The army officer spends a great deal of time issuing and receiving orders. They tell volumes about their writer. Those contemporary American generals I served with whom I respect wrote excellent orders (Grange, DuPuy, Starry, perhaps one other).
Unfortunately, in the Army of my day, there were a lot of bad orders circulated for two reasons (beyond incompetence and low standards). First, many regarded the writing of an order to be a burden and dashed through it with minimal effort and attention, aiming to clarify the written word with oral guidance. Second, all of us were immersed in bureaucrat-ese and those young men who had done less reading and writing pre-Army succumbed to what they (tragically) came to believe were normal and natural forms of written expression. Listen to an American general at a press conference even today and you'll see what I mean.
In Civil War orders, too, one finds a lot of "verbiage," deadwood, rote language, and filler*. But you have to fish around in the OR to read orders. That's because Civil War writers hate to reproduce written orders. Must not slow the narrative. Must not tire the pea-brained reader. They only touch on orders if there is some confusion about the commander's intent or a controversy of some sort.
If an order must be presented and reviewed, our writers have the dreadful habit of summarizing the written orders instead of reproducing them. They then end up commenting on their own summaries, an utterly grotesque outcome.
Given the delinquency of our authors**, the reader's dilemma is this. He can read the OR for orders or he can read the narrative for chronology and event flow. He can also read both and try to crosswalk the two with an immense investment of time.
If he reads enough narrative, however, he will begin to notice patterns. The narrative may give up one or two controversies around the commander's intent and orders issued. Over time, reading broadly, he will notice these problems cluster around certain individuals.
May I propose Robert E. Lee is one of those individuals? May I suggest that he wrote the worst orders of the war?
You could say Pope wrote worse orders since Pope's orders did not conform to events, enemy locations or terrain. But if you look at Lee's orders, neither do they in that they tend to be prospective, speculative, normative, and contingent.
Are not all famous Lee vs. [insert CSA general] about nebulous orders and the commander's intent? Wittenberg and Petruzzi made this point about Stuart at Gettysburg in Blame Enough. We've got Jackson in the Seven Days. Longstreet at Gettysburg. Ewell at Gettysburg.
I would like to suggest that Lee's style of written orders did not change from his war-losing western Virginia days. That the bad guidance given Floyd, Garnett, et al, carried over to Granny Lee's South Carolina adventures with Pemberton, and then to the ANV.
Gettysburg buffs are focused on Ewell and that certain hill. Let me quote a commentator on the hill issue:
It's fairly well known that, on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee sent an order to Richard Ewell to "Take that hill, if practicable." Ewell did not take the hill, and it has generally been presumed that he dithered about deciding whether it was practicable or not.This sets up the problem. The poster then deviates into pop history nonsense:
No written copy of Lee's order exists, for the simple reason that, by that stage of the war, Lee rarely put orders in writing. After the infamous lost cigars incident that preceded Antietam/Sharpsburg, Lee was ever mindful of the fact that written orders could get lost, and that such a circumstance had the potential to lead to disaster, so he generally preferred to give his orders verbally.I would say instead that oral orders suited Lee's style better. He was addicted to ambiguity and had a huge streak of CYA. As his authority and popularity increased, oral orders became a sick vice that he could fully indulge. But I digress because our poster has something interesting to say:
I had the pleasure of taking a tour with Gettysburg park ranger Troy Harmon recently. According to Troy, Lee's order to Ewell contained not one, but two caveats. Not only did the order say to take the hill "if practicable," it also said to take the hill only if it could be done "without bringing on a general engagement." Shelby Foote's book also indicates that the order directed Ewell "to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army."Another poster responds:
Why semi-order Ewell to take the hill but also counter the order by telling him not to fight for it? That seems to me to be a paradox. I always thought “practicable” meant what it did to A.P. Hill. If your men are in position and able etc., then take the hill. Which they were. And he didn’t.In the Rashness of That Hour, we learn that before he received this bouquet of contingencies from his commander, Ewell was already sick of Robert E. Lee's style of issuing orders (including written orders, which contrary to folklore, were still being delivered). From Rashness:
Later that same evening on June 30, Rodes and Early joined Ewell for a strategy session. Trimble ... joined the gathering. The primary topic centered around a discussion of the latest dispatches from Lee and A.P. Hill. As Ewell later reported, "At Heidlersburg, I received orders from the general commanding to proceed to Cashtown or Gettysburg as the circumstances might dictate, and a note from A.P. Hill saying he was at Cashtown."
... the only surviving account of this conference comes from Trimble, who claimed that Ewell "read over the order of Gen'l Lee several times, commenting on its 'indefinite phraseology,' as he expressed it, in very severe terms and asking each one what was meant by 'according to circumstances.'" [Rodes and Early said nothing but Trimble said the commander's intent was that Ewell march to Gettysburg.] [T]his explanation did not satisfy Gen'l Ewell who more than once impatiently remarked, 'Why can't a commanding General have some one of his staff who can write an intelligible order?'"
Indeed. Perhaps Lee could not issue intelligible orders because intelligible orders stem from a clear sense of purpose and Lee is repeatedly operating in a miasma of opportunism, contingency, and chance. Some writers have made that a virtue.
* Keep in mind we are talking about orders, not military speeches. See Richard Miller for speeches.
** I do not refer here to Joe Harsh, Tim Reese, or a few others who analyze orders in their work.