Fitz John Porter, The Campaign of Second Manassas, and The Problem of Command and Control in the 19th Century

A Scholarly Monograph By Ethan S. Rafuse

16 June 1998

The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 7

By August 1862 Major General Fitz John Porter had established a reputation as one of the finest officers in the Union army. During the first year-and-a-half of the Civil, War he proved himself a superb tactician, professional organizer, and leader of unquestioned ability. Yet seven months after rewarding Porter with a promotion to brevet brigadier general in the regular army for “gallant and distinguished service to the country,” President Abraham Lincoln would approve and confirm that same officer’s conviction by court-martial for disobeying orders and sentence him to “be cashiered and dismissed from the service of the United States.”1 It was one of the most spectacular reversals of fortune experienced by any officer during the Civil War.

The debate over whether Porter was in fact guilty of the charges brought against him by General John Pope has long been settled in the General’s favor. In 1878 a board of officers chaired by John M. Schofield overturned Porter’s court-martial, an action that a hundred years of scholarship has with few exceptions fully endorsed.2 Yet what Otto Eisenschiml labeled “the celebrated case of Fitz John Porter” remains a subject worthy of study. In August 1862 Porter found himself in the middle of a complex operation where it was critical that the main characters involved cooperate effectively. However, the failure of U.S. Army leadership to adopt more depersonalized, system-based command and control systems meant that there was no means for mitigating the influence of political and personal factors on how each of the men (upon whom the success of the operation rested) reacted to the actions of the others. The purpose of this study is not to replay the trial–although it will inevitably touch on the events related to the court-martial–but to provide a narrative of Porter’s actions during the Second Manassas campaign and to analyze his command relationship with Pope and the factors that shaped it in the context of Porter’s previous experiences with George B. McClellan; and discuss the problem of command and control that all 19th century commanders faced.

The Institutional Mind Set

The problems the men who led the major Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War encountered coordinating and managing their forces reflected changes in the nature of warfare that were first manifest during the Napoleonic Wars. The most important of these was the emergence of massive armies of unprecedented organizational and administrative complexity, the first of which was Napoleon’s Grand Armeé of 1805. The tremendous size of this force, swelled by mass conscription to over 200,000 men, made it too large for any one man to command effectively. To facilitate command and control efforts, Napoleon divided his army into smaller sub units known as corps de armeê. Not only did this make the army easier to administer, it offered the commander greater operational flexibility by enabling him to detach parts of his army to operate separate from the main force.3

In the eighteenth century, European armies were composed of enlisted men drawn from the lowest ranks of society, who made the army a lifetime occupation, and aristocratic officers who had obtained their position through purchase and/or personal influence and viewed military service as a part-time avocation rather than a profession. Because of the great expense maintaining such armies entailed they tended to be small, and operations were tightly controlled in order to avoid wastage of life and material. There was little need for subordinates to exercise independent judgment, for the small size of these armies made it possible for the overall commander to exercise direct control over tactical details in the field.
However, the rise of mass armies composed of citizen soldiers and innovations in military technology during the first half of the nineteenth century made it essential that army commanders delegate important responsibilities to their subordinates. The scale of operations were simply too lame; there were too many highly technical functions that only individuals with specialized training could fully understand, and conditions in the field changed too rapidly for commanders to exercise close supervision over the entire scope of the army’s operations or issue highly detailed instructions to their subordinates. The trick, however, was figuring out how to delegate authority and encourage subordinates to act independently and exercise initiative, while ensuring they did not do so in such a way that would compromise the general strategic plan.

The nation most successful in developing an institutional means for solving the problem of commanding the mass army was Prussia. Their means was the staff system. Although originally intended to function solely as an administrative and planning tool, the Prussian staff system evolved into a critical instrument of command and control. Napoleon had devised his own type of staff system to assist in coordination between the various parts of his army and himself. Unlike the Prussians, Napoleon viewed his staff system as an administrative tool rather than an operational one. It worked for Napoleon because he and his primary subordinates had functioned in a well established field command relationship for a number of years, consequently, they developed a shared strategic and tactical doctrine.4

Unlike Napoleon, Prussian armies did not have a well established tradition of field conquests nor a reputation for invading other countries. With an army under control and at peace, the great Prussian chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke recognized that given the size and complexity of 19th century armies, it was important that subordinates in the field be encouraged to show initiative. He also understood that some institutional means of ensuring that command initiative would be exercised in conformity with the Prussian strategic objectives and doctrines was necessary. The question was how?

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