The Worst Order Ever Written?

Andy Cardinal

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#1
July 1, 1862.

Batteries have been established to rake the enemy’s line. If it is broken, as is probable, Armistead, who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same. By order of Gen. Lee.

R. H. CHILTON, A. A. C.

There may be worse written orders, of course, but this one is certainly up there among the worst in my opinion.

Are these the orders Lee intended to give? Is Chilton responsible for not relaying Lee's intentions in a clearer manner? Thoughts?
 

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trice

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#2
July 1, 1862.

Batteries have been established to rake the enemy’s line. If it is broken, as is probable, Armistead, who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same. By order of Gen. Lee.

R. H. CHILTON, A. A. C.

There may be worse written orders, of course, but this one is certainly up there among the worst in my opinion.

Are these the orders Lee intended to give? Is Chilton responsible for not relaying Lee's intentions in a clearer manner? Thoughts?
Well ... orders like that were probably fairly typical in the days before reliable battlefield communications and wristwatches. The order essentially says: "There will be an artillery barrage. Watch Armistead. Go in if he does." It is the type of order someone gives when they are doing something on the fly, under time pressure, in an unpredictable situation. The order is dashed off, one for each sub-commander, and handed to aides to gallop it over to the destination.

Lee was not given to overly specific or detailed orders, preferring to rely on the intelligence and initiative of his subordinates (which usually works well with really good people, not so well if they are a cut below what you expect). Gettysburg was Lee's first battle without Jackson; Stuart had been off too long and had just arrived; A. P. Hill and Ewell weren't quite measuring up; Longstreet was feeling mulish; the rest of the ANV seemed disjointed. Lee's command style becomes more in-person and specific as he fights the war after Gettysburg, particularly in 1864 after Stuart is killed and Longstreet is wounded.

His staff was also extremely small (4 men, at the innermost level). Overworked staff under pressure, dealing with a total change from the plan earlier in the day that had been abandoned, would be likely to write short orders, not long ones.

For comparison, take a look at Hood's order to attack the Union advance position at Franklin. It was given verbally and seems to have equated to: "Attack! Rout them and follow on their heels with the bayonet. Go over the earthworks with them before the Yankee main line can open fire on you." A stunning, horribly ruthless and risky order that led to a five-hour Confederate bloodbath with 7,000 casualties, but one that also recognized the only possibility for success and -- maybe -- came within a roll of the dice of working.
 

Andy Cardinal

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#4
Yes, Malvern Hill.

Specifically, no batteries had been established to rake the Union position, nor were they afterward. While there was an attempt to put batteries in position, they were for the most part driven off before they could make any effect.

Second, while I agree with @trice to an extent, I am not aware of a major attack of that proportion that is based on the judgment of a minor brigadier, as Armistead was at that point. Also, I would think a signal to attack might be a signal gun, or something like that, rather than a yell.
 
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trice

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#6
Yes, Malvern Hill.

Specifically, no batteries had been established to rake the Union position, nor were they afterward. While there was an attempt to put batteries in position, they were for the most part driven off before they could make any effect.

Second, while I agree with @trice to an extent, I am not aware of a major attack of that proportion that is based on the judgment of a minor brigadier, as Armistead was at that point. Also, I would think a signal to attack might be a signal,gun, or something like that, rather than a yell.
The Malvern Hill attack was supposed to begin with a crossfire artillery barrage proposed to Lee by Longstreet. Union guns overwhelmed the attempts to get those batteries established. Armistead advanced, Wright tried to follow, Armistead came to a stop, Wright fell back. Lee sent the order above, in case Armistead still saw an opportunity. More troops piled in (Magruder, Barksdale, Cobb, D. R. Jones, G. T. Anderson, Toombs, McLaws) and confusion on the field led to Magruder telling Lee that Armistead was in a good position and Lee telling Magruder to go in. Then everything really went to Hell.

I have seen a lot of orders mentioned over the years similar to this; I'll have to see if I can find a few examples. A signal gun (often two shots) is common. I have seen orders similar to this one about Armistead's movement before (vision was often restricted in the days of black powder, so a unit might be ordered to move based on the movement of another) and "attack with a yell" was another thing I recall.
 

Andy Cardinal

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#8
If the criteria for judging is the problems the order created, I can think of several other candidates for "the worst order ever written."
I'm sure there are (as I said above). Few with Lee's name on them, I would think.

As a slight alteration of my original post, I wonder if you (or someone else) might provide examples. In this particular case, I believe the poor wording led to an unnecessary and perhaps not entirely intended (by that point) assault at Malvern Hill.

Another example I can think of off the top of my head is Burnside's wordy but poorly writren order to Franklin at Fredericksburg.
 
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#10
Another example I can think of off the top of my head is Burnside's wordy but poorly writren order to Franklin at Fredericksburg.
I agree. I also think it would have saved a lot of misunderstanding if Meade had not given Hancock an order putting him in charge of the left wing at Gettysburg. He himself seems to have thought it was a mistake, as in his report of the battle later, he indicated that his true intention was to have Hancock represent him on the field.
 



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