by Ethan S. Rafuse, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
The battle that was fought in and around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg in July 1863 has long been considered one of the great turning points in American history. In the year prior to the battle, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had, under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, compiled a remarkable record of military success, with only a setback in the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, standing out as a serious blemish. At Gettysburg, Lee and his army fought with unquestioned determination, as was evident in the severe casualties they suffered and inflicted over the course of three days of battle. Yet they were unable to overcome the stiff resistance Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. George Meade offered on the hills south of Gettysburg. From that point forward, Lee’s army was never again able to win to sort of brilliant offensive victories that had inspired hope among Southerners that they could prevail in the war with the North.
In addition to being a landmark event in American history, the Gettysburg Campaign and the decisions that shaped its course and outcome offer a useful opportunity to think about how one approaches the challenge of leadership and measuring success or failure in any endeavor. Indeed, the first battlefield parks were established in the late nineteenth-century with the mission of serving as open-air classrooms for an officer corps that was gaining an appreciation for the importance of the study of history in the professional development of their members. The opportunity to study historic campaigns is especially valuable to the military because it can help them remain in touch with the essential purpose of their profession, for, as the great military historian Sir Michael Howard observed, for the modern officer “the complex problem of running an army at all is liable to occupy his mind and skill so completely that it is easy to forget what it is being run for.” 1
Another reason for studying the past is to develop critical thinking skills and frameworks for addressing problems, which makes it a valuable tool for leadership development in all fields. Too often, though, efforts to study the past in an effort to glean insights that can be useful for the problems of today and tomorrow are characterized by a “lessons learned” approach, in which the idea is to identify lessons that can be applied prescriptively to future challenges. This entails, for example, looking at Pickett’s Charge or how much discretion Lee delegated to his subordinates, in search of rules to follow in dealing with contemporary tactical and managerial challenges. Yet, as the great Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed, there are significant problems with using history as evidence of the objective validity of particular doctrines or theories. First, it wrongly suggests that in explaining the factors that led to success or failure “conflicting opinions cannot exist; one or the other must be wrong. . . . [Yet], Bonaparte’s thrust across the Norican Alps in 1797 strikes some as a splendid piece of daring; others will call it completely reckless. His strategic defeat in 1813 may be put down to an excess of energy, but also to a lack of it.” Further complicating matters, Clausewitz noted, “If anyone lists a dozen defeats in which the losing side attacked with divided columns, I can list a dozen victories in which that very tactic was employed. Obviously, this is no way to reach a conclusion.”2
To be sure, there is real value to using of history as a source of ideas to guide future action, as long as one does so critically. If properly done, the study of history can develop one’s ability to this. It does this, and much more, by instilling habits of thought that help students gain an appreciation for complexity and the importance of context in considering events, which can help them avoid the pitfall of trying to identify simple, enduring “cookie cutter” lessons from particular events that might not be applicable to their own situation. It can also give aspiring leaders the opportunity to apply analytical frameworks to how they think about past events in order to sharpen their ability to apply them to current events. The ultimate objective is for the student to gain Sapentia Per Historiam—not “knowledge” or “lessons” from history, but “wisdom”—which, not coincidentally, happens to be the slogan for the U.S Military Academy’s Department of History.
One way the proper study of a past event such as Gettysburg can help leaders develop Sapentia Per Historiam, is by introducing them to, and giving them practice applying concepts that are useful in dealing with the challenge of assessment. Leaders in all fields must, of course, continually and properly assess what they are doing and whether what they are doing advances efforts to reach some desired end state. In considering problems strategically, for instance, military officers are supposed to think critically about three things and their relationships to each other: ends (why are we doing this?), means (what do we have to achieve our objective?), and ways (how are we going to do this?).3 The problem with the U.S. military effort in Iraq in 2006, arguably, was that the end of creating a stable, democratic, pro-American government in that country was not one that could be achieved with the means U.S. military leaders had at their disposal and the ways they were using them at the time. The turnaround that took place after Gen. David Petraeus took command can be seen as a product of adjusting the ends downward to simply increasing stability and reducing violence, while the means available (the “Surge” of troops) and ways (shift to a counterinsurgency approach) were adjusted as well.4
In the current edition of Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations, the “keystone document [that] . . . provides the doctrinal foundation and fundamental principles that guide the Armed Forces of the United States in joint operations across the range of military operations”, commanders are instructed to “continuously assess the operational environment and the progress of operations.” The first task for a commander and his staff in the process of assessment is “to consider what to measure and how to measure it” using two concepts: measures of performance (MOPs) and measures of effectiveness (MOEs). An MOP is “used to assess friendly actions that is tied to measuring task accomplishment”; in other words “doing things right”. An MOE is “used to assess changes in system behavior, capability, or operational environment that is tied to measuring the attainment of an end state, achievement of an objective, or creation of an effect”; in other words “doing the right things”. Understanding these two concepts and the differences between them will enable commanders to “determine if the joint force is ‘doing the right things’ (MOE) to achieve its objectives, not just ‘doing things right’ (MOP)”.5
During the summer of 1863, obviously, there were a number of instances in which the Army of Northern Virginia did not “do things right”. Lee’s army moved north from its camps behind the Rappahannock River in early June 1863 with high hopes of achieving a decisive victory on northern soil. Then, on the first day of July, elements of the Confederate Army found themselves unexpectedly drawn into a major battle. Three days of bitter fighting ensued, in which the Confederates launched repeated attacks in a desperate effort to break the Union line and drive the Federals from key pieces of terrain south of Gettysburg. When the fighting was over, though, the Federals held the field and Lee decided he had no choice but to retreat from the field and lead his army back across the Potomac River to Virginia. In the process, Lee’s army suffered horrible losses in both men and material. Not surprisingly, students of the campaign have generally judged the campaign a serious strategic error on the part of the Confederacy.
Yet, when he assessed the course and outcome of the campaign afterward, Lee offered a very different take. Shortly after it ended, he asked a visitor to his headquarters whether “from what you have observed, are the people as much depressed at the battle of Gettysburg as the newspapers appear to indicate?” When his visitor confirmed that the newspaper reports were accurate, Lee proceeded to offer a remarkable assessment of not just what had happened at Gettysburg, but in earlier battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, one that was based on different measures of effectiveness of his army. What mattered was not who held the field at the end of a battle, in Lee’s mind, but how the larger strategic calculus was affected. The former, he deemed a measure of performance; the latter a measure of effectiveness. (Of course, Lee was not familiar with these modern terms, but he was clearly engaged unconsciously in thinking along these lines.) Yet the public, Lee lamented, seemed fixated on measures of performance in assessing military matters, which led him to declare that “little value is to be attached to popular sentiment in such matters.” “At Fredericksburg we gained a battle,” Lee remarked, “inflicting very severe loss on the enemy in men and material; our people were greatly elated—I was much depressed. We had really accomplished nothing; we had not gained a foot of ground, and I knew the enemy could easily replace the men he had lost, and the loss of material was, if anything, rather beneficial to him, as it gave an opportunity to contractors to make money. At Chancellorsville we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight—I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.”6
Lee then proceeded to justify his decision to move north. He began by laying out the situation he faced after his problematic victory at Chancellorsville. Even though it had been a fine thing to compel the Federal army, then commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, to retreat from the field in that engagement, Lee explained, it did not do a great deal to alter a strategic situation in Virginia that was decidedly perilous for the Confederacy. At the heart of the matter was Northern superiority in men and material, which at the time enabled the Federals to menace the Confederate position in the Old Dominion from seemingly every point on the compass. In addition to the 100,000 men of Hooker’s Army of the Potomac on the other side of the Rappahannock, he noted, the Federals had a significant force operating virtually unmolested in the Shenandoah Valley, whose agricultural resources were critical to the ability of the Confederacy to feed its armies, and a force at Fort Monroe that seemed poised at any moment to move on Richmond from the east. In the face of such a formidable range of Federal threats, as Lee saw it, he had only two courses of action available to him—take the initiative by leading his army north or remain on the defensive and surrender the initiative to the Federals.7
Adopting the latter course meant Lee would always have to be prepared to fight more battles like Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Even if he could win such battles, it would do nothing to alleviate the threats posed by the Federals in the Shenandoah and at Fort Monroe. Moreover, even if good fortune continued to bless the Confederate army with victories along the Rappahannock the obstacles to successfully exploiting them so they decisively altered the strategic equation remained formidable if not insurmountable. (Indeed, Stonewall Jackson had immediately recognized this problem when the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in Fredericksburg in late 1862. “I am opposed to fighting here,” Jackson declared, “we will whip the enemy, but gain no fruits of victory.”)8 Moreover, the military history of the war had demonstrated that any significant engagement between the Union and Confederate armies would result in tremendous casualties for both sides, regardless of who was able to claim possession of the field when it was over. The much larger Union army could absorb far more casualties than Lee could and, with a far larger population to draw from, replace its losses to maintain its combat effectiveness in a way Lee never could. At some point, Lee believed continuing to cede the initiative to the Federals by remaining on the defensive along the Rappahannock, bleeding itself white in pointless battles while Union forces enjoyed free rein elsewhere, could only result in his finding himself with no choice but to “retire on Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender.”9
In short, Lee believed that a defensive strategy was not suitable to the needs of the Confederacy in 1863 and that while he had been able to maintain possession of the fields after the fights at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, that in and of itself could only be considered a measure of performance (“doing something right”) rather than a measure of effectiveness. Merely holding ground, while better than giving it up to the enemy, was not a viable way in light of the means at his disposal to significantly advance Confederate strategic ends—in other words it could not be considered “doing the right thing”—i.e. effective.10
In contrast, by moving north into Pennsylvania, Lee believed he gained benefits that outweighed the cost of having to abandon the field at Gettysburg and the casualties his army had suffered there. “An invasion of the enemy’s country,” he explained, “breaks up all of his preconceived plans, relieves our country of his presence, and we subsist while there on his resources. . . . [T]he absence of the army from Virginia gives our people an opportunity to collect supplies ahead. The legitimate fruits of a victory, if gained in Pennsylvanian, could be more readily reaped than on our own soil.” As the route to Pennsylvania carried his army into the Shenandoah Valley, Lee pointed out, he was able in June 1863 to overwhelm Federal forces in the region and eliminate the threat they posed to the Confederate war effort. Then, as soon as the lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River, the Army of the Potomac had no choice but to give chase, “and Old Virginia was freer of Federal troops than she had ever been since the commencement of the war.” Moreover, while he conceded afterward that his army had suffered severe losses at Gettysburg, Lee was convinced they were “no greater than it would have been from the series of battles I would have been compelled to fight had I remained in Virginia.” And while he had been compelled to leave the field at Gettysburg, Lee believed the three days of fighting had inflicted such heavy damage on the enemy that it would “be as quiet as a sucking dove” for the rest of 1863.11
In considering the courses of action available to him in 1863 and endeavoring to explain the distinction between measures of performance and measures of effectiveness as he saw them in assessing the one he chose and its merits (though of course these specific labels for these concepts were not known to him) Lee implicitly subjected them to the tests that modern military officers are taught a proposed courses of action must be able to pass. This first of these is the test of “suitability”, the degree to which a proposed course of action serves the mission or complements the goals of an organization in a particular situation. Two others are “feasibility”, determining whether a course of action can actually be taken, and “acceptability”, determining whether the costs of a particular course of action are worth the benefits one expects to gain from it. Taken together these three are known in the acronym-loving military as the “FAS test”.12 To Lee in 1863, while perhaps feasible, remaining on the defensive struck him as a course of action that was not suitable to the needs of the Confederate war effort in Virginia. Nor, in his mind was it acceptable, for the benefits of adopting it would not in his estimation be worth the costs it entailed.
In contrast, the course of action Lee pursued, taking the offensive and leading his army across the Potomac River onto northern soil, fully met the FAS test in his mind. Critics of the move, Lee emphatically believed, underrated the benefits of the campaign, which he believed weighed more heavily in the strategic balance than the costs the move north entailed. Nor did they understand that it served Confederate interests far better than any other course of action that was available. In this, he believed they were guilty of basing their assessment of the campaign on what he considered measures of performance—casualties and possession of territory—but not measures of effectiveness rooted in what was suitable and acceptable for the ends his army was fighting for and the means he had available in the summer of 1863.
NOTE: The views expressed in the piece are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Army or the Department of Defense.
1 Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute 107 (February 1962), p. 6.
2 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1832; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984 edition), 170. That there is more than one book out there that that holds up Ulysses S. Grant as a source of positive lessons to apply in the business world is strongly suggestive of both the popularity of this approach to history—and the potentially absurd directions it can lead one.
3 As a recent article in The Economist notes, it is not unusual to find “businesspeople . . . eager to learn from the men and women in uniform.” Schumpeter, “How to make a killing,” The Economist (February 16, 2013), 69. While there is undisputable value in looking at a range of institutions for guidance in leader development, there are some not-insignificant caveats that one would be well advised to keep in mind when looking at the modern U.S. military.
4 For the War in Iraq, see two books by Thomas E. Ricks: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin, 2006), and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguin, 2009). Of course, any analysis of the improvement in the situation in Iraq must also take into account developments that were external to the change in American strategy.
5 Department of Defense, JP 3-0: Joint Operations (Washington: Department of Defense, 11 August 2011), II-9-10, GL-13.
6 Henry Heth to J. William Jones, June 1877, in Southern Historical Society Papers 52 vols. (1876-1959; Millwood, N.Y. Kraus Reprint Co., 1977), vol. 4, pp. 153-54.
7 Ibid., p. 154.
8 Hill to Dabney, July 21, 1864, D.H. Hill Personal Papers, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
9 William Allan, “Mem[oranda] of a conversation with General R.E. Lee, held Feb. 15 1868,” in Lee the Soldier, edited by Gary W. Gallagher (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 14; Heth to Jones, June 1877, in Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 4: 154.
10 Interestingly, perhaps the greatest evidence for the soundness of Lee’s strategic outlook comes from what his enemies had to say about the matter. While Lee had been “much depressed”, by Fredericksburg, Abraham Lincoln looked over the results of the battle—one that no one could deny had been conducted rather poorly by his generals—and found a silver lining, musing that: “if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host.” William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, edited by Michael Burlingame (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 101. This contributed to Lincoln and his senior military adviser, Henry W. Halleck, believing during the first half or 1863 it was sufficient for the ends they were pursuing for the Army of the Potomac to simply “occupy the enemy” along the Rappahannock line and “continually harass and menace him, so that he shall have no leisure.” Halleck to Hooker, January 31, 1863, U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 25, pt. 2, p. 12; Halleck to Burnside, January 7, 1863, ibid., vol. 21, pp. 953-54; Abraham Lincoln, “Memorandum on Joseph Hooker’s Plan of Campaign Against Richmond” [c. April 6-10, 1863], in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), vol. 6, pp. 164-65.
11 Heth to Jones, June 1877, in Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 4: 153-55. This was not quite an accurate prediction, as the Union army under Meade initiated offensive operations on two occasions during the fall of 1863. The first culminated in successful assaults on Confederate fortified positions at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford in early November. The second produced what came to be known as the Mine Run Campaign, which failed to produce a significant general engagement between the two armies and ended in early December with the Federals retracing their steps back to their camps. Still, it is accurate to say there were no military engagements during the ten months that separated the July 1863 battle at Gettysburg and May 1864 fighting in the Wilderness that were of the scale and ferocity of those two battles.
12 Joseph Anderson and Nathan Slate, “The Case for a Joint Military Decisionmaking Process,” Military Review (September-October 2003), 17. In their discussion of what a COA analysis should have, Anderson and Slate add two other questions that must be addressed: distinguishablity and completeness, as does the most recent guidance on planning, which also substitutes “adequate” for “suitability”. Department of Defense, JP 5-0: Joint Operation Planning (Washington: Department of Defense, 11 August 2011), IV 24-25. In my personal experience working with military officers who are conducting COA analysis, the “FAS test” remains the one that is employed regardless of what the doctrinal manuals say. Indeed, it is a common aphorism that it is difficult to plan against the U.S military because its personnel neither read their own doctrinal manuals nor feel any obligation to follow what is in them when they have.