Command and Control going into the West Woods, September 17, 1862

About a year ago I posted about the nature of generalship and how that trait is, properly, assessed.  For the military professional, generalship means exercising command and control of a military unit.  Under my personal definition, I throw in a third skill to exercise – management.  But for today let’s just focus on the two “C’s” that most professional sources mention – command and control.   These two are often confused, conflated, and mashed into one when discussing generalship in historical terms. No more so than with the study of the Civil War.

So let’s lean back on the definitions.  First, command:

Command is the authority that a commander in the armed forces lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of rank or assignment.

There is, of course, more to it than this one sentence.  Please consult the earlier post for the full context.  In particular consider the three key elements of command – authority, decision making, and leadership.  In brief, command is the commander’s “charge”… that body of military force that he is responsible for… to include the responsibility of appropriate use.  We might say that command is an assignment.

Control, on the other hand:

… control is the regulation of forces and battlefield operating systems to accomplish the mission in accordance with the commander’s intent.

The important elements of control are information, communication, and structure.  Again, the nuances and details of each of these elements is important, so please consult that earlier post as to how each is defined.  Control is more so exercised. The measure of control may be quantified as the amount of the battle a commander can influence.

But these two have a dependent relationship – commanders can only command what they can control.  And commanders can only control what they can command.  Somewhere there is a Venn diagram waiting to be drawn…..

Turning to the battlefield, there is a ready example of the nature of command and control… with an anniversary just around the corner.   Consider Major-General John Sedgwick’s divisional attack into the West Woods at Antietam, on the morning of September 17, 1862.  Sedgwick was in Second Corps, under Major-General Edwin V. Sumner.  Sedgwick commanded three brigades that morning:

  • 1st Brigade, Brigadier-General Willis Gorman with 15th Massachusetts, 1st Minnesota, 34th New York, and 82nd New York (and a couple companies of sharpshooters).
  • 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Oliver O. Howard with 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania.
  • 3rd Brigade, Brigadier-General Napoleon J.T. Dana, with 19th and 20th Massachusetts, 42nd and 59th New York, and 7th Michigan.

And… of course Battery A, 1st Rhode Island and Battery I, 1st US Artillery… but they would not be part of the infantry formation going into the West Woods.

Sumner and Sedgwick chose a common attack formation with the division in a column of brigades in line of battle.  Something like this “wire frame”:

 

Formation1

Generally, that is, with the line of march to the left of view.  (If any of you Antietam experts find where I’ve put a regiment out of order, let me know.)  Gorman’s brigade up front.  Dana’s brigade, with five regiments, followed.  Then Howard’s with four larger regiments (in terms of men) trailed. Let’s add to graphics to depict the layers of command and the control exercised at each layer.

First, Sumner at the corps level:

Sumner

The red arrow depicts Sumner’s command, through Sedgwick, of the entire formation.  Yes, Sumner had the authority to go all the way down to an individual private in his command. But he would normally work through his subordinates, in this case Sedgwick.  Plus, you’d have a really messy diagram with red arrows down to each individual regiment.  Keep in mind, Sumner had two other divisions under his command.  So imagine a couple more arrows pointing off the diagram.  Brigadier-General William French and Major-General Israel Richardson were, in many ways, out of the picture.

Sumner’s control was likewise exercised through Sedgwick, depicted here with a green oval. Sumner’s ability to control the situation was limited to what decisions and information he could communicate directly to subordinates, chiefly Sedgwick.  His “reach” extended only to how far Sumner could be heard, or extended by way of messengers.  Sumner, himself, moved forward when the fighting started, in some cases giving direct orders to brigades and regiments.  So his influenced extended very far forward.

But, that brings up French and Richardson again.  Some would argue that Sumner was unable to control those divisions to the extent the situation demanded, because “Bull Head” was not in a place to make his voice heard to them.

Sedgwick’s situation was a bit cleaner:

Sedgwick

All of Sedgwick’s subordinates were in front of him.  And we can assume Sedgwick did move about the formation to exercise control.  Indeed, he was severely wounded while doing just that!  But we still have the constraint that his “reach” is the sound of his voice, extended by way of messengers.  However, at the division level, that constraint was manageable.  Orders to a brigade commander might take five or ten minutes to pass.  The time taken for the brigade to execute those orders might take twice as much time off the clock.

For the brigade commanders, consider Howard:

Howard

 

Then Gorman:

 

Gorman

The red arrows are almost always within the green oval.  While not every single private in the brigade could hear the general, control was manageable by voice and messenger.  …. Well at least in the formation as it stepped out.  This will change.  Consider the actual “on the field” arrangements and how much space this division took up on the battlefield.  A visual, from the field, if I may:

Antietam 154 003

This is a panoramic photo taken at the 154th anniversary of the battle.  The rangers arranged the visitors to represent different regiments. Then aligned everyone in the brigade formations.  You’ll see some flags for the center of selected regiments.  I was standing in front of Dana’s brigade to take this photo.  The main point to stress was just how much distance those orders had to travel.  And yes, the brigade commanders would be mounted and move around the formation to best exercise control. Still, the time required to relate an order, be that in person or by messenger, was minutes.  And that must be balanced against the time needed to move a regiment, or battalion, or company.  At the brigade level, some changes – say a refuse to meet an enemy thrust, or a well timed charge – required quick responses.

Keep in mind, control is not just exercised simply by riding around barking orders.  Control also involves gathering and assimilating information.  And at that day and age, most of the intelligence presented to the commander came from his own eyes…. And, yes, you will need to use the zoom features on that pano photo to see the flags… get that inference?

And once the firing started, those formations would not remain so well dressed and orderly.  Turning to the Antietam map sets, consider the command and control problem facing Gorman with his brigade engaged:

GormanMap

A color switch to adapt to the map here – the commander’s name in “neon blue” so it stands out.  Green is the range of control, give or take, for our consideration.  And the light blue lines depict the command arrangements.  Gorman had three regiments close at hand, but the 34th New York was off on it’s own.  Days later, Colonel James Suiter, commanding the 34th, could only report, “For some cause to me unknown, I had become detached from my brigade….”  Thus we have to consider the area of influence exercised by Gorman as well as Suiter.  And in this case, we also have to consider what Gorman and Suiter could see, assimilate as information, and thus use when making decisions.

Dana’s brigade appears more intact on the map:

DanaMap

But this is deceptive.  As his brigade moved up, Dana noticed Confederate movements and called an “audible” in response.

There was no time to wait for orders; the flanking force, whatever it was, was advancing its fire too rapidly on my left.  I permitted the three right regiments to move on, but broke off the Forty-second New York Volunteers, with orders to change front to the left and meet the attack….

I’d highlight two points from this passage. First, the situation called for immediate decisions, orders, and movements.  Dana could not wait for Sumner’s command and control to reach down through Sedgwick.  It was hard enough just to get his own command and control through to the 42nd New York!

Second, writing that passage two weeks after the battle in his after-action report, Dana still had no idea what hit him from the woods.  Only decades later, did the likes of Ezra Carmen piece the situation together.  (And one might argue even more study is still needed!)  Part of control, by way of handling information, is forming a common operating picture.  Where that common operating picture is ill defined, the commander has trouble making sound decisions.  Such makes those green ovals a little smaller, or perhaps a shade dimmer.

Howard, however, had it really bad:

HowardMap

By the map, there is no brigade formation.  Of course, the reports speak of “good order” and such.  As with Dana’s description, the full story would begin to unfold decades later as the veterans re-told their stories.  Add to that another twist – shuffling command under fire.  When Sedgwick was taken from the field, Howard assumed command of the division.  In Howard’s place, Colonel Joshua T. Owen, 69th Pennsylvania, assumed command of the brigade.

Sumner was in this fight and taking personal command.  But how much could Sumner control?   Howard added an interesting remark in his after action report:

Nearly the whole of the first line in good order stood and fired some 30 or 40 rounds per man, when word came that the left of our division had been completely turned by the enemy, and  the order was given by General Sumner in person to change the position of the third line.  He afterward indicated to me the point where the stand was to be made, where he wished to repel a force of the enemy already in our rear.  The noise of musketry and artillery was so great that I judged more by the gestures of the general as to the disposition he wished me to make than by the orders that reached my ears.

Emphasis mine.

In this short paragraph we have a glimpse of how command and control played out in combat during the Civil War.  “Word came down” about a threat.  Orders were given “in person.”  And those exact orders were not audible even to someone in close proximity! Gestures.  That’s how command and control was accomplished that day!

When examining the fighting in the West Woods – especially after the problems of command and control are laid out – the natural question arises:  Did the division take a bad formation into battle?

Perhaps.  And this question takes us into the “management” component that I alluded to in the opening.  As we have seen from the “wire frames,” maps, and some after action reports, when the division was under fire there were limitations on control.  An “armchair general” case might be made for having the brigades formed with regiments, in battle formation, stacked in column, with a three brigade front.  That would have allowed each commander to “fight” a narrow brigade sector.

But…. that also means the commanders would be working in a “stove pipe” without much influence on what happened outside of a regimental front.  And how much combat power would then be stacked up waiting for the order to commit?

A similar situation faced the Marines who assaulted Tarawa on November 20, 1943.  There, the 2nd Marine Division attacked, with an initial force of three regiments, landing abreast.

tarawa1

Inside those regiments were battalion landings, essentially in successive lines. If I “wire framed” the formation, it would look a lot like the opposite of Sedgwick’s.  Command and control faced serious problems that day too.  Though I would point out Major Generals Holland M. Smith and Julian C. Smith selected the formation for good reasons, based on an incomplete assessment of Japanese defenses and other factors.  The same qualifier can be used with respect to Sumner and Sedgwick selecting a formation on September 17, 1862.

Bottom line, there is no “one way” to assault into woods or across a hostile beach held by an unknown force.  The textbooks and manuals are not written that way.  Instead, the military professional has to study the situations and events of the past, looking for lessons that might apply to future scenarios.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part I, Serial 27, pages 306, 316, and 320.)

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6 thoughts on “Command and Control going into the West Woods, September 17, 1862

  1. Some argue that Sumner chose this formation based on his experience commanding cavalry. Pretty standard for horse soldiers on the plains with good visibility but far less effective for infantry advancing into an unknown wooded situation. Whatever the reason might have been, it was a poor choice.

    Sumner thought he was advancing on the Confederate left flank. He thought that once he cleared the woods he could perform a left wheel with the Division and sweep into town and win the day with little opposition. Maybe in that context the formation made some sense. Especially when he expected French and Richardson to be following in support.

    Through a failure in the control element, French drifted off to the left thinking he was forming on Sedgewick’s left when in fact the troops he saw were part of Greene’s troops sheltering in the dip in the ground near where the Visitors Center is today.

    Sumner was not in control of his trailing divisions and was rewarded with Sedgwick’s disaster.

    French was delayed moving out. Richardson was delayed even further thanks to some interference from army command. By the time French made his mistake and formed on Greene it was already too late. Sedgwick’s Division was wrecked.

    Of course the timely arrival of McLaws and the alert movements by Early had a huge impact on the outcome. Might have been different even with a less than ideal formation by Sedgwick’s Division if Sumner made sure French was in supporting distance.

    • That’s all good. But you avoid the obvious question: If Sumner chose the wrong formation, then what should he have chosen? And that answer has to be boxed within the context of what Sumner knew at that time. Again, the point being this is a good study of how command and control was exercised on the Civil War battlefield. I think that is about where we have to leave it. Otherwise we have to drill down into a lot more details… some of which we still do not grasp, 155 years later.

    • As Craig says, the command and control issue (limited to Sedgewick’s division) asks what was the proper formation if not this. Sumner had (contrary to some histories) reconnoitered the ground and that did not reveal the problem to his left.. You do raise a larger c&c question – why was the corps commander “riding point” with one division, necessarily putting himself at a disadvantage controlling the other two?

    • Thanks for your comment.
      That decision on Sumner’s part is a perplexing one.
      Had French been the lead division and Sedgewick trailing I could see the rationale. French was not terribly reliable and was in command of mostly green troops. Sedgewick could have been relied upon to follow promptly and actually do as he was ordered to do.
      As it stood with Sedgewick in the lead and French trailing, it seems to me to have been a significant failing on Sumner’s part to assume French was on track. Could a staff officer have done this? Maybe, but I have not found anything in the records to suggest that Sumner sent such an officer with instructions to hold French’s hand to be certain he was in fact complying with his orders.
      For an officer like Sumner to whom orders were law, it seems a curious omission on his part.
      By the time French came up in the wrong position, Sedgewick’s division had already been wrecked.

  2. Something I have not been able to figure out from the after action report is whether or not a skirmish line was deployed by Gorman. Has anyone else seen evidence that skirmishes were in advance of Gorman’s battle line?

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