Lee's Psychology--A Fatal Flaw

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
... Sheridan graduated 34th of 52 in 1853 (suspended for a year after chasing a classmate across the plain at the point of a bayonet).
You might say this was prophetic!

R
To bring this back to the subject of Robert E. Lee:

Lee was appointed Superintendent at West Point for a 3-year term in 1852. In the classes of 1853-55 you have:
James B. McPherson, John M. Schofield, John R. Chambliss, Philip H. Sheridan, John B. Hood, G. W. Custis Lee, Oliver O. Howard, James E. B. Stuart, Stephen D. Lee, William D. Pender, Cyrus B. Comstock, David McM. Gregg, Alfred T. A. Torbert, William W. Averell, William B. Hazen, and a host of others. McPherson, Custis Lee and Cyrus McCormick finished #1 in those three years.

Another three classes of underclassmen had one to three years of experience with Lee (and Lee with them) at West Point. Six years of cadets at West Point experienced from one to three years of Lee as Superintendent. Lee's psychology would have helped shape them, and Lee had good reason to know how many of those cadets thought.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
I would respectfully disagree. When one holds countless lives and the fate of nations in their hands, character is of the utmost importance. I would say that it is one of the most important factors in determining good generalship.
I am not sure the ability to send men to their certain death and destruction is a test of character.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Deciding when & if to do so and if such action is worth it certainly is a test of character.
Not so sure about that. Your test is of a technical nature, i.e., as in how best to achieve a technical solution to the goal of achieving a military victory with the resources at hand. Whether a general is a paragon of virtue or a reprobate, would seem of little value in comparison with his military abilities in achieving a strictly military objective.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
I am not sure the ability to send men to their certain death and destruction is a test of character.
Here's a quote I just stumbled across that expresses the essential dilemma that every commander faces.

"Nearly everything I do is a calculation balancing lives against victory. I give orders and men die. There is no way around that."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
 

Cavalier

Sergeant Major
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
To my mind Eisenhower deciding to order the attack on D Day to proceed, risks of failure and possible extensive loss of life not withstanding, and his willingness to take the blame if the attack met with failure is an example of the kind of character necessary to be a great General. Weather or not he was having an affair is not an issue in judging his greatness as a general or lack of it, in my opinion.

John
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Here's a quote I just stumbled across that expresses the essential dilemma that every commander faces.

"Nearly everything I do is a calculation balancing lives against victory. I give orders and men die. There is no way around that."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
It takes strength of character to decide.
I am not sure that is exactly the way to put it, or maybe it just doesn't cover all of it. The decision has to be made, and not-deciding is also effectively a decision. It isn't just strength of character that is needed. A commander also needs the ability to be honest with himself and ruthlessly objective in his analysis and evaluation.

Maybe this line from another famous commander puts the "strength" aspect better:

"He who cannot look over a battlefield with a dry eye, causes the death of many men uselessly."​
Napoleon Bonaparte​
(who certainly decided the fate of many men in battle)​
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I am not sure that is exactly the way to put it, or maybe it just doesn't cover all of it. The decision has to be made, and not-deciding is also effectively a decision. It isn't just strength of character that is needed. A commander also needs the ability to be honest with himself and ruthlessly objective in his analysis and evaluation.

Maybe this line from another famous commander puts the "strength" aspect better:

"He who cannot look over a battlefield with a dry eye, causes the death of many men uselessly."​
Napoleon Bonaparte​
(who certainly decided the fate of many men in battle)​

The danger comes when a general is also the political leader, like Napoleon. Then the general equates his success with military success, because the two are the same thing. When the US system is working correctly people like Grant or Eisenhower realize if they fail, someone else will get a chance to command and fix things. When military and political power are separate, the generals become disposable.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Here's a quote I just stumbled across that expresses the essential dilemma that every commander faces.

"Nearly everything I do is a calculation balancing lives against victory. I give orders and men die. There is no way around that."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
I can agree with this. But, this applies to almost all generals, good and bad, i.e.,it applies equally to a Lee or a Hooker.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I am not sure that is exactly the way to put it, or maybe it just doesn't cover all of it. The decision has to be made, and not-deciding is also effectively a decision. It isn't just strength of character that is needed. A commander also needs the ability to be honest with himself and ruthlessly objective in his analysis and evaluation.

Maybe this line from another famous commander puts the "strength" aspect better:

"He who cannot look over a battlefield with a dry eye, causes the death of many men uselessly."​
Napoleon Bonaparte​
(who certainly decided the fate of many men in battle)​
Not fighting doesn't prevent casualties. It only postpones them, or relocates them to another place.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Not fighting doesn't prevent casualties. It only postpones them, or relocates them to another place.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The point of Napoleon and Eisenhower is that no matter what they decide, someone will die -- and that they need to make the decisions with that acknowledged. A commander needs to consider the worth of results in terms other than men's lives if he is to accomplish his tasks. Any commander worth a darn wants to avoid ***useless*** casualties in carrying out his plans and missions, but they all know there will be casualties in a war.

In the first eleven of the Twelve Battles of the Isonzo (Italian Front, 1915-17), historians say there were four Italian "victories", three Austro-Hungarian "victories", two Italian "limited advances", and two "inconclusive" results. Those yielded about 1.1. million combined casualties (does not count the daily attrition in the trenches in between the battles). The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo was a famous "decisive victory", ending the Isonzo battles and almost knocking Italy out of the First World War. This is the Battle of Caporetto (spearheaded by German troops, including a young officer named Erwin Rommel, using "Hutier tactics" first practiced on the Russian Front in 1917). Caporetto cost the Austro-Hungarian/German side 70,000 casualties and the Italians 305,000, driving them back from the Isonzo to the Piave River. About half of the Italian war dead (300,000 of 600,000) died on the Isonzo River. Justifying Caporetto from the Austro-Hungarian side is easy.

Justifying that bloodbath along the Isonzo in the first eleven battles is the sort of nightmare commanders fear, as bad as anything seen along the Western Front. They are in a war and they must do something, but usually the path forward to victory is hidden. The commander must choose and he must do so with a detached objectivity that others see as ruthless, uncaring, or mere bloodlust. So a Grant makes the decisions and others call him a "butcher", a Burnside makes them and is called incompetent or stupid, so on for the Hoods and Hookers and others.

To drag myself back to the Civil War and a general who gets criticized for deciding not to attack: Meade after Gettysburg. I think Meade did a relatively good job of pursuing Lee, but also wish he had pushed harder or differently; I wish he had brought Lee to battle north of the Potomac because I think the potential for victory and decisive damage to the Confederacy justified the risk of casualties and a setback to the Union (this is what Lincoln saw). At the same time, I also understand why Meade made the decision not to attack on July 12: Lee's position looked formidable and the need for reconnaissance was strong. If an attack had succeeded, it might have been a legendary victory; if had failed, it might have been worse than Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor.

Commanders can't make decisions on whether or not there will be casualties. There will always be casualties. Commanders need to make decisions on whether or not these casualties, here and now, will do more to achieve victory than other casualties, at some other time and place. Since he has no way of knowing the answer, he has to guess -- use his experience and knowledge, to make it sound better -- and decide, but it will still be a guess. Napoleon is saying that the commander who cannot control his emotions will waste men's lives as he decides.
 

Belfoured

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I am not sure that is exactly the way to put it, or maybe it just doesn't cover all of it. The decision has to be made, and not-deciding is also effectively a decision. It isn't just strength of character that is needed. A commander also needs the ability to be honest with himself and ruthlessly objective in his analysis and evaluation.

Maybe this line from another famous commander puts the "strength" aspect better:

"He who cannot look over a battlefield with a dry eye, causes the death of many men uselessly."​
Napoleon Bonaparte​
(who certainly decided the fate of many men in battle)​
As an aside, one (very) simple-minded test I use in evaluating a military commander at the high levels is whether they would have made the affirmative decision Nimitz made in early June 1942 or the one Eisenhower made on June 5, 1944. It's all speculation in the end but I find that I am able to easily imagine some making those decisions and some others putting them off.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
I can agree with this. But, this applies to almost all generals, good and bad, i.e.,it applies equally to a Lee or a Hooker.
Yes. It does apply to them, but not all of them seem to take it to heart the way some do. I do not think, for example, that Judson Kilpatrick saw it the same way that J. E. B. Stuart or John Buford did. I do not think McClellan saw it the same way John Pope did, or John Bell Hood did.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
As an aside, one (very) simple-minded test I use in evaluating a military commander at the high levels is whether they would have made the affirmative decision Nimitz made in early June 1942 or the one Eisenhower made on June 5, 1944. It's all speculation in the end but I find that I am able to easily imagine some making those decisions and some others putting them off.
Here's another one, made just before Nimitz arrived in Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Admiral Kimmel, soon to be canned for the surprise attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor, had arranged an attempted ambush of Japanese naval units attacking Wake Island. This was done with a striking force built around the US carriers
  • The day Nimitz was appointed to replace him (Nimitz was in Washington, DC), Kimmel was notified that he was relieved. Admiral Pye (battleship guy, took command December 17) was appointed to replace Kimmel until Nimitz arrived.
  • Knox (Secretary of the Navy) had arranged a plane to fly Nimitz to the West Coast to catch a seaplane flight to Pearl, which would have gotten Nimitz there in two days.
  • Nimitz, having worked non-stop for ten days since the attack, felt he was too exhausted and needed time to think before leaving. Nimitz took a train across country, stopping briefly in Chicago (travelling in civilian clothes under an assumed name with a single aide for security reasons), to LA and San Diego, catching a flying boat to Pearl.
  • On December 22, with the Japanese invasion fleet approaching Wake Island, Pye aborted Kimmel's plan to attack the Japanese. Pye felt the operation was too risky.
  • The Japanese invasion fleet landed the assault troops on the night of December 22-23. Savage combat followed..
  • Wake Island fell on December 23.
  • Nimitz arrived in Pearl on December 23 (IIRR) and actually assumed command on December 31.
  • Admiral Pye went back to command the surviving battleship force at San Francisco, his last sea-going command. Later that year he became the President of the Naval War College in Newport, RI.
The Kimmel attempt to hit the Japanese at Wake Island really was risky and the forces trying to execute it were already facing strong operational problems at sea when Pye cancelled it. Pye made a prudent decision, probably based on his battleship-destroyer career and his strong Mahanist doctrinaire beliefs (concentrate for the big decisive fleet action). Kimmel was likely to have given the attack the go-ahead. Halsey would have attacked. Nimitz might have struck if he'd arrived earlier.

It's hard to say what Civil War commanders might have done there, but this is the sort of decision that tells a lot about a man. The garrison on Wake were doomed if the Fleet did not come to save them. Some would risk everything for that, or for the chance to strike back at the enemy. Others would bear the pain and make the decision to preserve the striking force, thinking the risk too much. Pye was far from a coward or an incompetent -- he just evaluated the risks and saw his responsibilities differently than some others.

Anyway, I just thought it might be an interesting yardstick for your "(very) simple-minded test" of commanders, no matter the age.
 

Belfoured

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Here's another one, made just before Nimitz arrived in Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Admiral Kimmel, soon to be canned for the surprise attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor, had arranged an attempted ambush of Japanese naval units attacking Wake Island. This was done with a striking force built around the US carriers
  • The day Nimitz was appointed to replace him (Nimitz was in Washington, DC), Kimmel was notified that he was relieved. Admiral Pye (battleship guy, took command December 17) was appointed to replace Kimmel until Nimitz arrived.
  • Knox (Secretary of the Navy) had arranged a plane to fly Nimitz to the West Coast to catch a seaplane flight to Pearl, which would have gotten Nimitz there in two days.
  • Nimitz, having worked non-stop for ten days since the attack, felt he was too exhausted and needed time to think before leaving. Nimitz took a train across country, stopping briefly in Chicago (travelling in civilian clothes under an assumed name with a single aide for security reasons), to LA and San Diego, catching a flying boat to Pearl.
  • On December 22, with the Japanese invasion fleet approaching Wake Island, Pye aborted Kimmel's plan to attack the Japanese. Pye felt the operation was too risky.
  • The Japanese invasion fleet landed the assault troops on the night of December 22-23. Savage combat followed..
  • Wake Island fell on December 23.
  • Nimitz arrived in Pearl on December 23 (IIRR) and actually assumed command on December 31.
  • Admiral Pye went back to command the surviving battleship force at San Francisco, his last sea-going command. Later that year he became the President of the Naval War College in Newport, RI.
The Kimmel attempt to hit the Japanese at Wake Island really was risky and the forces trying to execute it were already facing strong operational problems at sea when Pye cancelled it. Pye made a prudent decision, probably based on his battleship-destroyer career and his strong Mahanist doctrinaire beliefs (concentrate for the big decisive fleet action). Kimmel was likely to have given the attack the go-ahead. Halsey would have attacked. Nimitz might have struck if he'd arrived earlier.

It's hard to say what Civil War commanders might have done there, but this is the sort of decision that tells a lot about a man. The garrison on Wake were doomed if the Fleet did not come to save them. Some would risk everything for that, or for the chance to strike back at the enemy. Others would bear the pain and make the decision to preserve the striking force, thinking the risk too much. Pye was far from a coward or an incompetent -- he just evaluated the risks and saw his responsibilities differently than some others.

Anyway, I just thought it might be an interesting yardstick for your "(very) simple-minded test" of commanders, no matter the age.
Agree - that's another. The Eisenhower decision has always been for me the "final exam" question. He knew the risks, and as we know had even prepared an "alternative press release." But ultimately he made the momentous decision alone - and proved right. I can easily envision others who would have backed off to the next time the tides were right because of the very tight and uncertain weather window he was given.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The point of Napoleon and Eisenhower is that no matter what they decide, someone will die -- and that they need to make the decisions with that acknowledged. A commander needs to consider the worth of results in terms other than men's lives if he is to accomplish his tasks. Any commander worth a darn wants to avoid ***useless*** casualties in carrying out his plans and missions, but they all know there will be casualties in a war.

In the first eleven of the Twelve Battles of the Isonzo (Italian Front, 1915-17), historians say there were four Italian "victories", three Austro-Hungarian "victories", two Italian "limited advances", and two "inconclusive" results. Those yielded about 1.1. million combined casualties (does not count the daily attrition in the trenches in between the battles). The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo was a famous "decisive victory", ending the Isonzo battles and almost knocking Italy out of the First World War. This is the Battle of Caporetto (spearheaded by German troops, including a young officer named Erwin Rommel, using "Hutier tactics" first practiced on the Russian Front in 1917). Caporetto cost the Austro-Hungarian/German side 70,000 casualties and the Italians 305,000, driving them back from the Isonzo to the Piave River. About half of the Italian war dead (300,000 of 600,000) died on the Isonzo River. Justifying Caporetto from the Austro-Hungarian side is easy.

Justifying that bloodbath along the Isonzo in the first eleven battles is the sort of nightmare commanders fear, as bad as anything seen along the Western Front. They are in a war and they must do something, but usually the path forward to victory is hidden. The commander must choose and he must do so with a detached objectivity that others see as ruthless, uncaring, or mere bloodlust. So a Grant makes the decisions and others call him a "butcher", a Burnside makes them and is called incompetent or stupid, so on for the Hoods and Hookers and others.

To drag myself back to the Civil War and a general who gets criticized for deciding not to attack: Meade after Gettysburg. I think Meade did a relatively good job of pursuing Lee, but also wish he had pushed harder or differently; I wish he had brought Lee to battle north of the Potomac because I think the potential for victory and decisive damage to the Confederacy justified the risk of casualties and a setback to the Union (this is what Lincoln saw). At the same time, I also understand why Meade made the decision not to attack on July 12: Lee's position looked formidable and the need for reconnaissance was strong. If an attack had succeeded, it might have been a legendary victory; if had failed, it might have been worse than Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor.

Commanders can't make decisions on whether or not there will be casualties. There will always be casualties. Commanders need to make decisions on whether or not these casualties, here and now, will do more to achieve victory than other casualties, at some other time and place. Since he has no way of knowing the answer, he has to guess -- use his experience and knowledge, to make it sound better -- and decide, but it will still be a guess. Napoleon is saying that the commander who cannot control his emotions will waste men's lives as he decides.
Among Ike's problems were pressure from the Russians to open a third front, and knowledge that the German special weapons programs were making progress that was hard to measure.
A month's delay to get a new set of tides would have been costly. Grant faced similar pressure to win the war before the national election.
But we wander away from General Lee, whose record appears to be newsworthy.
 

Belfoured

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Among Ike's problems were pressure from the Russians to open a third front, and knowledge that the German special weapons programs were making progress that was hard to measure.
A month's delay to get a new set of tides would have been costly. Grant faced similar pressure to win the war before the national election.
But we wander away from General Lee, whose record appears to be newsworthy.
No question that it would have been costly. Of course, the same is true of a bad weather event during the landings, such as the one that trashed the mulberries. It was a risky decision either way and one that IMHO others would have opted for delay. As an aside, the Russians had been pressing the third front for a long time ...
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
No question that it would have been costly. Of course, the same is true of a bad weather event during the landings, such as the one that trashed the mulberries. It was a risky decision either way and one that IMHO others would have opted for delay. As an aside, the Russians had been pressing the third front for a long time ...
He probably thought he needed good flying weather, and close air support, as well as calmer surf.
 
Top