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Civil War History Leads to Present-Day Lessons for Marines
October 4, 2013
1stLt Alexander Abate refers to locations on the map as he gives his lecture on the Battle of Chancellorsville.
By Jessica Koers
Four vans with Marines from 2d Battalion, Ninth Marines pull into a small parking lot that serves as stop number three on the self-guided battlefield tour for the Battle of Chancellorsville Sept. 6, 2013. As the Marines emerge from the vehicles they see a field with overgrown grass surrounded by woods to the left and a road to the right. After reading the educational plaques, they make their way down to the foundational ruins of Chancellorsville House, MajGen Joseph Hooker would make that house his headquarters on April 30, 1863.
1stLt Alexander Abate, Echo Company’s Commander, is in charge of this battlefield’s discussion. He leads the group of 35 Marines, consisting of the battalion’s company command elements and command staff, in a lecture about the strategy involved in the battle and the reasoning behind the actions of Union and Confederate leadership.
“What we are trying to build upon is the lessons the generals, colonels, division commanders, and core commanders learned during the battle,” Abate said. “We are trying to see, and look, into what they saw on the battlefield and the decisions they made … so we can take those lessons learned and apply them to the future.”
The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered the last, and greatest, collaboration between Gen Robert E. Lee and LtGen Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. On the first night of the battle, May 1, 1863, the two met and developed a strategy that would eventually lead to a Confederate victory.
“Chancellorsville is that battle in the Civil War that best encapsulates a smaller fighting force fighting a larger one,” LtCol Nicholas Davis, the battalion commander, said. “The Confederates split their forces several times, and it culminates with General Jackson outflanking a stronger Union position.”
On May 2, Jackson took 30,000 men off on a march to cross the front of the Union Army in order to stealthily swing around behind them. In the meantime, Lee had about 15,000 men facing 70,000 Union soldiers. In order for this plan to work Jackson had to make his long march undetected; Hooker had to remain timid in his defensive strategy; and MajGen Jubal A. Early, a Confederate Commander, would have to keep the Union troops in Fredericksburg occupied despite the four-to-one advantage the other side had. The plan worked out, however, and Hooker was unprepared for the overwhelming attack Jackson’s men would unleash on his right flank and rear. The Confederates pushed the Union Army back about two miles.
Davis said Jackson’s maneuver could easily have been applied in Iraq or Afghanistan today because the Marine Corps is tasking squadrons or platoons to fight against larger entities. He said it is also an important lesson for Marines to keep in mind as they look to future.
“As we reach and pivot to the Pacific, we are going to be looking at forces that are much larger than us,” Davis said. “I want to make sure our Marines are thinking they are still able to compete on that level.”
Davis said the worst thing a smaller force can do when up against a larger entity is sit and wait for more guidance or information because they run the risk of being outwitted or maneuvered by the larger force.
“I want the Marines to learn to seize initiative and make decisions with limited commander’s intent,” Davis said. “They need to be able to assess the situation … I want our leaders to think when in doubt make a decision and move.”
Capt Paul Vandenbos, an intelligence officer with the battalion, said the PME made him realize the importance of the “70 percent” solution, which is a common guideline Marine leaders use to make decisions. The principle is that getting a "C" now is better than getting an "A" three days later because the situation will change and you most likely won’t end up with an "A".
“A lot of these guys (Civil War leadership) were waiting for the perfect plan before they did anything, so the PME really hammered home to me that it doesn’t have to be a 100 percent perfect before you pass the information out,” Vandenbos said. “Then people can start moving on what they kind of know to be true … a lot of times it seemed like the picture didn’t change between when they kind of knew what the enemy was doing and when they knew a 100 percent.”
The 2/9 PME trip to Chancellorsville was made possible by a grant from the Marine Corps Association & Foundation. The MCA&F Commanders Forum Program provides funding to assist commanders in developing and providing forum opportunities specifically tailored to enhance their Marines’ and sailors’ knowledge of the operational matters from a historical, cultural or operational perspective.
To find out more about the Commanders Forum Program, go to http://www.mcafdn.org/awards-pro-forums
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