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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lee's Mistake: Learning from the Decision to Order Pickett's Charge

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee made a mistake that doomed the hopes of the Confederate States of America to compel the United States to sue for peace. Why one of the great generals of his time made such a blunder continues to be a topic of research and intense debate. Lee said little at the time or afterward to justify his decision to launch what has become known as Pickett’s Charge, so analysis must be inferential and inconclusive. Our aim is to explain Lee’s fateful decision not with new facts but with new analytic methods to illuminate decision making in combat.

Understanding how commanders draw on reason and experience to make sense of information, weigh alternatives, and make decisions in conditions of urgency and uncertainty is central to improving military performance in the fast, unfamiliar, “wired” warfare of the information age. Lee’s leadership of Confederate forces at Gettysburg constitutes a valuable case to study: the order of battle and technology of both sides are known in detail, and the terrain and troop movements have been studied thoroughly. Only the cause of Lee’s misjudgment remains elusive.

The pages that follow examine the facts that might have influenced Lee’s state of mind and his decision, offer and test alternative hypotheses on how he was thinking, draw conclusions, and apply those conclusions to matters of current interest.

Robert E. Lee is widely and rightly regarded as one of the finest generals in history. Yet on July 3, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he ordered a frontal assault across a mile of open field against the strong center of the Union line. The stunning Confederate defeat that ensued produced heavier casualties than Lee’s army could afford and abruptly ended its invasion of the North. That the Army of Northern Virginia could fight on for 2 more years after Gettysburg was a tribute to Lee’s abilities. While Lee’s disciples defended his decision vigorously—they blamed James Longstreet, the corps commander in charge of the attack, for desultory execution—historians and military analysts agree that it was a mistake. For whatever reason, Lee was reticent about his reasoning at the time and later.

How commanders digest information, draw on experience, weigh options, and make decisions in the face of urgency and uncertainty are concerns as old as human conflict. Yet these concerns are more critical than ever in the fast, unfamiliar, wired warfare of the information age—all the more reason to learn about cognitive performance, good and bad, from military history. Lee’s thinking at Gettysburg is an especially intriguing case to study: the facts are known, there is wide agreement that his decision to attack on July 3 was flawed, yet the cause of his misjudgment remains elusive. In the pages that follow, our hope is to reveal lessons of value in improving today’s military decision making. We examine the facts surrounding Lee’s state of mind and his decision, offer and test alternative hypotheses on how he was thinking, draw some conclusions, and apply those conclusions to matters of current interest. We begin with a general framework for analyzing cognition in combat, hoping that it will help explain Lee’s decision making at Gettysburg.

Date of Report: March 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: G1337
Price: $5.95

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