Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sage Advice from Smith

Lew Wallace is best known as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  However, Wallace was also a soldier and politician. At the start of the Civil War, Wallace was appointed state adjutant general and helped raise troops in Indiana.  On April 25, 1861, he was appointed Colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry.
Lew Wallace was destined by virtue of his political connections to rise in the ranks, and the paperwork was completed before his arrival in Paducah. When the official communication arrived, he was astonished. Wallace claimed that he "had not thought of being brigadier-general; neither had any one notified me of an effort to that end in my behalf..." The colonel was conflicted with the appointment.He did not want to leave his regiment, but "felt the urgencies of ambition." Compounding his decision was that he "knew nothing of the duties of a brigadier" and was overwhelmed with "the responsibilities of the place, especially of its responsibilities in battle. He decided to consult General C. F. Smith, his commander at Paducah, KY, and obtain his advice.

That evening Wallace found Smith sitting comfortably before the fire. Without rising, he said: "Bring up a chair. It's chilly outside." When the colonel was seated, Smith asked, "What is it? Anything I can do for you?"

Wallace gave him the communication from the adjutant-general, and he read it gravely, and, rising, said, "Well, sir, what of it?"

Then Wallace stood up, and answered with the same directness, "Will you tell me if I ought to accept that appointment?"

"Why not?" Smith asked.

Major General C. F. Smith
“Because I don't know anything about the duties of a brigadier-general." Smith was surprised. After briefly looking at Wallace, he said: "This is extraordinary. Here have I been spending a long life to get an appointment like this one about which you are hesitating; and yet that isn't it — that you should confess your ignorance — good God! Who ever heard of the like?"

He went to the table, filled two glasses from the decanter, and offered Wallace one of them.

"Had you come here not doubting your sufficiency," he said, "I should have decided you meant a parade of your good-fortune; as it is, I say accept — accept by all means — and I will give you the benefit of what I know about the duties of the place, be it much or little. We can always make something of a man who is willing to admit that he don’t know it all."
Then from the mantel he brought a book which Wallace recognized as the United States Army Regulations, and when they were seated Smith gave Wallace a "free-and-easy lecture of which I still remember some of the points."

I divide the duties of a brigadier-general into two classes," he began — "those owing to his immediate superior, and those owing to his command; and of the first, first ... Obedience being the soul of military organization, I hold it the beginning and end of duty.  It is the rein in hand by which the superior does his driving. . . . The difference between a captain and a general with respect to duties is that the general is a captain with multiplied and extended relations ... The chief duties of a general to his command may be classified — the enforcement of discipline —tactical instruction — care of the health of his men — and they are all important because tending to efficiency, the measure of which is the exact measure of his own efficiency ... Government furnishes everything actually needful to the good condition of the army; and of us — you and me, for instance — it merely asks in return that we know how to get those things, and to help us to the knowledge it has furnished a system of formal requisitions which fools call ' red tape.'  But I " — he stopped and held up the well-known volume in blue —" I pronounce it. the perfection of wisdom, since by it alone the government is enabled to keep accounts, prevent waste, and assert the principle or personal responsibility.  Here is that system — in this book, more indispensable to every officer than his sword, for even in battle he can make out with a riding-whip.  As the preacher knows his Bible, as the lawyer knows his statutes, every general should know the regulations and articles of war.  Here they are within these lids"— and I noticed he fondled them caressingly — "here he will find every duty relative to the care of his command defined and prescribed ...  It is not possible for a general always to see with his own eyes, or be in two places at the same time; hence the device of a staff — that is, an alter ego for every duty ... Staff-officers should he men of aptitude and experience, not figure-heads or mere pretty men.  In battle a general's duties, in so far as they are reducible to rule, are — first, to fight; second, to fight to the best advantage ... Genius is determinable by the manner of obedience.  A fort is to be taken; genius consists in finding a way to take it with the least appreciable loss. A campaign is to be planned; genius proves itself by devising the best plan; at the same time, strange as it seems, he the most capable in planning may be the most incapable in execution, making two different qualities.  The great genius is he who possesses both the qualities ... Battle is the ultimate to which the whole life’s labor of an officer should be directed. He may live to the age of retirement without seeing a battle; still he must always be getting ready for it exactly as if he knew the hour of the day it is to break upon him.  And then, whether it come late or early, he must be willing to fight — he must fight.[2]

Wallace returned to camp from the lecture a very grateful and much wiser man.  Smith's counsel was all he needed to accept the commission.  

[1] Lew Wallace, Lew Wallace: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1906)  Vol. I 342-343.
[2] Wallace 343-345.

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