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Leadership in Bondage

- an excerpt from the book -


Profiles in Leadership

from the Battlefields of Virginia

by Maj. Charles R. Bowery, Jr., U.S. Army


1. Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Promotion


With James Longstreet recovering from his May 6 wound and numerous other generals wounded or out of action, Lee had to make a major reorganization of his officer corps in order to meet the current emergency. The masterful way in which Lee made this reorganization, while simultaneously fighting Grant to a standstill at Spotsylvania, is a model of organizational leadership and political skill. In making these changes, Lee demonstrated that he was capable of directive leadership, but was also capable of of mixing this style with the participation of his subordinates at key moments.


Lee's first task was to put someone in Longstreet's place. Based purely on military skill, the natural choice for the job was Third Corps Division Commander Jubal Early. Early, a Virginia Lawyer and West Point graduate whom Lee jokingly referred to as "my bad old man" because of his predilection for streams of profanity, was easily the most combative of Lee's division commanders -- precisely the type of general Lee could depend on to exercise initiative and conform to the spirit of his aggressive orders.


Early was a bad choice for the First Corps job, however, and Lee found this out by talking to the officers of the corps headquarters, most notably Colonel Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet's chief of staff. Early on the morning of May 7, as Lee waited for the return of the reconnaissance patrols he had ordered, he summoned Sorrel to headquarters, and the two sat under a shade tree, out of earshot of everyone else, to discuss the situation. Sorrel agreed with Lee that Early was a good general, but he did not recommend him to replace Longstreet because he thought that Early would be "objectionable to both officers and men" of the corps.


The Army of Northern Virginia was a collection of citizen soldiers from the various Confederate states, not a professional army of career soldiers. Southerners of the nineteenth century, and indeed most Americans at the time, held intensely local sympathies; loyalties to community and state were usually more important than conceptions of American patriotism. The men of the First Corps hailed mainly from South Carolina and the Deep South states -- Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. To put Virginia-born Early, not the most politic of officers in any case, in charge of this corps would cause a great deal of bad feeling. Sorrel made another recommendation: Richard H. Anderson, who hailed from South Carolina.


Anderson was not the best choice from a military point of view. He had built a reputation as a solid and reliable, but entirely average, leader. Unlike Stonewall Jackson, he would require more close supervision, at least at the outset. But other factors besides simple military efficiency played a part in this decision. Anderson's division had served the First Corps before being moved to the Third after the battle of Chancellorsville. Sorrel felt that Anderson was the logical choice in this regard: "We know him and shall be satisfied with him." In making this key decision, Lee retained the final approval, but he listened to the advice of a capable subordinate, and in so doing employed a strategically placed bit of participating leadership. As it turned out, Lee made the right choice; Anderson performed very capably until Longstreet returned to the army later in 1864.


Whether or not you can delegate to subordinates depends in part on who those subordinates are and whether they are capable of taking on the responsibility. What are the constraints, political and otherwise, that you face in the realm of human resources? Territorial issues may force you to promote a candidate from one section or division over a candidate from another area, even when that person is not necessarily the most qualified.


Certain candidates for promotion may have connections in high places, even if they are not as highly skilled as others. In any case, you probably do not have the luxury of firing everybody you think isn't performing up to par; you may have to get along as best you can with the staff at your disposal. These issues are nothing new; Robert E. Lee faced them as he attempted to reorganize his officer corps "on the fly" after the Wilderness. The "best" decisions you can make regarding personnel may not be as simple as one resume over another.


With the matter of the First Corps settled to the satisfaction of all, Lee turned to other leadership needs. Hill had proved in the Wilderness that he was unable to exercise effective command of his corps. Putting Anderson in Longstreet's place kept Jubal Early available to assume the Third Corps post, and Lee made that move on May 8. This temporary posting gave Lee the chance to evaluate Early at a higher level of responsibility, confirming or denying his capacity for a fulltime position as a corps commander. Early's promotion, in turn, cleared the way for another of Lee's promising young generals to step up.


John Brown Gordon, a Georgia native and a natural-born soldier with no military training, had shown at every level of command from company to brigade that he was an outstanding soldier. He too, moved up, this time to command Early's division. Gordon's promotion created yet another sticky situation, as another of the brigadiers, Harry Hays of Louisiana, actually outranked Gordon.


Modern leaders often have similar problems: A lower-level leader may not have the skills necessary to perform, but that leader may have seniority, political connections, or something else that makes it difficult to remove her or him from power. In this case, issues of rank were every bit as sensitive as issues of state, and Lee applied dexterity to this problem as well. He moved Hays and his brigade to the division of Edward Johnson and consolidated them with the Louisiana brigade of Leroy Stafford, who had been killed in the Wilderness. This move gave the Louisianians one of their own to command them and removed the issue of rank between Gordon and Hays. To complete this reshuffling, Lee ordered the transfer of one of Robert Rodes's five brigades to Gordon's new division to replace the departed Hays. The move satisfied all the generals involved and left all of the Second Corps divisions with an equal number of brigades.


This level of political sensitivity set Lee apart from most other Civil War generals. As a rule, West Point-trained generals held citizen soldiers and officers in low regard. Not Lee; he understood those whom he led, he appreciated their sacrifices for what they believed in, and adapted his leadership to suit them. A few days later, while Lee and Hill looked on, one of Hill's political generals, Ambrose R. Wright of Georgia, mishandled an attack. Hill railed against Wright, promising to convene a court-martial to punish the Georgian. "These men are not any Army," Lee explained as if lecturing a student. "They are citizens defending their country. I have to make the best of what I have and lose much time making dispositions," he went on. Hill would only humiliate Wright and antagonize the people of Georgia by pressing charges. "Besides," Lee asked Hill, "whom would you put in his place? You'll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time." Lee's sensitivity to both the needs of his organization and the needs of his people is a great example for any manager or human resources director to emulate.


2. Ulysses S. Grant the Strategic Negotiator


If you work in a senior leadership position, you probably employ negotiation almost every day to get your point across to others. In a given situation, perhaps in the formulation of a company strategic vision or in the development of a sales strategy, you may agree with other executives about the general approach but differ on important strategic points. Using your authority in an autocratic way, a "my way or the highway" approach, might be within your prerogative but would do more harm than good in the long run. A great example of Grant the Negotiator occurred even before he assumed command. When the Lincoln administration began considering Grant for the position of general-in-chief, they asked him his opinion on the best way to solve the problem of Lee's continual success in the eastern theater. Grant stated his opinion of the best course of action in a typically straightforward letter to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, written in January 1864.


Instead of lunging directly at Lee along the same line of operations as in all previous Union offensives, Grant proposed a more indirect approach. He wanted to concentrate all available forces to make a newer, bigger army of the Potomac, move that force via the Chesapeake Bay and southeastern Virginia to North Carolina, and slice into the Confederate interior, "an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond." His intermediate target would be Raleigh, North Carolina, and by capturing this he would deprive Lee of the area from which he received most of his supplies and much of his manpower. In Grant's thinking, this offensive "would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee" and "would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy." George McClellan had attempted a less bold version of this maneuver with his 1862 Peninsula Campaign.


This plan made tremendous sense given the futility of Union efforts in Virginia since 1861, but it was destined for disapproval on the desk of Abraham Lincoln. Grant perceived one strategic imperative: A focus on the enemy's armies through maneuver and offensive action. Lincoln agreed with Grant in this respect, but he also operated under a second strategic imperative. Right or wrong, Lincoln demanded the continued security of Washington, D.C., and he demanded that this be achieved by maintaining a large force between that city and Lee's army. Grant's proposal to strip the capital of its defenses in order to form a large expeditionary force was simply anathema to the Lincoln administration. It did not matter that by 1864 Washington was the most heavily fortified city on Earth, and that Lee saw perfectly clearly the impossibility of capturing it.


Faced with this opposition, Grant used dialogue and negotiation to get his essential point across where his predecessors had failed. Earlier eastern commanders such as McClellan, Pope, and Hooker were inflexible to a fault; as professional soldiers, they took a dim view of Lincoln, who in all fairness to them often meddled in military policy. But the strategic conferences they held with Lincoln usually ended in dissatisfaction for one or both parties.


They went beyond disagreement with Lincoln into open and acrimonious arguments that were inappropriate for all concerned. Their negotiations usually took the form of distributive, or zero-sum bargaining -- that is, one side was bound to win (by the Union's adopting his strategy) and one side was bound to lose (by having his approach rejected or his feelings hurt). Distributive bargaining may be necessary in some situations, such as a discussion of prices with a customer, but in Grant's case, it was important for him and the Union cause that he and Lincoln come to an agreement that satisfied all concerned.


Grant did this by employing integrative, or collaborative, bargaining, an approach that uses shared interests and cooperation to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. Grant and Lincoln agreed on the end result they desired, and they really did agree on the overall approach -- just not on the specific question of a line of operation. Grant was able to convince Lincoln of the soundness of his overall plan, and as a result, he got much of it implemented.


Grant was at his best as a strategic leader because he communicated a solid vision while exhibiting good followership and negotiating skills, as seen earlier. In contrast to his predecessors, Grant never criticized his boss in public, even though he must have chafed under the restrictions placed on him. Even though strategic leaders exercise control at the highest levels, they cannot forget the vital importance of followership.


Grant's relationship with his three subordinate generals were a case in point. Nathanial P. Banks in Louisiana and Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler in Virginia were so-called political generals. They had gained their positions of authority early in the war, when the difficulty of raising a mass citizen army meant that Abraham Lincoln often had to rely on men with political clout but little military ability, because of their influence with large portions of the citizenry of their states. Like it or not, you probably have to work with senior executives who owe their positions to political clout, and there is nothing you can do about it. Just as Grant did, however, you can use even these subordinates to get where you need to go.


Political influence became more, not less, important as the war went on, and it came to a head in 1864 as the presidential election approached. Banks and Butler were prominent Republicans, and thus were viewed as politically acceptable by the administration and by Congress. Sigel was a german immigrant who was immensely popular with the Northeast's German-American population. Grant, and by extension, Lincoln, did not have the option of replacing these men, and in any case, generals of proven ability in commanding armies were scarce. As a strategic leader, Grant had to make the best of the generals provided to him.


You may be placed in the same situation with your senior staff. If you cannot remove those who are in positions of responsibility, you must find a way to maximize your team's performance in spite of them. Grant did this through the application of a coherent vision of victory and by "stacking" with other proven generals when and where he could.


Grant knew that Sigel and Butler were liabilities, so he sought to place proven soldiers in division command positions immediately below them, in the hope that the political generals would in some cases defer to the professionals -- a long shot, yes, but better than nothing. Sigel's official position was commander of the Department of West Virginia; Grant's intention for the campaign was to have two trusted subordinates, Edward O.C. Ord and George Crook use the department's 10,000 troops as one striking force, aimed at severing Virginia's rail link with Eastern Tennessee and moving northward into the Shenandoah Valley. It became clear to Ord that Sigel had no intention of letting him carry out Grant's plan, though, and so Ord resigned on April 19.


Ord was correct in his supposition. Sigel disregarded Grant's intent and divided his force into three smaller elements, two operating in southwestern Virginia under Crook and William W. Averell, and the largest (of course), under his personal command, moving southward up the valley to link up with them. Sigel's blatant insubordination should not obscure the leadership that Grant attempted to employ, however.


In the end, the Shenandoah Valley expedition made some small gains only because of the general-in-chief's personnel decisions. Sigel ensured that the offensive failed to coordinate with Grant's overall strategy. Crook's was the most successful of the three columns, defeating a small Confederate force at Cloyd's Mountain, Virginia, on May 9. Averell's force also had limited success, but it was too small to do any significant damage and was not able to move into a position to support Crook, and so by mid-May the two were back in West Virginia. Aside from a small amount of damage to the Virginia and Tennessee railroad, this phase of the offensive achieved nothing.


This withdrawal allowed the Confederate commander in the Shenandoah Valley, former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, now a Confederate major general, to concentrate his forces against Sigel at New Market, thirty miles north of Staunton on the Valley Turnpike (the present day U.S. 11/Interstate 81 corridor). On May 15, Breckenridge's 5,300 rebels squared off against Sigel's 9,000 Unionists and defeated them soundly. The most noteworthy moment in the battle occurred when 227 teenaged cadets of the Virginia Military Institute charged to plug a gap in the Confederate line, suffering ten killed and forty-five wounded but capturing a Union Canon and ensuring victory for Breckenridge's little army. Sigel tamely retreated northward, and by May 19, Breckenridge and 2,500 infantrymen were on board trains enrooted to reinforce Lee and the Army of North Virginia.




About the Author

MAJOR CHARLES R. BOWERY, JR., a United States Army officer, brings a proud heritage and personal experience in military command and combat positions to his study of leadership in the Civil War. Counting three Confederate Army soldiers among his storied ancestors, he was born and raised in New Kent County, Virginia, a suburb of Richmond on the outskirts of the Army of Northern Virginia's first battlefields. His early fascination with the War Between the States led him to the field of military history.


Bowery received his undergraduate degree in history in 1992, as a Distinguished Military Graduate of the College of William and Mary, and earned his Master's in history from North Carolina State University in 2001. Upon completing his graduate studies, he clinched the position of military history instructor at the army's prestigious academy at West Point. During his two-year tenure, he wrote several book reviews and encyclopedia articles on the Civil War, as well as co-edited the official Academy correspondence of Superintendent Robert E. Lee. In January 2004, Gettysburg Magazine published his article, "Encounter at the Triangular Field: The 124th New York and the First Texas at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863."


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