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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Commander's Will

This is Steven Petrick writing.

During the American Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee won what is considered to be his tactical masterpiece, the Battle of Chancellorsville early in 1863.

Lee won the battle by taking what, by any standards, appeared to be (and were) a number of insane gambles. He divided his army in the face of a superior force not once (leaving a blocking force at Fredricksburg), but twice (sending over half the forces he had with him at Chancellorsville on a march with General Jackson to attack the exposed Union Flank).

The result of this audacious maneuvering was the retreat of the numerically and logistically superior Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannok river.

All of it is easy to see, but what gets missed is that Lee did not defeat the Army of the Potomac. Most of that Army's soldiers and its generals, despite the rough handling Jackson' flank attack had given them, were still willing to fight.

What Lee defeated was Union General Hooker, the man then in command of the Army of the Potomac. Even though his corps commanders voted in favor of continuing the fight, Hooker retreated. To that point, Lee had inflicted about 1.5 Union casualties for every one he suffered, but this amounted to only 13% of the Union Army while his own losses amounted to 21% of his army.

The Army of the Potomac was not defeated. But Hooker's will was, and that is the same thing. Had Hooker simply adhered to his original plan and attacked himself, Lee would probably have been defeated since his Army was outside of its well developed works at Fredricksburg.

But from the first contact with the Army of Northern Virginia, Hooker not only abandoned what had been a brilliantly executed flank march of his own to get there, he called for reinforcements.

Hooker's performance can be seen as excellent up until the moment he realized that he was the man whose will would guide the Army of the Potomac in battle, and then he lacked the resolve to carry it forward.

An Army of Lions led by a Sheep is not to be feared, but beware an Army of Sheep led by Lion.

When it really counted, Hooker was a Sheep rather than a Lion, and Lee had the advantage of being a Lion leading an Army of Lions.