Dream Teams: A great commander needs great subordinates.
Military genius is of little use to a commander without a good working relationship with whomever is above him in the chain of command and with his subordinates, from his immediate lieutenants to the rank and file on the firing line. The communication skills this requires include knowing the differences in temperament and style among individuals, and playing to them.
One of the most intriguing cases in the annals of command relations focuses on Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who attributed the failure of his 1861 western Virginia campaign to subordinate generals’ failing to do the right thing at the right time. After Lee was placed in command of the defense of Richmond, Va., in June 1862, however, he acquired such lieutenants as D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and a host of other notables who would share fame with him in what became the formidable Army of Northern Virginia. And then, after helping Lee win a last crowning victory at Chancellorsville, Jackson died on May 10, 1863, signaling the gradual unraveling of Lee’s command “dream team.” The first sign of trouble involved Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Jackson’s successor to command the Confederate Second Corps in his stead, who proved lacking in the almost telepathic rapport that Lee had perhaps become too accustomed to with Jackson. Lee’s failure to understand that Ewell and Jackson were not the same person would cost him at Gettysburg, and the eventual loss of other talented subordinates one by one ultimately sealed the fate of Lee’s army.
A similar fate attended German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after his decisive defeat at El Alamein in October 1942. Forced to work alongside the aristocratic General Jürgen von Arnim, who despised him, and the more respectful but mediocre Italian General Giovanni Messe, Rommel was operating at a disadvantage at the command level as well as in the face of a growing Allied numerical and materiel superiority. Although he scored one last victory against the inexperienced Americans at Kasserine Pass, the ailing Rommel was denied the support he needed to follow up that success and shifted his attention to the highly experienced British Eighth Army, only to lose his last battle to General Bernard L. Montgomery.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.