Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Major Patton, Discipline, and the Limits of Enthusiasm in the Civil War

Posted in Education, Leadership by Andy Hall on April 23, 2012

In 1932 a U.S. Army cavalry officer, Major George S. Patton, Jr., submitted a term paper to the Army War College on the likely characteristics of the next major war, and how the military should prepare for that event. As part of the background to his analysis, Major Patton gave brief synopses of previous wars going back to Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty, and the broad lessons to be derived from them. This is what Patton wrote about the American Civil War:

In the Civil War both sides used identical organizations and tactics.

Lesson. — Identical methods produce long wars.
Up until the Summer of 1863 a regular force on either side would have had decisive results. After that date both sides were professional in everything but discipline. NOTE. — In 1864, Lee wrote a long order on the necessity of securing discipline. (HENDERSON)
The initial successes of the South were largely due to the fact that the superior enthusiasm — emotional urge — replaced discipline. In the North this enthusiasm was less marked, especially in the eastern armies.

The reference Patton cites appears to be this passage in G. F. R. Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War:

That [Lee’s] circular [on discipline] was considered necessary after the troops had been nearly four years under arms establishes beyond all question that the discipline of the Confederate army was not that of the regular troops with whom General Lee had served under the Stars and Stripes; but it is not to be understood that he attributed the deficiencies of his soldiers to any spirit of resistance on their part to the demands of subordination. Elsewhere he says, “The greatest difficulty I find is in causing orders and regulations to be obeyed. This arises not from a spirit of disobedience, but from ignorance.” And here, with his usual perspicacity, he goes straight to the root of the evil. When the men in the ranks understand all that discipline involves, safety, health, efficiency, victory, it is easily maintained; and it is because experience and tradition have taught them this that veteran armies are so amenable to control. “Soldiers,” says Sir Charles Napier, “must obey in all things. They may and do laugh at foolish orders, but they nevertheless obey, not because they are blindly obedient, but because they know that to disobey is to break the backbone of their profession.”
Such knowledge, however, is long in coming, even to the regular, and it may be questioned whether it ever really came home to the Confederates.
In fact, the Southern soldier, ignorant, at the outset, of what may be accomplished by discipline, never quite got rid of the belief that the enthusiasm of the individual, his goodwill and his native courage, was a more than sufficient substitute. ‘The spirit which animates our soldiers,’ wrote Lee, ‘ and the natural courage with which they are so liberally endowed, have led to a reliance upon those good  qualities, to the neglect of measures which would increase their efficiency and contribute to their safety.” Yet the soldier was hardly to blame. Neither he nor his regimental officers had any previous knowledge of war when they were suddenly launched against the enemy, and there was no time to instil into them the habits of discipline. There was no regular army to set them an example ; no historic force whose traditions they would unconsciously have adopted; the exigencies of the service forbade the retention of the men in camps of instruction, and trained instructors could not be spared from more important duties.
Such ignorance, however, as that which prevailed in the Southern ranks is not always excusable. It would be well if those who pose as the friends of the private soldier, as his protectors from injustice, realised the mischief they may do by injudicious sympathy. The process of being broken to discipline is undoubtedly galling to the instincts of free men, and it is beyond question that among a multitude of superiors, some will be found who are neither just nor considerate. Instances of hardship must inevitably occur. But men and officers-for discipline presses as hardly on the officers as on the men-must obey, no matter at what cost to their feelings, for obedience to orders, instant and unhesitating, is not only the life-blood of armies but the security of States; and the doctrine that under any conditions whatever deliberate disobedience can be justified is treason to the commonwealth.

That the Confederate armies matched off to war in 1861 with great enthusiasm is undoubted, as was the widespread belief that one Confederate soldier could whip five, ten, twenty Yankees. But Patton makes the point that both the Union and Confederate armies, being overwhelmingly composed of non-professionals, always lacked that final ingredient that marked professional armies, that of unbending discipline. (Lee may have bemoaned the lack of discipline, but was himself known to be a soft touch.)

In his paper, Patton suggests a drop-off in Confederate enthusiasm from mid-1863 on, but Henderson goes further, making the argument that when the enthusiasm that had marked the Confederate effort during the first two years of the war began to fail, after two hard years of war and twin defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Union was just finally taking hold of a cause that would carry them to victory. Henderson writes:

Enthusiasm in the [Union’s] cause was fast diminishing when Lincoln, purely on his own initiative, proclaimed emancipation, and, investing the war with the dignity of a crusade, inspired the soldier with a new incentive, and appealed to a feeling which had not yet been stirred. Many Northerners had not thought it worth while to fight for the re-establishment of the Union on the basis of the Constitution. If slavery was to be permitted to continue they preferred separation; and these men were farmers and agriculturists, the class which furnished the best soldiers, men of American birth, for the most part abolitionists, and ready to fight for the principle they had so much at heart. It is true that the effect of the edict was not at once apparent. It was not received everywhere with acclamation. The army had small sympathy with the coloured race, and the political opponents of the President accused him vehemently of unconstitutional action. Their denunciations, however, missed the mark. The letter of the Constitution, as Mr. Lincoln clearly saw, had ceased to be regarded, at least by the great bulk of the people, with superstitious reverence. They had learned to think more of great principles than of political expedients; and if the defence of their hereditary rights had welded the South into a nation, the assertion of a still nobler principle, the liberty of man, placed the North on a higher plane, enlisted the sympathy of Europe, and completed the isolation of the Confederacy.

It’s worth recalling that, though he was born in California, Major Patton was a Virginian by family history, a former cadet of the Virginia Military Institute, and the namesake of his grandfather, a Confederate officer mortally wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester. When Patton was a child, one of his father’s closest friends, and a frequent visitor to the Patton household, was John S. Mosby, one of the most famous cavarlymen of the war. Patton’s “Confed cred,” as it were, is unassailable, and his admiration for the soldiers of the Confederacy is unquestioned. But at the same time, neither he nor his source, Henderson, fall into the ideology of the Lost Cause, that the South was simply overwhelmed by force of numbers, its nobility and morale intact. Rather, they argue that a lack of discipline, in both armies, was temporarily offset by gung-ho enthusiasm and esprit, that finally came to full flower in the Union army — “investing the war with the dignity of a crusade” — just as it began to falter in the Confederate ranks.

Are they right?

(H/t to Tom Ricks’ fantastic Best Defense blog.)

Image: Colonel George S. Patton, Jr., between the World Wars. Fort George G. Meade Museum.

2 Responses

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  1. theravenspoke said, on April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    A very thought-provoking comment. I’d suggest that, from my reading of Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army and Grant’s memoirs, that there were other, significant reasons why the Confederacy was poorly prepared for war and ultimately doomed.

    1. Infrastructure – fewer railroads; multiple gauge.
    2. Manufacturing capacity – significant southern steel centers could be counted on one hand.
    3. Literacy & technical skill – Northern soldiers on-average possessed greater literacy and mechanical skill, which came to the fore in railroad and bridge repair.
    4. Logistics – Montgomery C. Meigs stands alone.
    5. Administration – Glatthaar talks about Lee being (almost literally) buried in routine paperwork, trivial matters that Grant didn’t deal with, which added up to a big distraction from his primary duty.

    Patton wasn’t wrong in his assessment, but he wasn’t completely right either. Seems odd he’d miss steel manufacturing, given his fondness for big things made of steel.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      “Patton wasn’t wrong in his assessment, but he wasn’t completely right either.”

      I’d agree with that. The answers to most big historical questions are either simple, or correct — it’s rare for them to be both.

      I thought this piece was interesting because General Patton is considered to be a modern hero in the Southern (Southron) tradition, one who had great respect for his Confederate forebears. That is, you know, not wrong, but it’s interesting to see him make the argument that there were internal elements of morale and a lack of professional discipline that played a role in the Confederate military defeat. You’ve not going to hear that talked about much among heritage groups today.

      I don’t recall reading any of Patton’s other writing on the ACW, and will have to be on the look out for that.

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