Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Put yourself in his boots: See if you have what it takes to lead a Civil War army

Generals had to excel in organizing and leading armies (LOC)

Your men are dog tired from an overnight 12-mile march. A subordinate is ill, and his replacement is not battle-tested. Horses and mules are hungry and the patter of rain is turning into a downpour. You can’t remember your last night of decent sleep.

The pressure is on for a significant victory to stem the recent fortunes of your enemy. Attack now? Move to another position? Await further orders?

What would YOU do?

Armchair historians and casual observers of the Civil War on Feb. 9 will have the opportunity to sit in the saddle of an army commander and ponder the myriad decisions that must be made.

Chuck Teague
Public historian Charles Teague, a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park, will give a talk entitled “So You Think You Could Command a Civil War Army?,” one of 20 such presentations during the park’s winter lecture series.

The free series begins this Saturday, Jan. 4, and continues through March 9. Topics include the Battle of the Crater, Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Atlanta Campaign.

Teague’s talk will examine the challenges facing commanders -- at one time or another in 1864, there were 18 armies in the field varying in size from 7,000 to 70,000 soldiers – and the attributes needed for success.

“This is really a difficult, trying responsibility these army commanders (face), with hundreds of decisions to be made, with any one that can go awry and end with calamity,” Teague, 66, recently told the Picket.

The retired Air Force chaplain, a past president of the Civil War Roundtable of Gettysburg, makes it clear he will not assign letter grades to famous generals or give a definitive assessment -- though he will discuss some of their strengths and weaknesses.

“It is natural in such discussions that the focus moves to rating and ranking the various army commanders,” said Teague. “My program is actually intended to prompt folks not to be so quick to criticize them, to forestall knee-jerk judgments in sorting out geniuses from jerks.”

Teague will explore why certain decisions or actions occurred on the battlefield.

Robert E. Lee
American military commanders learned from their experiences in the Mexican-American War, the Crimean War and from Napoleon’s campaigns.

For many, the Civil War was their first time in the military. They were learning on the job and reading manuals, “seeking to know each other’s thoughts.”

“None of them realized how vast the conflict would be and how bloody it would be and the development of technology along the way,” said Teague. “Early in the war, you win by posturing. That kind of mentality did not last through the war.”

Logistics, he said, was a key part of command. Lee, Grant and Sherman were attuned to these issues. That included providing proper equipment, uniforms and weapons, sufficient food for man and beast, and establishing a reliable payroll system.

Sherman, Teague said, made fantastic use of railroads while deep in Confederate territory. His army lived off the land, consuming huge amounts of meat and water. A large force could chew through 40,000 potatoes, alone, a day.

Proper organization and drill of the army – including the selection of staff and the method of issuing orders – is crucial. But that quality alone is not enough.

“(Joseph) Hooker and (George) McClellan were exceptional in equipping, training and arming their armies. Neither one proved capable on the battlefield of real victory.”

Naturally, the talk will focus on leadership and delegation, the ability to devise new tactics to face difficult challenges.

Proper logistics a crucial requirement (Library of Congress)

“Lee had the idea that as many men as possible should be at the front line,” said Teague.

The commander believed in a small staff. Later on that became a problem. “His staff could not analyze the intelligence that was coming.”

The Union’s dependable George Thomas organized a modern staff.

“Some Civil War commanders were more impulsive… Thomas sometimes was slow, but he was very thorough. Part of that was developing his staff,” Teague said.

Inadequate information on the battlefield made decisions difficult, he added.

“The friction of battle and the fog of war are both very applicable. When things don’t go your way, how quickly can you respond and overcome them?”

George Thomas
For example, Grant, after momentary setbacks at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, “could still very clearly and very effectively change things. Many generals couldn’t.” He cited a befuddled Hooker at Chancellorsville.

The final portion of Teague’s lecture will highlight 12 attributes for effective command. Among them are moral character and mental fortitude (George Meade), decisiveness in a crisis and discernment. “You are not just guessing.”

The Civil War had many good generals. But only a few had the skills, acumen and intelligence to excel at nearly all levels.

“I hope (lecture participants) come away with a deeper appreciation of the burden and responsibility that the commanders had -- and be not so quick to judge,” Teague said.

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