Although Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was on the losing side of the Civil War, people still recognize him as a war hero due to his successful battlefield tactics and maneuvering. Midway through the war, Gen. Lee had so much success out-maneuvering Union forces that it seemed as though the Confederates would win. However, in July of 1863, Union forces defeated the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg causing a pivotal moment in the course of the war.
Analyzing Gen. Lee’s failure at the Battle of Gettysburg through the principles of Mission Command will help determine why he was unsuccessful. Today, the principles of Mission Command are the standard by which military leaders are evaluated. According to ADPR 6-0, Mission Command “is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations. Ultimately, General Lee failed to utilize mission command effectively throughout the Battle of Gettysburg by failing to build a cohesive team through mutual trust, failing to create an environment of disciplined initiative, failing to provide a clear commander’s intent, and ignoring risk. These combined failures led to his loss at the Battle of Gettysburg. General Lee was successful prior to the battle of Gettysburg because he had built a cohesive team through mutual trust.
This team consisted of his subordinate commanders: Major General James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson, and James E. B. Stuart. “He understood their character, believed in their abilities, and trusted their judgment. In regards to issuing orders, Gen. Lee knew how these trusted subordinates would carry out his direction. Additionally, each one gained the respect and trust of Gen. Lee because of their devotion, loyalty, and above all their competence on the battlefield” (Foreman, 2011). However, Gen. Lee entered the battle of Gettysburg without two of these men.
Pneumonia took Stonewall Jackson’s life shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville and Stuart positioned himself out of range of Gettysburg due to poor communication with Gen. Lee. Instead, Gen. Lee engaged Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg with his new Second Corps Commander, Lt. Gen Richard Ewell, whom Gen. Lee knew very little about, and his new Third Corps commander, Lt. Gen. AP. Hill, who had also just recently been promoted into the position (Foreman, 2011). In ADRP 6-0, mutual trust is described as a relationship that forms over time.
While Gen. Lee was confident in these subordinate commanders’ abilities, he clearly did not have time between the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg to form a genuine relationship with the new commanders that would have promoted mutual trust. In fact, Gen. Lee had few personal interactions with Ewell or Hill prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (Foreman, 2011). Due to their poor relationship, Gen. Lee was unaware that both Ewell and Hill required direct orders and specific instructions to achieve mission accomplishment.
He was used to giving his subordinates flexibility in determining how they would meet his intent. As the battle played out, this misunderstanding was evident. Lt. Gen. Ewell and Hill lacked initiative due to receiving discretionary orders. Their hesitation had a profound impact on the battle. Failed mutual trust between Gen. Lee and his subordinate commanders led to their inability to exercise disciplined initiative. ADRP 6-0 defines disciplined initiative as “action in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise.
On day one of the battle, Gen. Lee recognized an opportunity to attack the Union Army immediately upon arrival. Consequently, he gave Lt. General Ewell a discretionary order to attack and take the hills beyond Gettysburg if it was practical. However, Lt. Gen. Ewell made the decision not to attack and gave his men a chance to rest before the fighting would resume the next day. In hindsight, Ewell’s decision not to attack proved to be a huge mistake because it gave the Union Army time to dig into the surrounding hills and setup a defensive position.
His indecision throughout the Battle of Gettysburg was the direct result of Lee failing to foster a climate of disciplined initiative. MAJ Matthew Wayne Foreman, in his article “Gettysburg: A study of Lee’s Command Effectiveness, 1863”, explains that “Gen. Lee failed to properly instruct Ewell and Hill, who were unaccustomed to the amount of latitude that they were given. ” In previous battles, “Lee’s manner in dealing with his trusted subordinates was to provide initial guidance and give his men the leeway to develop their own plan to carry out his intent” (Foreman, 2011).
However, he either underestimated the extent to which Ewell required more direct orders or worse, ignored it. Either way, Lee did not adapt to his subordinate commanders inability to exercise disciplined initiative and left his commanders intent too broad a scope for them to operate in. Because of their indecision, Confederate forces delayed their attack, which allowed Union forces to dig in. Conversely, Lee gave too much freedom to exercise disciplined initiative to the commanders he did have mutual trust with. This directly ties into Lee’s failure to clearly define his intent as a commander.
According to ADRP 6-0, “commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned. ” For example, Stuart took the initiative to “conduct an unneeded incursion away from the main body of the army” prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (Foreman, 2011).
This resulted Gen. Lee’s lack of intelligence on Union forces size and disposition. Without this intelligence, Gen. Lee found himself”in an adverse tactical position facing a numerically superior Union force” (Foreman, 2011). Gen. Lee should have more clearly defined the limits within which Stuart should have exercised his initiative by ensuring Stuart understood his main priority of providing intelligence. By not clearly defining his commander’s intent to Stuart, the Army of Northern Virginia had a marked disadvantaged going into the battle.
Gen. Lee failed to execute mission command by ignoring risk on day three of the Battle of Gettysburg when he ordered Longstreet to conduct a full frontal assault on the center of the Union defensive line. According to ADRP 6-0, effective mission command utilizes the acceptance of prudent risk when making decisions because there is a degree of uncertainty in all military operations. However, Longstreet believed Lee gambled rather than carefully calculating the risk and using measures to mitigate it.
Also in ADRP 6-0, gambling “is staking the success of an entire action on a single event without considering the hazard to the force should the event not unfold as envisioned. ” Longstreet advised Gen. Lee on the inherent danger of attacking the enemy dug into defensive positions, but Gen. Lee insisted they attack anyway (Achenbach 2013). Years after the war Longstreet revealed, “Lee knew that I did not believe that success was possible; that care and time should be taken to give the troops the benefit of positions and the grounds… ” (Achenbach, 2013).
The frontal assault became known as “Picket’s Charge” (Golden, 2012). It was named after one of Longstreet’s Division Commanders: Brigadier General Pickett, who was ordered to attack to fulfill Gen. Lee’s order. The charge resulted in half of the BG Picket’s 13,000 men killed, wounded or captured (Achenbach, 2013). After realizing his disastrous mistake he said, “I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary…
I am so dull in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled” (Achenbach, 2013). Had Gen. Lee calculated the risk Longstreet was so adamant about, he might have decided to attack elsewhere or possibly even retrograde his forces. After analyzing the battle of Gettysburg, it is clear that General Lee failed to execute mission command effectively through failing to build a cohesive team through mutual trust, failing to create an environment of disciplined initiative, failing to provide a clear commander’s intent, and ignoring risk.
These failures by Gen. Lee directly affected the negative outcome of Battle of Gettysburg from a Confederate perspective. Had Gen. Lee given instructions that are more specific to his subordinate Generals and calculated the risk of his orders, the outcome of the battle could have been dramatically different. These failures demonstrate the invaluable importance of effectively utilizing Mission Command principles.