By Capt. Jonathon M. LewisApril 25, 2019
Leaders and staff with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Eustis, Virginia, conducted a staff ride to the Petersburg National Battlefield on April 18. The staff ride was an opportunity for Soldiers to gain experience by studying military history, while spending some time together out of the office.
Soldiers toured the battlefield, stopping at five sites to discuss the Union and Confederate armies' actions at those sites. The common thread throughout the discussions was the Army's philosophy of command and control, which is Mission Command.
As part of the staff ride, participants discussed how leadership decisions affected the outcome of the battle -- a decisive Union victory that immediately preceded the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general, Training and Doctrine Command, urged the Soldiers to use events like the staff ride to gain experience and prepare for future roles. One example of this is the Synthetic Training Environment, in which Soldiers fight bloodless battles in training to gain experience. Soldiers and units get training and experience at home station, training centers, and operationally deployed, but it's expensive and often high risk. Studying military history, said Townsend, allows the Soldier to gain experience without the costs of actual combat.
At the first site, they discussed the failure of the Union 18th Corps commander, Maj. Gen. W.F. Smith, to capitalize on initial success and how this resulted in a much longer battle. He had assaulted a much smaller Confederate force and missed an opportunity to end the battle, and possibly the war.
Gen. Townsend used this part of the battle to explain that leaders must have a "bias for action," and with appropriate caution seize opportunities presented by the enemy. Commanders and staffs must plan for "catastrophic success," and junior leaders must take disciplined initiative to achieve the commander's intent.
Second, they discussed mutual trust and morale with respect to the success of an African-American unit. Black troops had proven themselves capable in previous battles, despite widespread prejudice and lower pay, but the popular misconception that they were somehow inferior persisted. When white Union troops observed that the black Soldiers were equal to themselves -- as competent and as courageous -- the entire Union force at Petersburg exhibited improved morale.
This led to a discussion of how commanders can build trust with their troops -- by being seen sharing the hardships and risks of combat and by showing they care for their Soldiers. First class training, adequate supply, rest when possible and well-calculated risks are some of the ways leaders can take care of Soldiers' real needs and maintain morale. At this site, they also discussed military medicine during the Civil War and how some facets of modern military medicine are rooted in developments of the war.
Third, they discussed how risk acceptance impacted tactical command and the ill fate of a Maine artillery regiment. The Union army had a series of failures when they refused to commit to the attacks the commanding general, Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George Meade had ordered. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, redesignated as a provisional infantry regiment, was nearly annihilated in about three minutes during one attack on a position held by a veteran Confederate unit.
Leaders responded to the pressure from higher headquarters not to miss another opportunity, but without managing risk. With the losses taken by the 1st Maine, the lesson was learned to ensure troops get adequate cross-training so they can conduct the mission without excessive risk. With this example, Gen. Townsend talked about the idea of accumulated risk -- how commanders have a responsibility to report when they assume risk, to share the risk upward, mitigate laterally and prevent a failure due to accumulated risk.
At the fourth site, they discussed how politics and media affected military decisions and actions and whether these considerations should be part of decision making for our Army today. The discussion centered on the last-minute decision by Meade, and supported by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief, U.S. Army, to replace a trained, but inexperienced unit with an untrained unit to conduct a critical part of the plan. This decision was made because the trained unit was a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (USCTs), a unit composed of African-American Soldiers.
The battle took place during an election year, and the generals worried that if the USCTs failed and suffered high casualties, this would affect the election and possibly support for the war. The result of the replacement was catastrophe, with the untrained unit making an error in execution of the plan and taking huge losses. The unit made this fatal error in part due to a breakdown in Mission Command. The commander was not with his troops in the attack, and there was not enough clarity in the order. Further, in a high risk operation, the level of control should be increased to manage the risk and prevent failure.
Finally, they discussed commander's intent and shared understanding as they relate to the execution of orders. This discussion was at the site known as "The Crater," where the Union army exploded a huge mine under the Confederate defense position.
The Union army dug a long tunnel under the Confederate position and packed it with four tons of black powder. When the mine exploded, Union troops rushed to attack the Confederate position but thousands went into the huge hole in the ground where they were trapped and again took high casualties. The fighting at the crater was described as incredibly savage, with Confederate troops firing mortars and small arms and throwing weapons with mounted bayonets like spears into the huddled, trapped troops. Soldiers at the rim of the crater bayoneted each other as corpses piled up and the crater filled with blood.
The Union troops used bodies as protection and many of those killed were never identified due to the effects of the artillery. There were accusations of war crimes by both sides during the action at the crater. Grant later described this as the "saddest affair" of the war and counted it among his biggest failures.
The breakdown in Mission Command caused by less-than-clear orders, last-minute changes in unit task assignments, and the lack of leadership present at critical moments was exacerbated by the enormous explosion and resulting chaos.
Townsend said, "Mission Command is a commander-centric form of leadership. It's the commanders who make it successful."
The attacking Union force acted on momentum and instinct, not using the principles of Mission Command -- Competence, Mutual Trust, Shared Understanding, Mission Orders, Commander's Intent, Acceptance of Risk, and Disciplined Initiative.