150 Years Ago: Fighting in the Twilight at Brawner Farm

The opening shots of what became Second Manassas rang out this afternoon (August 28) 150 years ago.  Two famous brigades – the Iron and the Stonewall Brigades – squared off in a stand up infantry fight.  If you are not familiar with the Brawner Farm fight, the Robert Thompson’s “A Legend is Born at Brawner Farm” on the Civil War Trust’s battle page is a good read.   Or for those who prefer those new moving pictures, Robert reminds us of Jim Burgess’ video also from the Trust.  For those unable to visit the battlefield today, you can tour it virtually by way of markers along the Brawner Farm Loop trail (map here).

If I have a corner to add any interpretation on the first day’s action, I’d have to talk about staff work – poor, terrible staff work.  Of course we can easily turn to the Confederate side, where General Thomas J. Jackson was unable to bring his numbers to bear.  But on the Federal side, I believe, is a case example of a failed divisional staff.

General Rufus King

General Rufus King commanded the Federal division engaged at Brawner Farm. Nearly at the same time Jackson sprang his trap, King was incapacitated due to an epileptic seizure.  The division went into action without the brigade commanders knowing this.  The brigades of John Hatch, Abner Doubleday, Marsena Patrick, and John Gibbon went into action that day as brigades.  And, particularly in the case of Gibbon’s, they fought better than could be expected.  But the division, as a division, lost.

What was King to do?  Not have that seizure?

Here’s where a good staff is supposed to shine.  Commanders get lost – as in “where am I?” lost – on the battlefield.  And of course they can be lost – as in a casualty lost.  But the unit must continue to function regardless of what happens to the commander.  That is the job of the staff.

In my Army life, I spent my share of time as a staff officer.  Thankfully all for tactical units.  I’ll never forget the sage advice from a veteran brigade executive officer – “The job of the staff is to make the commander and the commanded look good.”  The staff is there as an extension of the commander’s intent.  The staff ensures subordinates understand that intent and the situation as well.  The staff fights back confusion, chaos, and rumor to orient leaders on the task at hand.  Does not matter if the commander is dying on the field or sleeping off a bender, the staff is supposed to keep the unit moving.

The general commands by way of his words – spoken and written.  But he controls by way of the staff.  Captain Robert Chandler, where are your memoirs?