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When I was a battalion commander, I confessed a military truth to my troops. “I can’t win a battle. I carry a .45 cal. pistol—no way can I defeat an enemy force. It takes riflemen, tank crews, squad leaders, sometimes junior officers, to win a battle…But I can sure lose one.” I finished with a commitment. “If you follow orders and fight with vigor, I’ll do my part to follow sound tactical principles that will give you the chance to win.”

The relationship between troops and their commander depends on this implicit bond. When either party falls down on their promise, the results can be terrible.

When Troops Fail

Military history provides a few examples of troops failing to deliver victory despite

the clever and bold plans of their generals. General Grant caught Lee off-guard during the Overland Campaign of 1864.

Assault at Petersburg
Army of Potomac assaults Petersburg

He sent a large force south of the James River to attack a thin Confederate defensive line around Petersburg while Lee guarded the front north of the river. The Union troops, already depleted by heavy casualties at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, mounted only a half-hearted assault against a small but determined Confederate force. Grant’s army squandered this opportunity to break the Confederate defense and had to spend another nine months investing Petersburg. At Kips Bay, New York in 1776, Washington had pre-positioned a patriot force where the British made an amphibious landing. The patriots barely fired a shot in the battle. Washington became apoplectic when his troops panicked and fled before the small British landing party.

Even in these situations, commanders do not escape responsibility for the poor performance of their men. In the above examples, Grant had allowed the fighting spirit of his command to dull through heavy losses and lack of confidence. Washington should not have expected the ill-trained and inexperienced militia unit to stand firm against a bayonet charge from British regulars.

When Generals Fail

The sadder and more common tragedy arises when brave, capable soldiers die needlessly through the errors and inattention of their commanders.

General Gerow
General Gerow

The 1944 fight on the Schnee Eifel portion of the Siegfried Line, discussed in my book Battle Hardened, demonstrates the effect of poor decision-making and faulty terrain analysis. The V Corps Commander, MG Leonard Gerow, channeled the 4th Infantry Division into a forlorn attack on the wet, wooded ridge that lacked roads to support a major advance. The division’s attack plan forced the 12th Infantry Regiment to fight along the narrow crest of the Schnee Eifel, a plan similar to climbing a fence by crawling over it lengthwise. The American infantrymen outfought the slapped-together German troops, from one pillbox to the next, in a series of localized shootouts. The narrow crest road, often interdicted by German artillery, constricted the Americans’ maneuver and supply operations. Instead of breaking through, the attack crawled, even though the GIs killed and captured the defenders they faced.

Poor Tactics

History provides several egregious examples of generals ignoring basic tactics.

In 1758, General James Abercrombie brought an overwhelming force against the French at Fort Carillon, now known as Ticonderoga. Abercrombie disregarded a commanding hill that he could have used to pummel the French flank with artillery. Instead, he left his guns in the rear and threw his infantry into a frontal attack against hasty French entrenchments.

Attack on Fort Carillon
British Troops Attack Fort Carillon

The French infantry swept the ground with musket fire from behind breastworks that could have been blown to pieces by artillery. The British, with the help of some colonial troops, pressed the attack but withered under French musket fire. When his first attack failed, Abercrombie ordered another, unsupported, frontal attack with the same result. The British suffered 2,500 casualties in the futile assaults. Abercrombie still had a huge advantage in strength but decided to withdraw. The rapid retreat stunned the French who could hardly believe they so easily defeated the massive British force.

Another British general, Thomas Wentworth, failed as miserably. He commanded a British and colonial American expedition that tried to capture Cartagena in 1741.

Cartagena Castle
Castle Walls at Cartagena

The British had to seize a stone castle that dominated the Caribbean town. Rather than batter down the fortress walls with artillery, Wentworth ordered several thousand infantrymen to assault the castle. The redcoats approached the fort only to discover that their ladders could not reach the top of the parapets. With no breach in the walls and no way to climb them, the attacking force stood helpless beneath the castle. Exposed to enemy fire, they suffered heavy losses. The attack accomplished nothing, except waste lives.

Conclusion

These examples illustrate the point I originally made. The troops are the ones who kill the enemy and break his will in battle. As stated in the U.S. Army’s leadership manual, “What they ask in return is competent leadership.” The general’s role is to give the soldiers the chance to achieve victory. He does that by giving them the resources they need and employing them in a tactically sound manner. Failing that, victory becomes unobtainable.

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.