With very little looking, I found a short message that embodies all that is wrong with Lee's style of military orders. Have a look and try to put yourself in Huger's shoes.
HEADQUARTERS VIRGINIA FORCES,Lee has not said what he perceives the condition of Craney Island to be or what exactly it lacks. He says it is the "least prepared" for defense, which is not at all helpful, and Huger must infer what "least prepared" means. Neither does Huger have any standards for putting things in "good condition," and he is on his own to certify any transformation from "least prepared" to "good condition." Things get fuzzier with the directive "More troops should be ordered there" since no force size has been indicated. No unit types are specified either, the implication being infantry, but it is baffling how infantry in trenches could possibly "arrest the passage of a vessel to Norfolk."
Richmond, Va., May 25, 1861.
General BENJ. HUGER, Comdg. Virginia Forces, Norfolk, Va.:
GENERAL: I wish to call your attention to the condition of Craney Island. It is the first point that will arrest the passage of a vessel to Norfolk; it is the most exposed and the least prepared for defense. I cannot urge upon you too strongly the necessity of putting it in good condition. More troops should be ordered there, and laborers, if practicable. If laborers cannot be obtained, the troops must work at the trenches at that point and all others within your lines of defense. A North Carolina regiment will leave here to-morrow for your post.
Very respectfully, &c.,
R. E. LEE,
This wouldn't be a Lee order without a gratuitous contingency clause, this one concerning laborers: "if practicable." This is also trademark Lee in its illogical construction. If practicable, use laborers but not soldiers? Why not use both since we are pressed for time here? And if you can't get laborers, your soldiers must get it all done themselves.
A final touch of ambiguity is in Lee's comment about the NC regiment in which he could not be bothered to identify the unit, a piece of coordination his subordinate would have found useful.
A reasonably structured order would have these elements:
1) Here are specific problems I have learned about the defenses of Craney Island.
2) You will take these specific remedial steps and accomplish them by date X.
3) You will report your progress at these intervals.
4) I consider such and so amount of forces to be adequate.
5) You will entrench your command at every defensive position.
6) I am sending you Regiment X by means of transport Y tomorrow with orders to report to you no later than Z.
Lest you think this exceptional, here's another order in the same vein:
HEADQUARTERS VIRGINIA FORCES,All the details that make an order an order are missing here: the only thing resembling an order might be the direction for full co-operation with the mysterious, unnamed engineer on site.
Richmond, Va., May 11, 1861.
Col. Wm. B. TALIAFERRO, Commanding, &c., Gloucester Point, Va.:
It is very important that the battery at Gloucester Point be pushed forward as fast as possible. All the labor necessary for its speedy completion must be devoted to it, and every facility in your power afforded to the engineer engaged in its construction.
Very respectfully, &c.,
R. E. LEE,
Once troops actually land, Lee's orders become odder. Here is a concise telegram from Huger:
NORFOLK, VA., May 27, 1861-11.30 a. m.The commander facing the federal landing needs several pieces of information: (1) What are my orders? (2) Will I be reinforced? (3) What have you heard and what do you know? Lee's reply - and it is the only one to Huger that day in the OR - is worth a quick look:
Seven steamers, with troops, have been and are now landing men at Newport News. Other steamers, with troops, arrived at Old Point this morning.
Brigadier-General HUGER, Commanding, &c., Norfolk, Va.:Lee is using his telegram to speculate on the intentions of the enemy while giving no useful orders or information to Huger. Then there's the kooky little touch of saying "I know the pressures of the duties now upon you," so go ahead and do my job as commander of all Virginia forces by contacting the governor of North Carolina to "hasten the movement of troops."
SIR: From the facts stated in your telegram received to-day I think it not improbable that the object of the troops which are landing at Newport News may be either to ascend Nansemond River to the town of Suffolk, or, if that river be too well protected for this, to cross James River to Burwell’s Bay, and thence, by land, to Suffolk, or some point of the railroad. The effect of either of these movements will be to cut off your communication with Richmond, and I take the liberty of calling your attention to this, as I know the pressure of the duties now upon you. I would recommend that you telegraph the governor of North Carolina to hasten the movements of those troops which are destined for Norfolk, Va., if they have not already arrived, and to recommend that he dispatch a sufficient force to Suffolk.
I am, general, with respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
Unreal. Lee is kind of busy for the rest of the day with his correspondence. He writes one pretty crisp order directing a Navy lieutenant to take a company of infantry to a certain point, but otherwise, his orders have the special Lee quality.
Col. J. B. MAGRUDER, Commanding, &c., Yorktown, Va.:To Huger, Lee wrote, "I think it not improbable that the object of the troops which are landing at Newport News may be either to ascend Nansemond River to the town of Suffolk, or, if that river be too well protected for this, to cross James River to Burwell’s Bay, and thence, by land, to Suffolk, or some point of the railroad." To Magruder, he writes "it may be their intention to move on to Warwick Court-House, and thence, by the road, to Yorktown." What's going on in his mind?
SIR: I have received information, by telegraph, to-day from Norfolk that the Federal troops are landing at Newport News. I deem it proper to inform, you of this, as it may be their intention to move on to Warwick Court-House, and thence, by the road, to Yorktown. Captains Cosby and Hood, of the Confederate Army, have been ordered to report to you for the purpose of instructing the cavalry troop.
I am, sir, with great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
Meanwhile, he has given neither general coordinating instructions, reporting instructions, objectives, timelines, any of that.
An early Lee order that contains all of the vices that would plunge him into future controversies appears at the end of a message sent on July 11, 1861. Henry Wise is the recipient, weasel words have been emphasized.
I have thought proper to give you the above information that you may be informed of the enemy’s supposed purposes on your right; and should you not find employment for your command in the Kanawha Valley, and think it advisable, you might concert measures with General Garnett for a united attack on the forces of General McClellan.Garnett would be killed in a battle with McClellan's forces. Ah, McClellan - remember him? He was that department commander who led his troops on the battlefield in Western Virginia while his counterpart wrote flowery letters from an office in Richmond. One was called to Washington to higher duty and the other was sent away to South Carolina, where he continued to write orders like the ones we have seen here.
(For a Virginian who knew how to write an order, see here.)