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The Principles of War

       These may be defined as the fundamental truths governing the prosecution of strategy and tactics. The nine that have been adopted by the US Army in modern times are listed and explained below for several reasons. First, many of them are encountered in Civil War literature. Second, they provide in capsule form the fundamentals of strategy and tactics. They are useful, if not essential, in any evaluation of generalship.
    The definitions given below are those used in instructing cadets at West Point. They closely follow the US Army's Field Service Regulations, Operations.

The Objective. "Direct all efforts to ward a decisive, obtainable goal." The proper objective ("purpose") in battle is the destruction of the enemy's combat forces. To do this, however, subordinate commanders must be given "terrain objectives" toward which they move. Thus, Richmond was not a proper (terrain) objective for McClellan's army in 1862 because capturing it would not necessarily destroy the Confederate army and the loss of Richmond in 1862 would not have meant defeat of the Confederacy. It was a proper (terrain) objective for Grant in 1864-65 because it had become so important by that time that Lee was forced to defend it even if it meant destruction of his army. Although Grant's objective was Lee's Army of Northern Va. (not Richmond, per se), by directing his efforts toward Richmond he forced Lee to stand and fight him for its defense.

Simplicity. "Prepare uncomplicated plans and concise orders to insure thorough understanding and execution." McDowell at Ist Bull Run violated the principle of simplicity, since his troops were too green to execute properly the maneuver he prescribed.

Unity of Command. "For every task there should be unity of effort under one responsible commander." The Union flagrantly violated this principle after KERNSTOWN. Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign taught Lincoln and Stanton their lesson, and Unity of Command was obtained by creating Pope's Army of Va. (The Federals were nevertheless defeated in the next [2d Bull Run] campaign.)

The Offensive. "Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative." Lee's generalship embodies this principle, whereas it was the fatal deficiency in McClellan's. It is the quality most conspicuous in the make-up of most successful commanders, particularly Stonewall Jackson and Grant, Sheridan and Forrest.

Maneuver. "Position your military resources to favor the accomplishment of your mission. Maneuver in itself can produce no decisive results [as Hooker at ChancellorsviIIe failed to realize] but if properly employed it makes decisive results possible through the application of the principles of the offensive, mass, economy of force, and surprise." It is by maneuver that a superior general defeats a stronger adversary (e.g., Jackson's Valley campaign).

Mass. "Achieve military superiority at the decisive place and time." Mass in this sense does not mean "more men." "Military superiority" can be attained against a more numerical enemy if you have superiority in such things as weapons, leadership, morale, and training. "Mass" is generally gained by "maneuver."

Economy of Force. "Allocate to secondary efforts minimum essential combat power." This is a misleading term because it does not mean what it sounds like. It does not mean "do the job with minimum combat power." Note that the principle pertains to "secondary efforts," and it is the means by which a superior general achieves "mass" as defined above. Mass and Economy of Force are on opposite sides of the same coin.

Surprise. "Accomplish your purpose before the enemy can effectively react." Tactical or strategic surprise does not mean open-mouthed amazement. Thus, a corps may be "surprised" by an attack it has seen coming for several hours if this attack is too powerful for it to resist by itself and if no other unit is within SUPPORTING DISTANCE. The fate of the XI Corps at Chancellorsville is an example. The principle of war known as "Security" may be defined as all measures taken to avoid "Surprise."

Security. "Never permit the enemy to acquire an unpredicted advantage," Another definition would be "measures taken to prevent surprise." A unit in bivouac, for example, uses outposts and patrols for security. Lack of security at Shiloh resulted in surprise of the Federals.
Source: "The Civil War Dictionary" By Mark M. Boatner III"

This Page last updated 03/26/05


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