Gainesville Ramblings

This is a blog, and thus it barely qualifies as writing, let alone formal writing, so I'd not let it bother you.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Learning from the Army of the Potomac

Since I'm not in school, I thought I would take Garrison Kieller's advice and continue my education. First up: The Civil War. I know next to nothing about this war. While I don't plan on being an expert, knowing the general course of the war, as well as the political underpinnings of it is probably a good idea.

So I started with Bruce Catton's excellent series The Army of the Potomac. Its a three book series documenting the struggles of the Army of the Potomac, which most often faced off against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Also: Lost alot to Lee.

I'm two books in, and I think I can start documenting what I'm learning from this book. I'm not talking about the movements of troops during battles, but rather what I'm learning about leading people and about people in general. So here we go:

  1. If you have a strategic advantage, use it immediately. The first general of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. McClellan, managed to find the complete orders for Lee's army for the following few days. Instead of forcing his army to march quickly, he set a leisurely route. This gave time for Lee to get ready for the Union troops, and resulted in the Battle of Antietam. This battle ended with a draw, though strategically important for the North. If McClellan had moved faster, he might have been able to hit Lee when he wasn't expecting it, ending the war much faster.
  2. Good men led by bad leaders can still do great things. The generals who led the Army of the Potomac, up until maybe Meade but definetely Grant, were not good at thier jobs. McClellan was unusually passive. Burnside was a disaster. Hooker lost his nerve easily. And through all this, the Army never gave up. They were good soldiers, well trained, and willing to see this war till the end. They did it at first because they loved McClellan, but after a few battles, they continued because they were soldiers. Professionals. They fought because that is what they did. And they did it well. The Battle of Gettysburg is a perfect example. Meade had just been made commanding general, and so was mostly unable to get everything together for a battle. But when a battle was forced at Gettysburg, the Army fought. They weren't led. And they won one of the most brutal battles in American history through almost force of will. That is amazing.
  3. Don't get cocky. McClellan was hailed as the 'savior of the Republic.' Serious politicians offered to make him dictator if he won this war. It went to his head. Soon, he was sending letters to Lincoln, telling him how to run the country. After Antietam, he could probably have stayed on as General if he hadn't pissed Lincoln off.
  4. Train your subordinates well, and trust them on the field. The battle of Chancelorsville was a disaster because Hooker didn't listen when his XI Corps reported that there appeared to be huge Rebel forces gathering on thier left flank and refused to let the Corps change positions. This let the Rebels hit hard from the left and roll up the Army.
  5. Be willing to change your plans. They only work for a short time. Then something new happens, and you must adjust. This happened at Fredricksburg, at Chancelorsville, at the Second Bull Run. Lee was quick and smart, and in general, the Union generals were not. Lee took advantage of that and scored many victories even though outnumbered, outgunned and outsupplied.
  6. Sometimes, you have to give it everything you've got. McClellan could have won Antietam outright if he had committed all his troops. Instead, he held thousands back because...well, that's never adequately explained. The same goes for Burnside at Fredricksburg. If he had just committed all his troops to the battle, it may not have been a victory, but it wouldn't have been the disaster it became.
  7. Oh yeah - Wars suck. Don't have them if at all possible. The Civil War had to happen, but its still a horrible business that should be avoided. I know, a profound lesson. But something that should be repeated often.


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