Book Review: Civil War Battlefield Orders Gone Awry: The Written Word and Its Consequences in 13 Engagements


by Donald R. Jermann

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Pp. viii, 208. Illus., maps, diagr., append., notes., biblio., index. $45.00 paper. ISBN: 0786469498

Civil War Battle Orders Gone Awry is an insightful look at the role carelessness in writing orders by various commanders played in the war.

Although many works on the war sometimes mention carelessness in issuing orders as the cause of various disasters, retired naval officer and defense executive Jermann gives us the first more or less comprehensive look at this problem, one not limited to the events of the Civil War.  Jermann, who has written several works on the Civil War, examines how poorly written orders affected thirteen notable Civil War actions.  These are Ball’s Bluff, First Winchester, Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Perryville, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Spring Hill, and Five Forks, with Custer’s “Last Stand” added as a bonus.  Noting that some officers, such as Grant, wrote quite precise orders, often in their own hand, while others, among them Lee, were frequently careless, Jermann gives us an analysis of the orders involved in each operation.  He starts with the actual text of the orders in question, noting their strong and weak points.  A lack of precision was most often the problem.  Many of the orders omitted stating the “commander’s intent” as we would say today, not specifying an objective or indicating the urgency of the instructions.  At other times the problem was excessive delegation of authority or discretion to subordinates, a particular failing of Confederate generals.  After this analysis, Jermann goes on to examine how the faulty orders affected each operation, a process helped by some simple but clear maps.  He ends each case with a revised version of the order that might have led to a different outcome.  

Oddly, Jermann omits mentioning what the requirements for an order were at the time or what training officers received in writing orders.  Nevertheless, this is an immensely valuable, ground-breaking look at one of the causes of failure in the field during the war and is likely to inspire closer attention to the wording of orders and their consequences by serious historians.

Civil War Battle Orders Gone Awry will prove rewarding reading not merely for students of the Civil War, but for anyone interested in the question of why things happen in battle, since carelessness in issuing orders was not limited to Yanks and Rebs between 1861 and 1865.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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