust of Lee. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda calls them the:

“yin and yang of subordinates. Jackson was superb at guessing from a few words exactly what Lee wanted done, and setting out to do it immediately without argument or further instructions; Longstreet was as good a soldier, but he was an instinctive contrarian and stubbornly insisted on making Lee think twice, and to separate what was possible from what was not.” [23]

Both men had been instrumental to Lee’s battlefield success and both played indispensable roles in Lee’s ability to command the army.

Likewise, the sheer size of Lee’s formations posed problems both in moment and combat, as Lee noted “Some of our divisions exceed the army Genl Scott entered Mexico with, & our brigades are larger than divisions”…that created stupendous headaches in “causing orders & req[uisitions] to be obeyed.” [24] Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis on May 20th “I have for the past year felt that the corps of the army were too large for one commander. Nothing prevented my proposing to you to reduce their size and increase their number but my inability to recommend commanders.” [25]

In the hands of Longstreet and Jackson these massive corps were in the good hands of leaders who could effectively handle them, “but in anyone else’s hands, a corps the size of Jackson’s or Longstreet’s might prove so big as to become clumsy, or even worse, might call for a degree of micromanagement that Lee and his diminutive staff might not be able to deliver.” [26] Lee recognized this and did not try to replace Jackson. Instead he wrote Jefferson Davis and explained the reasons for creating a new corps:

“Each corps contains in fighting condition about 30,000 men. These are more than one man can handle & keep under his eye in battle….They are always beyond the range and vision & frequently beyond his reach. The loss of Jackson from the command of one half of the army seems to me a good opportunity to remedy this evil.” [27]

Instead of appointing one man to command Second Corps, Lee reorganized the army and created two corps from it. He stripped a division of Longstreet’s First Corps, that of Richard Anderson, to join the new Third Corps. He also divided the large “Light” Division, which under Hill’s “intelligent administration probably is the best in the army” [28] into two divisions, one commanded by Dorsey Pender and the other by Harry Heth.

The problem for Lee was just who to place in command of the new corps and divisions that he was creating. Lee was deeply aware of this problem, and wrote to John Bell Hood that the army would be “invincible if it could be properly organized and officered. There never were such men in an Army before. The will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. But there is the difficulty-proper commanders- where can they be obtained?” [29] Lee sought the best commanders possible for his army, but the lack of depth in the ranks of season, experienced commanders, as well as the need to placate political leaders made some choices necessary evils.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Tuchman, Barbara The Guns of August Ballantine Books, New York 1962 Amazon Kindle edition location 2946

[2] _________. Infantry In Battle The Infantry Journal Incorporated, Washington DC 1939, reprinted by the USACGSC with the permission of the Association of the United States Army p.195

[3] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.128

[4] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.501

[5] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.524

[6] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.208

[7] Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters Penguin Books, New York and London 2007 p.235

[8] Rable, George C. God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2010 p.261

 

[9] Goldfield, David. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011 p.279

[10] Royster, Charles The destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1991 p.227

[11] Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2008 p.255

[12] Ibid. Pryor Reading the Man p.236

[13] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.261

[14] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.30

[15] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s p.524

[16] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.209

[17] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.217

[18] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.217

[19] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.30

[20] Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare. Midland Book Editions, Indiana University Press. Bloomington IN. 1992 p.110

[21] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee p.157

[22] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957

[23] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.527

[24] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.20-21

[25] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.248

[26] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.20-21

[27] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 p.289

[28] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.35

[29] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.12

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