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Why Mediocre Generals
Rarely Win Big Victories

Excerpt from Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, by Bevin Alexander, pages 265-66

Background: In late November 1862 the Union army under Ambrose E. Burnside moved to Fredericksburg, with the intention of crossing the Rappahannock River and driving the fifty-five miles to Richmond.

Lee quickly found out Burnside’s preparations [to cross] at Skinker’s Neck [twelve miles below Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock] and his probings at Port Royal [eighteen miles below Fredericksburg]. When Jackson arrived he sent his corps to cover both points, moves soon discovered by the Federals.

This suggested an alternative strategy to Burnside. If he could cross at Fredericksburg and drive around Longstreet’s right at Hamilton’s Crossing, some five miles southeast of the town, he might interpose between Longstreet’s forces in front of Fredericksburg and Jackson’s at Skinker’s Neck and Port Royal.

Only by prompt and resolute action had the plan any hope of succeeding. Burnside was obliged to strike before Jackson could bring his corps back to Fredericksburg. He had to force passage of the Rappahannock, march along the narrow plain between the river and the heights directly under Longstreet’s guns, then sweep around Longstreet’s flank and onto his rear.

A brilliant general might have pulled it off. For Burnside, the idea became a trap of his own making. Down the centuries mediocre generals have had occasional flashes of insight and seen how they might strike decisive blows, as Burnside had on this occasion. Yet in all but exceptional cases only masters of war have the boldness and strength of character to suppress doubts, ignore timid counsel, concentrate their forces, and hit at the enemy’s weakest point, where a decisive breakthrough can be achieved. The mediocre general may see the chance but he characteristically acts too slowly and irresolutely and does not commit most of his strength. Befuddled when the enemy responds swiftly and the situation changes before his eyes, he usually tries to prevent impending defeat by striking directly at the enemy, forgetting that the power of his idea had been to avoid the enemy’s strength, dislodge him from his strong positions, and destroy him indirectly.

This is precisely how Burnside responded. He intended to outflank Longstreet’s position. But he moved far too ponderously, tipped his hand, found his enemy consolidated in front of him, lost his nerve and his sense of purpose, and drove headlong against the most powerful and prominent positions of the enemy, seeking to destroy by brute force what he had been unable to defeat by guile.

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