150 Years Ago: Banks’ Orders call for “military promptness”

A few days ago I made reference to General Nathaniel Banks’ orders to replace General Benjamin Butler.  Realize that relief was a slow motion affair.  Banks would not arrive in New Orleans for several weeks, and only then was Butler officially informed.  And as mentioned earlier, there were two pieces of correspondence that Banks carried – the official orders and the detailed instructions provided by General in Chief Henry Halleck.  The later contained what we’d call “commander’s intent” under the modern orders process.  Since I don’t see it reproduced elsewhere, allow me the long citation (from OR, Series I, Volume 15, Serial 21, page 590) here:

WASHINGTON, D. C., November 9, 1862.
Maj. Gen. N. P. BANKS,  Commanding, &c.:

GENERAL: The President of the United States having assigned you to command of the Department of the Gulf, you will immediately proceed with the troops assembling in transports at Fort Monroe to New Orleans and relieve Major-General Butler. An additional force of some 10,000 men will be sent to you from Boston and New York as soon as possible. The first military operations which will engage your attention on your arrival at New Orleans will be the opening of the Mississippi and the reduction of Fort Morgan or Mobile City, in order to control that bay and harbor. In these expeditions you will have the co-operation of the rear-admiral commanding the naval forces in the Gulf and the Mississippi River. A military and naval expedition is organizing at Memphis and Cairo to move down the Mississippi and cooperate with you against Vicksburg and any other points which the enemy may occupy on that river. As the ranking general in the Southwest, you are authorized to assume control of any military forces from the Upper Mississippi which may come within your command. The line of division between your department and that of Major-General Grant is therefore left undecided for the present, and you will exercise superior authority as far north as you may ascend the river.

The President regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of all our military and naval operations, and it is hoped that you will not lose a moment in accomplishing it.

This river being opened, the question will arise how the troops and naval forces there can be employed to the best advantage. Two objects are suggested as worthy of your attention: First, on the capture of Vicksburg, to send a military force directly east to destroy the railroads at Jackson and Marion, and thus cut off all connection by rail between Northern Mississippi and Mobile and Atlanta. The latter place is now the chief military depot of the rebel armies in the West. Second, to ascend with a naval and military three the Red River as far as it is navigable, and thus open an outlet for the sugar and cotton of Northern Louisiana. Possibly both of these objects may be accomplished if the circumstances should be favorable. It is also suggested that, having Red River in our possession, it would form the best base for operations in Texas.

It is believed that the operations of General Rosecrans in East Tennessee, of General Grant in Northern Mississippi, and of General Steele in Arkansas will give full employment to the enemy’s troops in the West, and thus prevent them from concentrating in force against you. Should they do so, you will be re-enforced by detachments from one or more of these commands.

These instructions are not intended to tie your hands or to hamper your operations in the slightest degree. So far away from headquarters, you must necessarily exercise your own judgment and discretion in regard to your movements against the enemy, keeping in view that the opening of the Mississippi River is now the great and primary object of your expedition, and I need not assure you, general, that the Government has unlimited confidence not only in your judgment and discretion, but also in your energy and military promptness.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Nothing like clear and concise orders, right?

Look over the second and third paragraphs.  The entire Federal strategy for the remainder of the war with respect to the Department of the Gulf is laid out there.  Nearly three years of activity, neatly summed up in wide ranging descriptions.  As I read them, I can visualize President Lincoln, Secretary Stanton, and Halleck hovering over some large scale map of the U.S., with the tall man from Illinois gesturing over wide swaths of territory.  And in all fairness, that’s the sort of high level planning that must go on.

But when those high level plans enter the operational scope, there must be assigned objectives, coordination measures, delineation of operational sectors, and clear delegations of command.  The “intent” should convey that in at least conceptual terms.  Do you see that here?

However on the other side of things, the last thing a field commander needs is lengthy, detailed orders that constrain initiative.  Yes, Halleck suggested he would not bind Banks to some rigid order. But he did so in some 500 words!

Yet, I’m reminded how easy it is to “Monday morning quarterback” someone’s written orders 150 years later.  In my experience, orders must be tailored to fit the command relationships.  Some folks can achieve the desired result with simple, direct orders.  Others need a little more … coaching.  But Halleck was not offering much coaching here.

Other than to press for “military promptness.”

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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