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Military units must fight with a single will to triumph on the battlefield. The individual responsible for imbuing that will into the hearts of the soldiers is the commander. In combat, a strong-willed leader is one who infuses his subordinate commanders and troops with an indomitable fighting spirit.

Brigade Commander

Portrait of William MacRae
General William MacRae

During research for my Civil War book, More Terrible Than Victory, I ran across a leader who stood out for his success in boosting the combat effectiveness of his unit. Confederate Brigadier General William MacRae took command of a North Carolina brigade in late June 1864. The Tar Heel brigade had suffered terrible losses in the Virginia Overland Campaign over the previous two months. In his first act as brigade commander MacRae booted his men out of the wagons they were supposed to guard on an easy resupply mission. His strict orders put the troops on notice that discipline under the new general would be a lot tighter.

The thirty-year old general took steps to uplift esprit de corps within his brigade. Especially noteworthy, he formed an elite team of skirmishers from battle-proven troops of every regiment. “MacRae’s Sharpshooters” carried repeating rifles and held regular marksmanship practice. Men competed for the distinction of joining the exclusive sharpshooter outfit. Throughout the rest of the Petersburg Campaign they led the way for the brigade, often overcoming their foes by themselves.

Reams Station

Battle of Reams Station
MacRae's Brigade Assaults at Reams Station

General MacRae proved his tactical skills two months later at the Battle of Reams Station. His brigade drew a hard luck mission to attack across open ground to dislodge part of the Union II Corps from an entrenched position. The Union troops had already driven off two earlier attacks. Scouting the terrain MacRae realized that the only chance for success was to break the Union position with a spirited bayonet charge, relying on a bold, rapid charge to overwhelm the defenders’ will. MacRae timed his attack perfectly. He held his brigade back until the adjacent units advanced close to the Union position then unleashed his men. As a result, the fierce assault demoralized the Union defenders and collapsed their position.

Burgess Mill

MacRae’s Brigade further burnished its reputation within the Army of Northern Virginia at other engagements around Petersburg. While the morale of many Confederate units eroded under the pressure of Grant’s siege, the Tar Heels showed rejuvenated spirit at Jones Farm and Burgess Mill. At the latter battle, MacRae’s Brigade nearly routed an entire Union Corps before getting counterattacked from three different directions. Showing his usual aggressiveness and skill, MacRae led his men out of the trap. He refused to abandon the field even though his exposed troops were heavily out-numbered. The Union troops withdrew that night. The battered Tar Heel brigade prevailed through sheer force of will.

Combat Leadership

The short general with the high-pitched voice turned his worn-out brigade into one of the best fighting forces within Lee’s Army. His tactical skill, discipline, and determination showed forth in the fighting prowess of his men from general to private. In conclusion, William MacRae exemplified the value of leadership in generating combat effectiveness.

In our connected world, we can put written histories in the palms of our hands with a few keystrokes. Yet, to get truly close to historical events nothing beats digging through primary source information. For those who want to research American military history, the gold can be found at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland.

NARA preserves the vital documents and materials our nation produces in its proceedings, so that “we the people” can unearth the chronicles of our history. The mammoth facility in College Park houses contemporaneous records and makes them available for research. NARA welcomes curious amateurs as well as professional researchers.

Son, Paul, examining records at NARA
My son, Paul, at NARA

The ease of access and quantity of firsthand documents can astonish anyone on an initial visit. Within an hour, one request for information about a single World War II regiment produced fourteen boxes of documents. Each box held a rich collection of field orders, maps, overlays, after action reports, casualty lists, etc. Some documents describe routine activity. “F Co. and Hdqs Co. moved into town to receive the usual quota of champagne, cognac, bread and fruits.” In contrast, other records expose the chaos of an unfolding battle. “Mtr-cycle machine gun Bn opposing us. Our location on 340024.”

The archives offer a peek into history at a granular level rather than the bland, superficial passages we read in our high school textbooks. Furthermore, the researcher can see orders, overlays and journals that commanders and staffs created on the spot. A careful reader can catch the truth of the situation from these documents that, sometimes, casts a different light on the rosy pictures spun in later accounts.

Plan a Research Visit

NARA provides helpful information on how to plan a visit to their College Park location. Be sure to review their guidelines on what to do and what not to do at their facility. To learn more visit the National Archives website