Gen. Lee's -- "If Practical" Orders

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#1
There has been much debate over the way Gen. Lee issued his orders. Like: Gen. Lee would usual issue what are called discretionary orders with that famous end phrase "If Practical or Practicable."

Most historians claim that Gen. Lee like to encourage initiative in his subordinates; that is why he like to issue these discretionary type orders.

I argue that maybe Gen. Lee wanted initiative from his generals but unlike Gen. Stuart who developed a system to encourage initiative. Gen. Lee failed to develop a good system to encourage the development of officers taking bold action.

Just think: The only officers at the corp. level that truly took initiative{ or bold action ) was Gen. Jackson and Gen. Stuart for the rest that held that position for Gen. Lee never took bold action.

Why? History wants to blame those generals like Anderson, A.P. Hill and Ewell for their lack of initiative. I argue that if the historians say Gen. Lee wanted his generals to take the initiative then those generals under him knew this too.

So the question becomes if the generals under Gen. Lee knew he wanted his generals to take the initiative. Why did they never step up and be bold?

The only answer is Gen. Lee must have punished failure. It also means Gen. Lee never had a true system to develop initiative taking type leaders.

Gen. Lee may have wanted initiative taking type of leaders but in truth he discourage bold risk taking leaders and this does make sense. Why?

Everyone makes Gen. Lee to be this perfect person and he was a fine person but he had personality failures as any human. He was a control freak and neat freak but unlike most people with these traits who tend to be rude. Gen Lee was a southern gentleman which softens his control freak and neat freak nature to people.

Now think: a person who is a control nut and neat freak can he truly develop initiative in others rarely for their standards for one to meet is set to high. In most cases control freaks and neat freaks more often punish initiative then reward it.

A note: Gen. Lee did transfer out a lot of officers form his command and in many cases no reason can be found why. Historians just say Gen Lee was getting rid of dead weight like political appointees.

A note: An over looked item, Gen. Lee made his battle plans in private. He never develop a battle with his generals only used them for information gathering. The battle plan always came directly from Gen. Lee.


In summary: Gen Lee may have wanted his generals to be bold and take the initiative but his personal failing of being a control and neat freak made him unable to develop initiative taking leaders he wanted. He was his own worse enemy in developing the type of officers he wanted.

Remember, A control and neat freak is never able to recognized that he is one and that he discourage people from taking the initiative. JUST THINK! Of the control and neat freaks you have worked under over the years. They are demanding and hard to please. So what do you do? You wait tell they tell you what they want, Why? Because if you take the initiative and it is not what they want. You catch hell.

Think of those poor generals under Gen Lee.
 

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#2
Lee's -- "If Practical" Orders

Point, well taken. Although, we cannot know for sure, the supposition could well be more right than wrong.
Without a system for encouraging 'initiative' people do tend to interpret discretionary orders on the conservative side rather than the bold.
Very few (relatively speaking) people are born with ( or acquire) the bold aggressive temperament with just the right amount of intellect and discerning nature (even among professional soldiers) that amounts to 'genius'' which, it can be argued, was really what Lee was after, even if he might not have realized it.
 

matthew mckeon

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#5
In Gary Gallanger's book "Confederate High Command," he describes how Lee deliberately created an officer corps that emphasized aggressiveness and initiative.

Certainly if you study the campaigns of the ANV, you generally see greater initiative, risk taking than the Army of the Potomac, which had McClellan's style of trying to avoid mistakes, rather than take risks.

In an era of primitive communications, subordinate commanders needed to make decisions and take decisive action without reference to a higher commander that could be hours away. "If practicable" was a realistic recognition on Lee's part, that he couldn't control all aspects of the fighting.
 
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#6
The question does cause some speculation on whether the success of Lee's 'style' of commanding was due more to the 'style' of his opponents, commanding the AoP.
As noted above, if one general is trying to win and the other is trying not the lose, practically any style of commanding has a forbidding advantage from the very first.
 

whitworth

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#7
Lee wasn't on the ground with Ewell

Of course, Ewell told the reasons why he did not make an attack on Cemetery Hill, after fighting the XI Corps that afternoon.

For those who want to blame Ewell would always probably ignore his OR on Gettysburg.
He mentioned his command was tired due to the day's fight, even if victorious. More importantly, he lacked an entire division, its artillery, and the corps reserve artillery, which traveled separately on the Carlisle-Chambersburg Pike, then onto the Chambersburg-Gettysburg Pike.

Amateurs always assume that an army can get into a good fight, reassemble, then immediately attack another objective, in a time without good communication found in modern armies.

We should also remember that Howard left artillery and one of his divisions on Cemetary Hill, hours before Ewell could have attacked the hill.
 

larry_cockerham

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#8
Wasn't Lee just giving an officer with a fresh pair of eyes in place at the last moment an opportunity to make an educated decision at the proper time a chance? Seems that would be an advantage over carrying out an erroneous earlier order after conditions had changed.
 
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#9
Gen. Lee "honest portrait"

I worry about how Gen. Lee is presented to us by history and historians. He has been romanticise by all who write about him. It seems that history gloss over the few personal failing he might have had and there is always some poor scapegoat for his failures.

Historians never write about Gen Lee's personal black man servant he had up until his death and in death he did leave this black man servant money. The money was used by the servant to become a preacher.

I read his letters and I see stuff like his views about blacks was a head of its time for a southern in the 19th century but his views mirror the southern segregationist views of the 20th century. In a word he was "ethnocentric".

This romantic view of Gen. Lee started during the war and carries on today. I believe political correctness will keep the honest picture of Gen. Lee from us like it has for the last 140 plus years.
 

larry_cockerham

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#11
Lee was a lot closer the surface of the water than most of his contemporaries. One would have expected that. He was a very well educated man of the upper crust of society, both political and civil. Alas, as you've just alluded, he wasn't completely a saint either. The term human comes to mind. Lee's attitude toward blacks, while marginally unbiased at best, was repeated hundreds of thousands of times by his countrymen, both south and north. Racism was the norm in 1865. It only slowly improves.
 

samgrant

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#12
Here's one man's (Thomas B. Buell in The Warrior Generals) nutshell view:

"He was committed to preserving the status quo, his vision was locked firmly in the past, and he sacrificed his army to protect the priviledges of the oligarchy to which he belonged. Lee's fundamental strategy was fighting for the sake of fighting, surrender was never an option if the war could still be prolonged, and in the end he destroyed his state trying to save it."
 
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#13
Everybody wants a hero, somebody to adore and to, for lack of a better word, worship. But its true. Many out there practically worship General Lee. He was a good general, to be sure, and a superb tactician. But like any other human, he had his failings. And it is unfortunate that he has become such an idol, because I don't think Lee would want to be remembered that way. But what all historians should remember, and this is something I was taught at university, you have to remember that they were human too, and they made made mistakes just like we do today. They weren't perfect, no matter how hard we want them to be.
 

cw1865

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#14
Legends

J_Man0507 said:
Everybody wants a hero, somebody to adore and to, for lack of a better word, worship. But its true. Many out there practically worship General Lee. He was a good general, to be sure, and a superb tactician. But like any other human, he had his failings. And it is unfortunate that he has become such an idol, because I don't think Lee would want to be remembered that way. But what all historians should remember, and this is something I was taught at university, you have to remember that they were human too, and they made made mistakes just like we do today. They weren't perfect, no matter how hard we want them to be.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!
 
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#16
No!

cw1865 said:
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!

No! a little honesty in the legend would be nice. I do not want to belittle Gen. Lee or even take away his saintliness but the romantic legend that embraces him clouds history and leaves questions of why during some events of the civil war.

We will always love legend..
 
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#17
Much truth

samgrant said:
Here's one man's (Thomas B. Buell in The Warrior Generals) nutshell view:

"He was committed to preserving the status quo, his vision was locked firmly in the past, and he sacrificed his army to protect the priviledges of the oligarchy to which he belonged. Lee's fundamental strategy was fighting for the sake of fighting, surrender was never an option if the war could still be prolonged, and in the end he destroyed his state trying to save it."
Much truth in these words.
 
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#18
Simple put...

I have questions about the phrase "if practical". I believe the whole idea of Gen. Lee try to promote initiative in his subordinates may be part of his romantic legend.

Look at his first two corp commanders Gen. Jackson and Gen. Longstreet. As far as I can tell they did not issue discretionary orders to their subordinates. They gave orders with little or no wiggle room in them. They did not create environments for initiative.

The legend clouds the truth.

One historian claims the phrase "if practical" was Gen. Lee being polite. Think about it?

I would bet no one has ever study the history behind the phrase "if practical" or the original military purpose for the phrase, or when the phrase should be used in an order, or the military meaning behind those two words in the 19th century.

I read another order with the phrase "if practical" in it and it implied that after the objectives were met then do this if practical. The general in this order was not Gen. Lee.

Simple put Gen. Lee's direct subordinates did not promote initiative taking and no one knows the history behind those two words "if practical" and the legend clouds the truth.
 

larry_cockerham

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#19
My old dicitionary (new when I bought it) claims that practical is the result of comparing an actual experience with previously expressed ideals or speculations (paraphrased a bit).

I suspect that was the spirit in which Lee delivered his orders. Whether it was 'tradition' or not to include the phrase, would of course be a mildly interesting research topic.

That brings me at least to the thought that an order given in a complex battlefield directive, as presumeably the charge at Gettysburg was given, depended on considerable coordination of timing and location to have a chance in ---- of succeeding. If a practical minded young general observed that this was no place to be and ducked or diverted his men for survival, then that action was a bit of a hindrance to any potential success of the original order.

Lee was traditionally held in perception to be a man who should have well understood that concept. If so, why would he use the phrase ' if practical'? Was it something he could do when he knew options on the field were available? At Gettysburg, he would doubtless have thought otherwise.

Forrest, by contrast, to my knowledge, was never quoted with that phrase, though Forrest, by all accounts, was no Lee.
 

samgrant

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#20
I've also seen variations of the "if". Most commonly "if practicable" -as in Order 191, part of which below:


6. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key's Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.

Back to the dictionary Larry.
 



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