by Maj. Charles R. Bowery, Jr.
1. Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Promotion
With James Longstreet recovering from his May 6 wound and numerous other generals wounded or out of action, Lee had to make a major reorganization of his officer corps in order to meet the current emergency. The masterful way in which Lee made this reorganization, while simultaneously fighting Grant to a standstill at Spotsylvania, is a model of organizational leadership and political skill. In making these changes, Lee demonstrated that he was capable of directive leadership, but was also capable of of mixing this style with the participation of his subordinates at key moments.
Lee's first task was to put someone in Longstreet's place. Based purely on military skill, the natural choice for the job was Third Corps Division Commander Jubal Early. Early, a Virginia Lawyer and West Point graduate whom Lee jokingly referred to as "my bad old man" because of his predilection for streams of profanity, was easily the most combative of Lee's division commanders -- precisely the type of general Lee could depend on to exercise initiative and conform to the spirit of his aggressive orders.
Early was a bad choice for the First Corps job, however, and Lee found this out by talking to the officers of the corps headquarters, most notably Colonel Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet's chief of staff. Early on the morning of May 7, as Lee waited for the return of the reconnaissance patrols he had ordered, he summoned Sorrel to headquarters, and the two sat under a shade tree, out of earshot of everyone else, to discuss the situation. Sorrel agreed with Lee that Early was a good general, but he did not recommend him to replace Longstreet because he thought that Early would be "objectionable to both officers and men" of the corps.
The Army of Northern Virginia was a collection of citizen soldiers from the various Confederate states, not a professional army of career soldiers. Southerners of the nineteenth century, and indeed most Americans at the time, held intensely local sympathies; loyalties to community and state were usually more important than conceptions of American patriotism. The men of the First Corps hailed mainly from South Carolina and the Deep South states -- Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. To put Virginia-born Early, not the most politic of officers in any case, in charge of this corps would cause a great deal of bad feeling. Sorrel made another recommendation: Richard H. Anderson, who hailed from South Carolina.
Anderson was not the best choice from a military point of view. He had built a reputation as a solid and reliable, but entirely average, leader. Unlike Stonewall Jackson, he would require more close supervision, at least at the outset. But other factors besides simple military efficiency played a part in this decision. Anderson's division had served the First Corps before being moved to the Third after the battle of Chancellorsville. Sorrel felt that Anderson was the logical choice in this regard: "We know him and shall be satisfied with him." In making this key decision, Lee retained the final approval, but he listened to the advice of a capable subordinate, and in so doing employed a strategically placed bit of participating leadership. As it turned out, Lee made the right choice; Anderson performed very capably until Longstreet returned to the army later in 1864.
Whether or not you can delegate to subordinates depends in part on who those subordinates are and whether they are capable of taking on the responsibility. What are the constraints, political and otherwise, that you face in the realm of human resources? Territorial issues may force you to promote a candidate from one section or division over a candidate from another area, even when that person is not necessarily the most qualified.
Certain candidates for promotion may have connections in high places, even if they are not as highly skilled as others. In any case, you probably do not have the luxury of firing everybody you think isn't performing up to par; you may have to get along as best you can with the staff at your disposal. These issues are nothing new; Robert E. Lee faced them as he attempted to reorganize his officer corps "on the fly" after the Wilderness. The "best" decisions you can make regarding personnel may not be as simple as one resume over another.
With the matter of the First Corps settled to the satisfaction of all, Lee turned to other leadership needs. Hill had proved in the Wilderness that he was unable to exercise effective command of his corps. Putting Anderson in Longstreet's place kept Jubal Early available to assume the Third Corps post, and Lee made that move on May 8. This temporary posting gave Lee the chance to evaluate Early at a higher level of responsibility, confirming or denying his capacity for a fulltime position as a corps commander. Early's promotion, in turn, cleared the way for another of Lee's promising young generals to step up.
John Brown Gordon, a Georgia native and a natural-born soldier with no military training, had shown at every level of command from company to brigade that he was an outstanding soldier. He too, moved up, this time to command Early's division. Gordon's promotion created yet another sticky situation, as another of the brigadiers, Harry Hays of Louisiana, actually outranked Gordon.
Modern leaders often have similar problems: A lower-level leader may not have the skills necessary to perform, but that leader may have seniority, political connections, or something else that makes it difficult to remove her or him from power. In this case, issues of rank were every bit as sensitive as issues of state, and Lee applied dexterity to this problem as well. He moved Hays and his brigade to the division of Edward Johnson and consolidated them with the Louisiana brigade of Leroy Stafford, who had been killed in the Wilderness. This move gave the Louisianians one of their own to command them and removed the issue of rank between Gordon and Hays. To complete this reshuffling, Lee ordered the transfer of one of Robert Rodes's five brigades to Gordon's new division to replace the departed Hays. The move satisfied all the generals involved and left all of the Second Corps divisions with an equal number of brigades.
This level of political sensitivity set Lee apart from most other Civil War generals. As a rule, West Point-trained generals held citizen soldiers and officers in low regard. Not Lee; he understood those whom he led, he appreciated their sacrifices for what they believed in, and adapted his leadership to suit them. A few days later, while Lee and Hill looked on, one of Hill's political generals, Ambrose R. Wright of Georgia, mishandled an attack. Hill railed against Wright, promising to convene a court-martial to punish the Georgian. "These men are not any Army," Lee explained as if lecturing a student. "They are citizens defending their country. I have to make the best of what I have and lose much time making dispositions," he went on. Hill would only humiliate Wright and antagonize the people of Georgia by pressing charges. "Besides," Lee asked Hill, "whom would you put in his place? You'll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time." Lee's sensitivity to both the needs of his organization and the needs of his people is a great example for any manager or human resources director to emulate.