- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

At the Battle of South Mountain in 1862, Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland insisted on being at the front lines, disregarding warnings about Union sharpshooters. A regimental commander warned Garland of the danger, but Garland replied, “I might as well be here as yourself.” Shortly thereafter, Garland was mortally wounded.

The division commander, D.H. Hill, wrote in “Battles and Leaders” that for Garland, the “post of danger was the post of honor.”

This “post of danger” reflects the officer’s primary role in combat: not fighting but leading; not killing the enemy but ensuring that subordinates do so. Thus, officers carry pistols and swords and not rifles and bayonets.

Leadership by example, a traditional military principle, is often a death warrant for leaders. Practically, it means leadership from upfront. Officers cannot, in fairness, ask subordinates to do what they would not do themselves, so lieutenants could not order charges and remain behind. Also, controlling men and maintaining discipline in nightmarish, unpredictable circumstances can be accomplished only by physical presence and thus exposure to enemy fire.

Ulysses S. Grant, in his memoirs, summarized the principle. Writing of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays at the Wilderness, Grant said he was not surprised that Hays died at the head of his troops, noting he was with Hays at West Point and during the Mexican War. “He was a most gallant officer, ready to lead his command whenever ordered,” Grant said. “With him it was ‘Come, boys,’ not ‘Go.’”

Another consideration was primitive communication. Men did not know when to move or what to do until they saw an officer directing or moving. But pointing or moving brought their own dangers. Sharpshooters look for indications of command when searching for officers or senior enlisted men: riding horses, pointing and gesturing, and carrying or using maps, binoculars, or revolvers.

At the Wilderness, Confederate bullets — including those from sharpshooters — whizzed by men in one of the units in the vicinity of Union corps commander Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. Sedgwick laughed at men for “dodging.” A soldier passing in front of Sedgwick hit the ground upon hearing a sharpshooter’s bullet. Sedgwick said that he was ashamed of the man and that “They could not hit an elephant at this distance.” The man rose, saluted, and told Sedgwick he believed in “dodging.” Sedgwick laughed and told him to go to his command. The next sound was the “shrill whistle” of the sharpshooter’s bullet.

In his report, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, present with Union troops, named the victim: “General Sedgwick was killed this morning by a sharpshooter; ball struck him in the forehead.”

Closest to battle, company grade officers (lieutenants and captains) suffered most. Theoretically, field grade (major through colonel) and general officers were safer since they were farther from the lines to observe and to control larger units.

But senior officers, North and South, were often hit. Of the 425 men appointed by Jefferson Davis as general officers, 77 were killed or mortally wounded.

The lists of dead senior officers was long, including, in blue, Maj. Gens. Jesse Reno at South Mountain, John Reynolds at Gettysburg; in gray, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart at Yellow Tavern.

Take Gettysburg, for example. George Pickett lost all three brigadiers: two killed, one wounded. One, Lewis Armistead, was the classic case of leading from the front. Commanding his brigade after the battle, Col. William Aylett wrote, “Conspicuous to all, 50 yards in advance of his brigade, waving his hat upon his sword, [Armistead] led his men upon the enemy with a steady bearing which inspired all breasts with enthusiasm and courage, and won the admiration of every beholder.” He noted that Armistead led the attack until “he scaled the works of the enemy and fell wounded in their hands, but not until he had driven them from their positions and seen his colors planted over their fortifications.”

Aylett wrote that due to the “great loss of field officers [in Armisteads Brigade],” brigade command devolved to a lieutenant colonel, who was wounded, and finally to a major.

Slaughter could be wholesale. At Franklin, Tenn., in 1864, five Confederate general officers were killed: Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne and Brig. Gens. John Adams, States Rights Gist, Hiram Granbury, and Otho Stahl, their bodies displayed on the porch of Carnton Plantation. A sixth brigadier, John Carter, was mortally wounded.

While setting an example is noble and important, an officer’s loss can be catastrophic.

Union Col. Richard Coulter, a regimental commander, wrote of the wounding of his division commander at Spotsylvania: “His being disabled at this juncture was a severe blow to the division, and certainly influenced the fortunes of the day. The want of our commanding officer prevented that concert of action which alone could have overcome the enemy in front.”

Officer casualties are timeless. Marine officers fell on Iwo Jima at a devastating rate, leaving sergeants, corporals, and privates commanding platoons and companies. Five infantry battalion commanders were killed. Moshe Dayan defended Israeli officer losses in the Six-Day War of 1967, noting adamantly that officers giving orders to move and then remaining behind simply does not work. So, the nature of combat includes and has always included officer casualties. D.H. Hill, writing in 1863 about the “post of honor,” summarized combat best when describing the infantry’s timeless role. “The infantry have to bear the brunt of every battle and to endure special hardships in every campaign. The post of danger and of suffering is the post of honor. If our liberty be ever won it will be due mainly to the indomitable pluck and sturdy endurance of our heroic infantry.”

With death frequently the consequence of leadership by example, for many officers the post of danger was not only the post of honor but the post of death and final service to North or South. Sadly, such was one officer’s loss. Taken prisoner at Cedar Creek, October 1864, mortally wounded Confederate Maj. Gen. Stephen Ramseur — shot from his horse in battle — had Union visitors before he died: former West Point classmates George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and Henry du Pont.

And as Confederate Brig. Gen. N.H. Harris wrote of an unknown officer at Spotsylvania, “A braver or more daring officer I never saw, and I regret to add, sealed his devotion with his life’s blood.”

Charles A. Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, a lawyer and writer in Norfolk, with ancestors who served in North Carolina units.

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