I'm trying to pin down something I once read about what went wrong with the Union's plans for a certain battle in the American Civil War. I think I once read a few paragraphs about this in a book by Bruce Catton. But that doesn't narrow it down much, because I've read at least eight of Catton's books about various aspects of the Civil War. And I may not even be correct that it was one of his books that told me about this episode.

Here's what I seem to remember about the sequence of events that I'm trying to pin down.

  1. A Union force was preparing to fight a battle with a nearby Confederate force. The commanding general of that Union force gave written orders to one of his subordinate generals. The orders were intended to maneuver that subordinate's soldiers (a division, or a corps, or whatever it was that the subordinate commanded) into a position where they could approach the Confederate right rear flank, coming up from behind, and thus catch that end of the Confederate line in a vise.

  2. However! The senior Union general didn't exactly mandate all of the above in the written orders he sent to his subordinate. The orders said something more along these lines (loosely paraphrased from my imperfect memory):

"Tomorrow morning your troops will advance to the crossroads at such-and-such a village. Then you will wait for my further orders to tell you if I need you to keep swinging around to get behind the Confederates while I'm assaulting their front line with the rest of my force."

  1. From the subordinate general's point of view, the key word in those orders turned out to be "wait." After sunrise on the day of the battle, he started his men marching in the correct direction. They encountered no opposition along the way, and reached the village in question (well out of sight of where the actual fighting was now taking place). Then the general commanding that detachment parked his butt in a chair and sent back a courier to headquarters, with a written despatch saying (in effect): "We made it to the village. How are things going on your end? Do you still want us to keep marching and swing around behind the enemy?"

  2. Having sent that message, he waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. All day, in fact! He may have sent a follow-up message after a few hours, asking the same thing as the first message, but nobody ever got around to sending him a reply saying: "Yes, proceed with the original plan." I don't remember who actually "won" or "lost" the battle. It may have been something of a draw, but it certainly was not the crushing victory which the Union commander had been hoping to achieve.

  3. When that Union commander finally realized what had happened -- after it was too late to do any good -- he was annoyed. But he also had to admit that the subordinate general couldn't be court-martialed for scrupulously following the strict letter of his written orders.

  4. I'm pretty sure that neither the commanding general in that operation, nor the subordinate general who was so good at sitting on the sidelines while a battle happened without him, were the sort of generals who later became particularly famous and respected for their contributions during the war. For instance, we're not talking about Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, or Phil Sheridan. (I don't think we're even talking about George B. McClellan!) But I can't remember where or when this particular battle took place. Does anyone recognize it from my description of that fiasco?

  • I have no idea, but this looked interesting so I tried some searches. Nothing matches all your criteria, and I managed to make this topic the top result in many tries, but that's that. Options I have uncovered, that are probably wrong, are Rosecrans and Wood (who first followed orders and then didn't) as well as Porter at Bull Run.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 2:17
  • Even Napoleon was capable of forgetting an entire corps - Lobau's VI Corps on June 16, 1815, left without orders for most of the day at Charleroi as battles raged at Ligny/St. Amand and Quatre Bras. That would probably never have happened with the obsessive Berthier as Major General, but ultimately the responsibility is still on Boney. Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


It reminds me of what I read about the Battle of Iuka. But it was Grant who "ordered Ord to move within 4 miles of the town, but to await the sound of fighting between Rosecrans and Price before engaging the Confederates." according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Iuka (I haven't read sources beyond Wikipedia.) Ord could have attacked the Confederate right rear flank from where he stood. "A fresh north wind, blowing from Ord's position in the direction of Iuka, caused an acoustic shadow that prevented the sound of the guns from reaching him, and he and Grant knew nothing of the engagement until after it was over. Ord's troops stood idly while the fighting raged only a few miles away.[10]" with [10] = Woodworth, pp. 221–23; Eicher, pp. 372–74; Welcher, pp. 622–23 with

The battle was kind of a draw, as you wrote. It could have been a crushing defeat for the Confederates if Ord had shown more initiative.

Woodworth, Steven E.. Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1865. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-41218-2.

Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5.

Welcher, Frank J. The Union Army, 1861–1865 Organization and Operations. Vol. 2, The Western Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-253-36454-X.


This could be Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson under the command of Sherman.

The American Battlefield Trust describes the battle as follows:

Johnston had entrenched his army on the long, high mountain of Rocky Face Ridge and eastward across Crow Valley. As Sherman approached, he decided to demonstrate against the position with two columns while he sent a third one through Snake Creek Gap, to the right, to hit the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Resaca, Georgia. The two columns engaged the enemy at Buzzard Roost (Mill Creek Gap) and at Dug Gap. In the meantime, the third column, under McPherson, passed through Snake Creek Gap and on May 9 advanced to the outskirts of Resaca, where it found Confederates entrenched. Fearing defeat, McPherson pulled his column back to Snake Creek Gap. On May 10, Sherman decided to take most of his men and join McPherson to take Resaca. The next morning, as he discovered Sherman's army withdrawing from their positions in front of Rocky Face Ridge, Johnston retired south towards Resaca.

  • 2
    Welcome to History:SE. Please don't post quoted material without citing your source. That is called plagiarism. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 22:34

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