Thursday, October 25, 2012

Combat Leadership

In my years of studying the Civil War, I have often noticed an excessive focus on leadership and decision making on the strategic level. People love to study, argue, and debate the actions taken by the commanders of divisions, corps, and armies. The historiography of Gettysburg is replete with examples: Did Dan Sickles save the Army of the Potomac? Should Ewell have attacked Cemetery Hill? Was Longstreet slow? How do we access Howard's performance on July 1? I could go on.

Studies of combat leadership at the regimental or company level do exist (especially for the battle of Gettysburg), though they are much rarer. With the exception of some micro-tactical studies that include evaluations of each army's officer corps, most of the authors that narrow their scope tend to focus more on narrating the experience of the average soldier rather than evaluating the decision-making abilities of a unit's officers.

I certainly understand this phenomenon. First - documenting a battle down to the level needed to access combat decisions made by a single regiment, much less a company, can be difficult if not impossible. Second, in focusing on larger units - such as brigades, divisions and corps, we can more easily get a general sense of what happened at a battle. We would have a terrible time sorting things out if we focused on the chaos and confusion on the ground at the company level.

Yet, I believe we do a disservice to the excellent captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels on both sides who made key, sometimes unheralded contributions that helped tip the balance of battles. Generals lead their troops to the battlefield, endeavoring to achieve as favorable a position as possible for their army to fight from. Once the shooting started on a Civil War battlefield though, a general's influence extended only as far as he could see, and depended on the efficiency of his staff. In many situations, lower ranker officers made crucial decisions based on their own observations and training.

In the coming weeks I want to write some posts attempting to focus on a few of the less-well-known command decisions made by lower ranking officers that led to important outcomes at Gettysburg. But before I got the series started - I thought I'd throw it out there to anyone reading: what are some of the major decisions of the battle made by lower ranking officers (let's say below the rank of Colonel - so you can't use Colonel Chamberlain) that you think helped shape the battle's outcome?

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