Symposium Fallout: Is Leading from the Front All that Bad?

This weekend’s symposium gave me a lot to think about on my drive home from the Jackson Shrine on Sunday. The thought bubbles did not stop popping up when I got home either. There was a lot to think about regarding turning points–they come on the battlefield as well as the homefront and in various shapes, sizes, and iterations.

Do we think Jackson’s decision to reconnoiter in front of his lines on the night of May 2, 1863, was a poor decision because it led to his death?

But there was one strain of thought I could not get out of my head, dealing with the important actions (perhaps turning points) of three leaders: Albert Sidney Johnston on April 6, 1862, Stonewall Jackson on the night of May 2, 1863, and John Reynolds on July 1, 1863. All received some criticism over the weekend for not being in their proper places when they were shot. Surely, Johnston was too close to the front lines to direct his army on April 6, Jackson was wrong to ride out in front of his lines on the night of May 2 and Reynolds made a poor decision on the morning of July 1, my fellow conversationalists reasoned. But, with the gift of hindsight, do we view their actions negatively because, in the end, they are mortally wounded or killed?

Examples abound of leaders commanding attacks or rallying troops that we also view as heroic, that are the stuff of battlefield legend. James Longstreet and D.H. Hill after the collapse of the Sunken Road position at Antietam, Stonewall Jackson rallying his troops at Cedar Mountain, William T. Sherman at Shiloh (though he was wounded), and George Meade on Gettysburg’s second day, are just a few examples that come to mind. These actions, which required commanders to put themselves on the front lines and in harm’s way, often come out in a more positive light. Again, none of them resulted in the death of these commanders.

Part of being an effective battlefield leader is not just having a good strategy or knowing tactics well. It’s also about inspiring your troops to carry out one’s tactical prowess, especially in trying times. John Reynolds, a native Pennsylvanian, no doubt sought to inspire his soldiers when he led them into the Herbst Woods on July 1, 1863. There are numerous examples of Albert Sidney Johnston trying to do the same with his green soldiers on April 6.

Winfield Scott Hancock’s famous words on July 3, 1863 sum up this concept best. With Confederate artillery shells sailing over his head and over his troops, an unnerving phenomenon no doubt, Hancock mounted his horse and rode up and down the lines so that his soldiers saw him. His men lay huddled behind a stonewall, some scraping into the ground to create as much cover as possible. An officer soon implored Hancock to dismount and head to the rear for safety. “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count,” Hancock replied.

Hancock’s July 3 ride has become the stuff of legend. This Dale Gallon painting portrays it and it is heroically shown in the movie “Gettysburg.”

Hancock did not mean that his life did not count. What he meant was at that trying time for his troops, his role as a corps commander was defunct. As a corps commander, he should have been behind the lines, directing the movements of his corps. Instead, Hancock adopted the other part of being an effective battlefield commander, of being a leader and setting an inspiring example, of promising to not send his troops into a place where he would not accompany them and showing that.

Getting shot while out on the front lines does not make an army or corps commander a bad one or necessarily make their decision to ride along the front lines a poor one. With hindsight, we can pick and choose what moments on Civil War battlefields where generals placed themselves at the decisive point of action were a good decision or a bad one based on the known outcome. Regardless, as was discussed multiple times at the symposium, a general inspiring his soldiers to stand firm in stressful situations or one becoming a casualty under fire can be a true turning point on a battlefield.