Dahlgren’s evaluated courses of action

In my military time, the service schools taught the Military Decision Making Process as a standard for developing mission orders.  While overblown and cumbersome for the lower levels of command, at higher echelons, where full staffs were required to formulate plans, the process did come in handy.  A good operations officer would lead the staff through a critical dialog from which even the smallest details were addressed.  The cornerstone to this dialog was the evaluation of several courses of action.  In short, given a mission to accomplish (or if you prefer a “problem”) the staff was to consider all possible courses of action to derive a recommendation presented to the commander. This became a decision briefing from which the final mission order was derived.  (Hey, beat the heck out of the “shoot from the hip” command.)

Yes, there are a lot of ills found in the Decision Making Process, which need not be enumerated here.  But let me focus on the course of action evaluation for purposes of this post.  The pitfall was the selection of viable courses.  The “book” said one needed at least three to ensure all possible options were considered.  Often, the real practical possibilities were counted on one finger or less.   And just as often, the staff proponent would already have some idea in mind before selecting courses.  So the staff would offer two “bad” options to allow the “preferred” option to stand out taller.

That’s what Rear-Admiral Dahlgren played in October 1863 when suggesting courses of action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. In the same report in which he discussed the Confederate defenses and expressed concerns the Navy’s efforts were overlooked, Dahlgren related three courses of action for the Charleston theater.

1. To enter the harbor directly with the ironclads, passing Moultrie, Johnson, and the obstructions, defeating or driving back the three ironclads, knocking down [Battery] Ripley, silencing [Castle] Pinckney, and taking position off Charleston.

2. The army to move on James Island and the navy to assist.

3. The army operating against Sullivan’s Island, assisted by the navy.

Laid on the map, these three options appeared thus:


The first, as Dahlgren stated, was purely naval with the Army moving to aid once complete to reduce the exterior defenses of Charleston.  Or more likely, the Army to effect landings under the cover of the Navy’s guns to outflank the positions.

As for the other two, Dahlgren wrote:

… would be of like nature with that by which Morris Island was reduced – the troops gradually gaining ground on the enemy by trenches and artillery, while the navy covered their advance and checked the movements of the enemy.  These, however, must be left entirely to the choice of the general, because it is for him alone to judge of the practicability of the proceeding and of his means to carry it out.

In translation, this meant the second and third courses of action were not practical from the start.  The long siege brought Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s command down in number due to attrition and illnesses incurred during the protracted siege.  This left him begging for conscripts to refill the regiments on hand.  As for James Island, Secessionville may well have been Kyber Pass where the Army was concerned.  And Sullivan’s Island offered no means of lodgement as Folly Island had afforded for the initial Morris Island assault.  Amphibious warfare techniques were not far enough advanced for a direct assault.

So what Dahlgren offered was one practical course of action, alongside two impractical courses to be dismissed.  At the same time, Gillmore received several “out side the Charleston box” options from his staff, and was at that time weighing them for submission to Washington.  Gillmore looked over a wide scale map to see, arguably fanciful, options at Savannah, Charleston, upland South Carolina, and Wilmington.  Dahlgren remained focused on the few thousand yards between Cumming’s Point and Sullivan’s Island.  The first course of action presented by Dahlgren was exactly what Gillmore preferred the navy execute.  Yet at the same time, Gillmore was looking to other locations to exploit Confederate weakness.

Dahlgren wrote in summation:

When ready to proceed it will remain to act either singly or jointly, as the public interests may require. That the city can be destroyed by the fire from the batteries on Cumming’s Point I have no doubt, though it has probably been rendered intolerable to all who can leave by the oppressive measures of their own military authorities, who would, no doubt, rather have this happen than see us enter into possession.  But I should not entertain any very sanguine expectations of benefit from such a distant fire, which might destroy houses standing together, but would have little effect on the defenses. The occupation of the city by our own authorities, and the opening of the port to commerce, if the Government desired it, would be far more important, and should the ironclads be able to pass up and menace the city at a decisive distance, this might be hoped for.

On the basis of those facts and course of action analysis, Dahlgren pressed his request – approve, if not direct, the deployment of the monitors at the mouth of Charleston harbor and relieve the commander of responsibility for bad results.  Else, allow for additional months to repair and reinforce the ironclad force.  Not exactly a “damn the torpedoes” stance.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 52-55.)


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