Chances are you’ve seen a quote or two from this address, issued 150 years ago today (July 16, 1862):
By special assignment of the President of the United States I have assumed the command of this army. I have spent two weeks in learning your whereabouts, your condition, and your wants, in preparing you for active operations, and in placing you in positions from which you can act promptly and to the purpose. These labors are nearly completed, and I am about to join you in the field.
Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you. Meantime I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of “taking strong positions and holding them,” of “lines of retreat,” and of “bases of supplies.” Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Let us study the probable lines of retreat of our opponents, and leave our own to take care of themselves. Let us look before us, and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear. Let us act on this understanding, and it is safe to predict that your banners shall be inscribed with many a glorious deed and that your names will be dear to your countrymen forever. (OR, Series I, Volume 12, Part III, Serial 18, pages 473-4.)
Many cite this as an example of John Pope’s arrogant, and somewhat ignorant behavior. Usually you will see mention of “headquarters” and “hindquarters,” or some such quip. This is, in my opinion, superficial armchair generalship. Such bypasses a deep understanding of the dynamic between commanders and their troops.
Consider a commander in a different war far away in time and geography. In December 1950, General Matthew B. Ridgway took command of the Eighth U.S. Army under some dire circumstances. After a victorious advance into North Korea, the entry of Chinese troops precipitated the largest rout in American history. This was not just a division or corps taking flight – an entire army in full retreat. Ridgway’s predecessor, General Walton Walker, was killed in a traffic accident. And everyone from general down to private suspected Walker was on the way out prior to his death. Morale was rock bottom. The cold Korea winter sapped the strength of the fighting force. The enemy appeared everywhere across the front, in overwhelming numbers. Overwhelming allied airpower failed to blunt the Chinese attack. Even the US Marine Corps had to make up some story about “attacking in a different direction” to explain their retreat.
Immediately upon assuming command, Ridgway issued numerous statements, directed both to his troops and to his staff, directing “no more retreats.” He fired staff officers who even considered options to fall back. Every chance he could, Ridgway sought to instill an offensive spirit, shaming those who spoke about the situation with any hint of concession. And just like Pope, Ridgway’s men received their new commander with some misgivings.
“Old Iron Tits” they called him, referencing the habit of carrying a grenade on his web gear. More an act of showmanship than anything practical, that grenade sent a message – this general was not fighting the war from some cushy rear headquarters. Putting one’s “headquarters in the saddle” so to speak.
Ridgway’s words and posturing did not differ, in their contextual sense, greatly from that of Pope… save one. Ridgway, a commander with great success leading elite airborne troops in World War II, did not dare make a comparison to his previous commands.
In mid-February 1951, the 23rd Regimental Combat Team of the 2nd US Infantry Division (along with a battalion of French infantry) put Ridgway’s resolve into reality at a lonely hill called Chipyong-ni.
This battle (which too few Americans recognize today) is cited as a “Gettysburg” and not a “Cedar Mountain” of the Korean War. Ridgway followed up the bravery exhibited at places like Chipyong-Ni with well led and directed attacks. There would be no “Second Manassas” under Ridgway’s watch. Perhaps in any other situation, Ridgway would have continued in battlefield triumph. But higher level considerations tempered further military options. Still, Ridgway’s resolve ensured the war did not end with battlefield defeat. Stalemate maybe, but not defeat.
Commanders in war often turn to words we might consider, out of context, to be pretentious, arrogant, or bombastic. Leaders such as Ridgway (or Patton, or Wellington, or Washington) do such, and we uphold those words. We select passages in books of quotes as examples of iron conviction to inspire. Leaders such as Pope, on the other hand, see their bold proclamations stomped upon as examples of foolishness to be avoided.
Good scholarly study of military history should lead us to understanding why the words that failed for Pope in 1862 would prove successful for Ridgway in 1951. The difference between Pope and Ridgway was, if we may speak bluntly, that the latter gentleman had the skills and experience to back up the bravado. Maybe Pope knew how to manage an army, but Ridgway knew how to lead an army.