Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part I

During the Hellenistic Period, Coele Syria (literally meaning ‘Hollow Syria’) referred to a large portion of the southern Levant. It thus consisted of the Bekaa Valley, Jordan Valley and the eastern Mediterranean coastline. The Ptolemies and Seleucids. hotly-contested over this land.

Antiochus III the Great / Antiochos / (Greek: Ἀντίoχoς Μέγας; c. 241 – 3 July 187 BC, ruled April/June 222 – 3 July 187 BC) was a Greek Hellenistic king and the 6th ruler of the Seleucid / Seleukid / Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Σελευκιδῶν, Basileía tōn Seleukidōn) Empire.

Within a little over four years (227–222 BC) the male members of the family of Antiochos III were reduced from four to one, and the last one, Antiochos himself, was only 20 years of age at his accession. In June 227 his uncle Antiochos Hierax, who had for nearly two decades ruled all or part of Asia Minor, either as governor or as a rebel king, was murdered in flight after escaping from imprisonment. A year later Hierax’s brother and Antiochos’ father, King Seleukos II, against whom Hierax had been in rebellion, died in a fall from his horse in the war against Hierax’s ally in Asia Minor. Then in late 223 or early 222, the next king, Antiochos’ brother Seleukos III, was assassinated, again in Asia Minor, by two of his mercenary officers.

This last event brought Antiochos to his brother’s throne, wholly unexpectedly and pitifully unprepared. So unprepared was he, indeed, that he was in ‘the interior’, probably Babylon or Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, when his brother died, two or three weeks of travel away from the real centre of the kingdom, which was in northern Syria. It was perhaps a reassurance that there were in post a group of capable men, as governors of provinces or as ministers of the former king, who proved to be fully capable of governing on the new king’s behalf. However, their capability was such that they rapidly developed ambitions of their own, and only one life, that of Antiochos himself, stood in their way.

The group which dominated Antiochos’ first years as king was headed by Hermeias, the first minister of Seleukos III, a native of Karia in southwest Asia Minor. We know little of his earlier life, but he had probably been an active official of the Seleukid dynasty for a considerable time. He it was who held the central government together in the immediate aftermath of the death of Seleukos III, and he may well have had the same role in the emergency of the sudden death of Seleukos II three years before. He certainly showed great ability, but, as with all men in such a position – he was quasi-regent – he faced even greater problems in internal affairs than he did in foreign.

The interpretation I give here is based on the notion that Hermeias, being the dead king’s minister, was already in control when the king died, and that the prominent men who will be noted in the following paragraphs, were originally part of the king’s royal council. This is an institution which is repeatedly mentioned in the reign of Antiochos III and may be presumed to be a permanent fixture of the governing system. In the absence of a ruling king it clearly became a fractious group, but the prominence of Hermeias was such that he was able to exert a large degree of control, though only by removing his most able opponents to distant tasks. This turned out to be as dangerous a measure as any other solution; he also tried violence, but mainly against the lesser council members. The other members, those who Polybios mentions, were too powerful to be killed, and were his competitors; the object they strove for was to replace Hermeias as regent.

One of his competitors was Akhaios, whose claim for access to power was his relationship to the young king. He was the grandson of the first Akhaios, a notable landowner in Asia Minor, who had been favoured by the founder of the dynasty, Seleukos I, with gifts of land once that area had been conquered. In fact it seems probable that he was the younger son of Seleukos, and so the brother of Antiochos I. He certainly married his family into royalty: his daughter was the first wife of Antiochos II, and another daughter married a member of the Attalid family of Pergamon and was the mother of King Attalos I. His granddaughter Laodike (daughter of his son Andromachos), married Seleukos II, and so she was the mother of Antiochos III. Akhaios the younger was therefore Antiochos’ maternal uncle and his nearest male relative. As such he was clearly entitled to be part of the king’s council.

Another senior member of the court was Epigenes. It is probable that Epigenes was the nearest to a professional soldier that the Seleukid empire could produce – he had been with Seleukos III on campaign in Asia Minor, and he brought back to Syria some of the soldiers after the king’s death. Such professionalism, implying a concentration on a single activity, was uncharacteristic of the age, except for mercenaries; the lower social orders might make a living as clerks or ordinary soldiers, but at the level of commanding generals, generality of action and experience was expected. Men of this rank, described often as philoi, royal Friends, were employed by the kings as judges or governors, military commanders or envoys, or on any other tasks which needed to be done. Indeed, the ability to command armies in battle or on campaign was an expected skill of all high officials – Hermeias commanded, for example. Epigenes seems to have specialized to the extent of founding his advice in the royal council on military considerations.

A fourth member of the council was Molon. His origin and the basis of his importance are unknown, but he was able to pose such a challenge to Hermeias because he had been appointed to the governorship of Media – the ‘Upper Satrapies’ – by Seleukos III at the same time as Hermeias was made first minister. Molon’s younger brother Alexander was also made governor of Persia. (Exactly what is meant by ‘Persia’ is unclear, but it was part of Iran, though not apparently the regions known as Persis or Elymais.) The presence of two brothers in command of neighbouring provinces was clearly a danger in this unstable time, and a third brother and their mother were also in the east, thus leaving no hostages on whom Hermeias could exert pressure; between them Molon’s family controlled more than a third of the empire.

It seems possible that Hermeias was operating on the assumption that if a man was posted to a distant province with a dangerous frontier he became less of a problem than if he was present at court. The assumption was thus that all these men were primarily loyal to the concept of the kingdom and of the king, however inexperienced or incapable the king was. The actions of Akhaios had perhaps reinforced that perception. Akhaios had accompanied Seleukos III on the expedition into Asia Minor at the beginning of which he was assassinated. The murderers were caught and killed at once by Akhaios himself. He was then offered the kingship. Who made the offer is unclear, but it was part of the Macedonian tradition than kings could be acclaimed as such by the army, which would in this case probably mean the officers – perhaps including Epigenes.

Akhaios had, in fact, several options at that point. He could accept the offer and proclaim himself king. Or he could accept the offer and proclaim himself regent for the young king Antiochos III, on the recent pattern of Antigonos III Doson and the young Philip V in Macedonia. Or he could refuse, though this would leave him in a dangerous position, suspected of concealed ambition yet now unsure of the support of his army. There was also yet another possibility: he could ignore all three choices and stay where he was, in effective command of the royal army in Asia Minor, and continue the campaign begun by the dead king. This would simply put the offer of the kingship on hold; he could possibly take up the job later.

We do not know what messages, instructions, pleas, or intrigues passed between Akhaios and Hermeias. One officer with the army, Epigenes, certainly left and returned to Syria with part of the army, where he became a thorn in Hermeias’ side in the royal council. If Akhaios chose to accept the offer of the kingship he would probably have faced a civil war between his army – or that part of it which accepted him – and the rest of the royal army. Taking up the position of regent, with or without the royal title, might lessen the conflict, but to be regent for a king who was already twenty years old would invite derision and would set him on a route to conflict with Hermeias and the rest of the council. In the event, probably by arrangement with Hermeias and the others in the council, he took up the last possibility, taking official command of the expeditionary force to campaign in Asia Minor against Attalos I of Pergamon, his first cousin. Thus he supported, for the moment, another relative, Antiochos III.

These decisions – Akhaios to Asia Minor, Molon to stay in Media – were taken, one must presume, soon after the death of Seleukos III, while Antiochos himself was travelling to Syria from Babylonia, a journey which would have taken some weeks. As a result Hermeias was left in firm control of the central government, and Molon and Akhaios both could be presumed to have plenty to do in their provincial commands. Antiochos himself may or may not have been consulted on all this, but from his distant situation he could scarcely have much effect on the immediate decisions. When he arrived in Antioch in Syria all had been arranged.

It is necessary at this point to consider the source we have for this and subsequent events. Apart from brief comments and fragments of other historians, the essential source is Polybios, who provides an extended account for the first years of Antiochos’ reign. This is clearly based on another account which was biased strongly in favour of the king and made Hermeias the villain of the piece; by contrast, Molon and Akhaios, who directly challenged Antiochos, get off lightly. Polybios was probably relying on an account of events produced not long after the death of Hermeias, perhaps generated by the Seleukid government to excuse the actions of the king. The bias is generally clear and must be taken into account, which I shall try to do, without going too far the other way.

Another project which was necessarily undertaken as soon as Antiochos succeeded to the kingship was to find a bride for the new king. This task was allotted to Diognetos, whose later career included the command of the Seleukid navy. He was, in fact, probably one of the officials who could be used for any policy purpose; in this case he became a diplomat. A wife had suddenly become a political and diplomatic necessity. Antiochos was the last living male in the direct line of descent from Seleukos I; unless he was married swiftly, and produced a son as rapidly as possible, the dynasty might expire – or Akhaios could legitimately claim the kingship. Diognetos in fact found a suitable girl, Laodike, the daughter of King Mithradates II of Pontos, though it is not known if Diognetos had much of a choice. The number of eligible and nubile princesses was suddenly rather limited, and in fact Laodike may have been the only one available. She was in fact another cousin of the king, her mother being Laodike the daughter of Antiochos II (and so sister of Seleukos II) who had married Mithradates II a generation earlier.

Diognetos’ mission may have been urgent from the Seleukid dynastic point of view, but in Pontos the problem was probably seen in a different light. A royal marriage required careful and serious negotiations, and this one required that some sort of stability must exist in the Seleukid kingdom before Mithradates would allow his daughter – a precious political and personal resource – to be married there. Assuming that Diognetos’ mission began relatively quickly after Antiochos’ accession, he will have reached the Pontic court fairly early in 222, but would know by then that the kingdom he was representing was disrupted by a new civil war. The marriage negotiations were likely put on hold for the rest of the year.

In fact it may well have been news of Diognetos’ mission which was the stimulus for the civil war. If he succeeded in negotiating a marriage quickly, the dynasty was half way to safety; nine or ten months later it would probably be reinforced by the first of a new generation of the royal family. For an ambitious man who felt he could be a better king than an untried boy, the likelihood of a royal marriage was a starting gun for intrigue and rebellion. Akhaios had already made his choice; Hermeias as a Karian was hardly eligible for the kingship; but Molon was probably of Macedonian descent, with a large part of the Seleukid army under his command, and was governing nearly half the kingdom. He felt he had a good, and indeed a unique, opportunity in the next year.

In all this Antiochos did not necessarily have any say. Hermeias was based at Antioch in Syria, though his family lived at Apameia. He had been left in charge of the central government by Seleukos III when the latter set off on his expedition into Asia Minor. Antiochos had been sent into ‘the interior’, as Polybios rather vaguely puts it. This may be understood to be Babylonia, where a royal presence was a regular and necessary occurrence. The rituals of the Babylonian religion benefited particularly if a king or a prince participated, and with the king on campaign, the favour of the gods would be a useful blessing.

Seleukos III himself had been a turbulent character, so much so he was nicknamed Keraunos, ‘Thunderer’. Such a man would be dangerous to be close to, a factor which raises a number of awkward questions concerning his assassination. For one thing it is to be assumed that there was a wider plot involved; it is unlikely that the assassination was a purely personal matter for the two murderers. The fact that Akhaios had the murderers themselves instantly murdered rather suggests a wish to avoid the one really central issue as to who also was involved in the plot. Akhaios himself must be a candidate, and the way he elected not to be made king may imply that he was being very careful to avoid the suspicion that he had contrived the king’s death in order to replace him. Nor had he, as it turned out, forsworn such an ambition. Perhaps the one constructive decision the Thunderer had made was to ensure that his younger brother was safely separated from him when his death was organized. Killing both brothers when they were together would have been a very great temptation to the plotters.

The whole issue of the king’s death was carefully avoided, or evaded, in the aftermath, which raises much suspicion. That none of the royal council apparently wanted to investigate it is likely to be significant. Of course, the killers had been killed, the army was on campaign, there was a great deal to do in the emergency, and the new king was a long way off and unable to insist on an investigation; these are all good sound reasons why there was no investigation. When the king arrived at Antioch, the senior men had been scattered to their new jobs. Given all this, however, some sort of investigation was surely to be expected. Yet it did not happen. One must wonder how many of the men around the new king were involved in the assassination plot, however distantly.

The kingdom which Antiochos had inherited so abruptly was the largest state in the world. The only competitors were the Mauryan Empire in India, which had begun to split up after the death of the Emperor Asoka in about 230, or China, where the Qin dynasty’s ‘First Emperor’ had just succeeded in crushing the last of the independent dynastic states which were its competitors, but had yet to expand significantly beyond the Yellow River Valley and the central and lower Yangzi. But the Seleukid kingdom was also, like the Mauryan Empire, undergoing fission. Two states, Baktria and Parthia, had been formed out of its eastern extremity, and Asia Minor had recently been seized by Attalos of Pergamon after being effectively independent under Antiochos Hierax since the 240s. It was these losses which should have preoccupied Molon and Akhaios. Akhaios did set about reconquering Asia Minor with some success during 222; Molon, however, whose Parthian frontier was quiescent, had other intentions.

Hermeias had been left in control of the central government, and, when he arrived, that included the king. Within the council, Hermeias was at particular enmity with Epigenes. According to Polybios Hermeias had already crushed other dissenters, by execution or other means, but no names are mentioned.16 Clearly, however, he was unable to do this to Epigenes, who evidently had support among the soldiers. He had brought back to Syria those men Akhaios did not need for his campaign (or perhaps he rid himself of those he did not trust).

Molon rebelled not long after Antiochos reached Syria, and so some time in 222. His quarrel was with Hermeias, whom he presumably wished to replace as the king’s minister, but Hermeias successfully evaded the issue. At a meeting of the royal council, with the king present, Epigenes recommended that the king take command of the army and march east to confront the rebel. Presumably such an expedition would have had Epigenes in effective command of the army, with the king in a more or less titular role. Hermeias would not allow this, in part because he must have feared that Epigenes might be able to make common cause with Molon against him, or be able to use the army to remove him, or might turn the king against him. He agreed that an army should be sent to confront Molon, but not that the king should be involved. Given that Molon’s quarrel was with Hermeias, and that he had done nothing yet to threaten any violence, it is likely that Hermeias was right; a massive response might have been counter-productive. Two generals, Xenon and Theodotos Hemiolios, were to command, though they were not given a large force; indeed they may well have been expected to rely mainly on the forces already in the east.

Hermeias now began to emphasize that the opportunity existed for an attack on the Ptolemaic kingdom. This opportunity had in fact existed for several years, since the death of Seleukos II, at which point the peace treaty he had agreed with Ptolemy III in 241 had expired. Seleukos III had obviously taken the view that it was more important to suppress internal dissent – the rebellion in Asia Minor – than to launch a new war on Ptolemy. It was also the case that Ptolemy III was in full control of his kingdom during Seleukos III’s lifetime, and he was a capable king and possessed a large military and naval power. But Ptolemy died late in 222, and the situation in the Ptolemaic court soon became disharmonious. It is at this point that Hermeias began recommending an invasion of the Ptolemaic territories.

Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part II

Antiochus III the Great was the Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled over the region of Syria and large parts of the rest of western Asia towards the end of the 3rd century BC. Rising to the throne at the age of eighteen in 222 BC, his early campaigns against the Ptolemaic Kingdom were unsuccessful, but in the following years Antiochus gained several military victories and substantially expanded the empire’s territory.

Hermeias had also his own reasons for advocating a Ptolemaic war. If the king was preoccupied with an Egyptian war, Hermeias’ own position, at his side, would be safer. Molon had contacted Akhaios with a view to coordinating their rebellions, but Akhaios was busy, and at the same time was eventually thinking of seizing the kingship, not merely displacing Hermeias. He presumably assumed that Hermeias’ measures would be sufficient to defeat Molon, so Molon had no wider support, and Akhaios was busy. Both men had protested their loyalty to Antiochos, whose attack on Ptolemy, the traditional enemy of the Seleukid dynasty, might well puncture any personal ambitions they had.

The position at the end of 222, therefore, was that in Asia Minor Akhaios had been successful in driving Attalos back to Pergamon, but was still at war with him; in the east Molon was facing the threat of attack by the army commanded by Xenon and Theodotos; in Syria Hermeias was working to persuade Antiochos to attack Ptolemy. This last task was evidently a slow process, with Antiochos apparently reluctant to agree; eventually Hermeias produced a letter, which Polybios claims to have been a forgery, in which Ptolemy is depicted as urging Akhaios to claim the kingship, and promising to assist him with ships and cash.

There seems no reason to believe that this letter was really a forgery. The situation was such that it would be expected that Ptolemy would contact Akhaios – his father had contacted Hierax, and he himself was in contact with Attalos – and, in the interests of self-defence (for he must have been aware of the policy recommended by Hermeias, if not in detail, then from an appreciation of the general situation), that he would offer an alliance. Ptolemy III had already intervened in support of Attalos in his war with Antiochos Hierax, and had sent his younger son Magas to Asia Minor in command of a military force. The defeat of Attalos by Akhaios coincided more or less with the death of Ptolemy III, and the new Ptolemaic regime turned against Magas, who was soon recalled and killed. Since the main object of Ptolemaic policy in this area was to oppose the Seleukid power, it would be expected that the alliance with Attalos would be abandoned and replaced by one with Akhaios, particularly if he showed signs of being ambitious to attack Antiochos and Hermeias. Here the ‘forged’ letter could well be part of a Ptolemaic diplomatic campaign; there is no need to believe it was forged.

The argument at the Seleukid court was not much of a secret with so many men involved and the passions which were evident. It must have been all too clear that there was a threat of a Seleukid attack on Ptolemy’s territories. So, even if, as Polybios claimed, the letter was a forgery, it did reflect accurately the political situation. Polybios’ case is somewhat weakened by the same accusation made about letters Antiochos is said to have sent to officers serving under Molon, threatening them with punishment if they should persist in doing so. Again, this is just the sort of action which the situation would require, and Polybios’ claim that Molon forged them is probably nonsense. What this does do is imply that Polybios was using as his source an ‘official’ account of the events put out by Antiochos or his people after these crises had been overcome, and that therefore it is necessary to have a care in accepting his interpretation.

Hermeias’ argument in favour of an Egyptian war made progress in the aftermath of the production of the letter, which Antiochos clearly accepted as genuine. Preparations for war were set in train, even though this would mean that the Seleukid army would be fighting on three fronts at a time when the attack went in. Meanwhile the marriage negotiations had succeeded. The apparently decisive actions by Akhaios in Asia Minor and in confronting Molon had obviously persuaded Mithradates that all was well, and Diognetos had escorted Laodike to Syria. Bride and groom met at Seleukeia-Zeugma on the Euphrates, which suggests that she had travelled by land through Kappadokia – another kingdom with a Seleukid queen. The marriage took place at once, with the appropriate splendour, and no doubt much publicity. The bride was then taken to Antioch, again a publicity gesture. The message was that the king was married, had allies, and the kingdom was heading for dynastic safety.

It all began to go wrong soon after. The generals Xenon and Theodotos, starting from north Syria, will have taken at least a month to reach Babylonia, perhaps longer if they had a contingent of soldiers with them. Molon, having begun his rebellion well before that, had several months to prepare his response. He had the support of his brother Alexander and some of the local governors whom Polybios does not specify; he did not, it seems, have the support of the satraps of other nearby provinces, for the governors of Susiana and the Persian Gulf province came out publicly in support of the king later. But Molon had enough support among the officials and soldiers of Media to begin a march westwards, coming down through the Zagros Mountains by the Bisitun Pass, and so heading for the great cities of Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris and Babylon.

He encountered the Xenon-Theodotos army on emerging into Babylonia. The two generals had not been able to make any attempt to reach Media, either due to their late arrival, or because of a lack of military strength. They were shocked to find that Molon was in greater strength than they had expected, and they retreated into the cities. Molon based himself at or about Apollonia, which was evidently the first city he reached out of the pass, and planned to advance to attack Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, the place the Babylonians called ‘the royal city’. He found it impossible to cross the Tigris, however, because a local governor, Zeuxis, had collected all the boats. Molon made his winter quarters at Ktesiphon, just across the river from Seleukeia. The two royal commanders had thus failed in their primary mission, to suppress the rebellion, but at least had prevented Molon from advancing any further.

While this crisis in the East was developing, the king, persuaded by Hermeias, embarked on the invasion of Ptolemy IV’s kingdom. The region specifically in contention was the rest of Syria. The boundary of the two kingdoms lay along the Eleutheros River, south of Laodikeia and the island city of Arados (a Seleukid subject state). The valley of the river formed a major routeway, sometimes called the Homs gap, between the interior of Syria and the Mediterranean coast. The northern half was largely under the control of Arados, which also controlled a considerable length of the coast itself, north of the river’s mouth. Two major cities, Laodikeia on the coast (north of Arados’ territory) and Apameia close to the Orontes, had been developed by Seleukos I as his defensive fortresses, blocking any Ptolemaic invasion from the south along the coastal route or that along the plateau edge paralleling the Orontes Valley. In this the cities had been successful, for the only Ptolemaic invasion of the Seleukid part of Syria (in 246) had had to come by sea.

South of the Eleutheros Valley were the mountains of Lebanon, two major mountain ranges which divided the land into three north-south lowland areas. The coast, between the Lebanon range and the sea was studded with fortified cities from Orthosia and Tripolis to Tyre and Sidon, a situation which had foiled at least one earlier Seleukid invasion. Inland, between the Lebanon and Antilebanon ranges, was the valley of the Orontes River, called here the Bekaa Valley, a region which had been developing economically since the Ptolemaic conquest at the end of the wars of Alexander’s successors. East of the Antilebanon Mountains was the Syrian Desert, and along the foot of the mountains ran a desert route which was suitable for caravans of camels, but was not seen as a viable route for an army.

Antiochos’ forces thus had the choice of three invasion routes, the coast, the Bekaa, the desert. Inevitably he, or his generals, chose the Bekaa. The cities of the coast road were designed, at least in the minds of the Ptolemaic government, if not those of the inhabitants, to slow down or stop any invasion; the desert route was assumed to be too dry and difficult for an army. So the Bekaa was the obvious route for an invasion. Unfortunately the Ptolemaic generals had made the same calculations, and the Bekaa had been converted into a great cul-de-sac in which to trap an invader. Between the high mountain ranges the valley leads deceptively easily south. But there were few exits from the valley, and no easy ones. One pass lead over the Lebanon Mountains to the coast near Berytos (still the only reasonable route, taken by the modern road), and another exited southeast towards Damascus through the Barada River gorge; neither was easy and both were easily blocked.

The Ptolemaic defence relied on this geographical situation. Ignoring the pass towards the coast (for the coast road south was blocked by the cities to both north and south of Berytos) they had concentrated on preventing the invader from reaching the pass towards Damascus. At two neighbouring settlements, Gerrha and Brochoi, strong garrisons had been established, and at a narrow passage flanked by a lake and (presumably) the mountains, a palisade and ditch had been constructed to block the route. Behind this position the Ptolemaic army, commanded by Theodotos the Aitolian, stood on the defensive, preventing any further Seleukid advance. Polybios does not mention it, but it would be reasonable to suppose that the food supplies in the valley north of these fortifications had been collected and removed. At any rate Antiochos fairly quickly found himself in some difficulty.

The news of the check to the Xenon-Theodotos campaign in Babylonia had reached Syria while Antiochos was on campaign in the Bekaa. Hermeias, without much difficulty, persuaded him to send another commander, Xenoetas, to take over in Babylonia. It does not seem that Xenoetas was given any more troops, and so it is not surprising that he also eventually failed. Hermeias’ clinching argument for sending a general rather than that the king himself should go was that it was the task of a king to command over all, planning the strategy, and if it came to a fight, he should combat another king, but that rebels should be confronted by generals. One might suppose that Hermeias based his decision on rather more information than we have, and understood that Xenoetas was a more capable commander than those already defeated.

Xenoetas began with some sensible moves. He based himself at Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, facing Molon’s winter camp at Ktesiphon, and called up the forces commanded by the satraps of Susiana (Diogenes) and of the Persian Gulf satrapy (Pythiadas), and joined them with the forces in central Babylonia. He also was encouraged by the arrival of deserters from Molon’s army. This was something which Epigenes had predicted would happen, but he had pointed out that the desertion was likely to be much more vigorous if it was the king the deserters were joining. Xenoetas, however, had already developed an arrogance which had alienated some of his friends and colleagues; the appearance of deserters further increased his over-confidence. The deserters, of course, claimed that the whole of Molon’s army was ready to join the royal army if Xenoetas would only cross the river. (Polybios does not take the opportunity to claim that this was part of Molon’s misinformation, but it is quite possible.)

One or other of the rival armies would need to attack, which meant one of them crossing the river. Xenoetas made a plan. Feinting to make a crossing at one place (though since he made no real preparations, it was really feinting a feint; Molon ignored it), he got an advanced force across further away, and Molon’s counter-attack, using a cavalry force, collapsed in the mud and marshes and canals. (This makes it clear that it was in the spring, when the rains come.) Xenoetas brought across the rest of his forces and moved up to threaten Molon’s camp directly.

Molon withdrew, though in sufficient disorder to seem to be in flight, leaving the army’s baggage in his former camp. So far, therefore, Xenoetas had been successful, though Molon’s army, less the deserters, had not joined him en masse as he had expected. Instead the enemy troops had gone off with Molon, who stopped not far along his march and thought. It is possible that he had either spies near Xenoetas’ camp (possibly late arrivals or escapees) or a good idea of what would happen there. Xenoetas’ confidence was high, and at this point he made his mistakes. He brought his full force over the river from the city and now he gave his soldiers a speech claiming that Molon had fled and that tomorrow they would pursue the beaten enemy. But he did not send out scouts to locate the enemy precisely.

The soldiers, taking their cue from their commander, celebrated, and having the supplies collected for Molon’s forces to hand, proceeded to eat and drink and then fall into a drunken sleep. Molon returned, saw his enemy stupefied, and recaptured the camp. Many of Xenoetas’ soldiers died in their beds, others in trying to swim the river. Xenoetas, finally realizing his mistake, charged into the enemy and was killed.36 More constructively, other commanders escaped the slaughter to resume their official responsibilities.

Diogenes returned to Susiana and garrisoned the city of Susa and its acropolis. Molon immediately threatened Seleukeia; Diomedon, the city’s governor, withdrew with his forces; then, with Zeuxis, he pulled back to the north. (The whereabouts of Pythiadas is unknown; perhaps he had died in the battle at the camp.)

It is worth pointing out that this was the first violence in Molon’s rebellion. The army of Xenon and Theodotos Hemiolios had not stood to fight. Of course, violence was implicit in Molon’s actions, but he could claim to have been threatened in his satrapy by Xenon-Theodotos and that his advance into Babylonia was defensive. It would not be much of an argument, but his original quarrel was with Hermeias, and it might have been possible to settle the dispute by negotiation. Such an approach was never attempted, so far as we know. And now, with extensive casualties among the royal army, the position on both sides changed.

Molon pursued Diogenes, who reached Susa first. The city itself fell to Molon’s forces, but not the acropolis, where Diogenes held out. This was one of the treasure repositories of the Seleukid kingdom, which was probably why Molon went so far out of his way to attack it. Diogenes remained defiant, and Molon returned north to Seleukeia, then moved on further north, following Zeuxis and Diomedon, to seize the fortified town of Doura-Europos on the Euphrates and Doura on the Tigris as advanced defensive posts, or posts from which to advance further, whichever became needed.

This clearly took some time. The defeat of Xenon-Theodotos happened late in 222, for Molon soon after went into winter quarters. Xenoetas had travelled east in the winter and launched his attack in the spring, and Molon’s cavalry attack had blundered into the wet lands (‘pools and marshes’) which had been made wetter drenched by the spring rains. The actual fighting clearly took only a few days, but then Molon diverted to attack Susa. This is 400km from Seleukeia, a journey, even if he took only his cavalry, which would take at least three weeks – and then three weeks for the return journey. He spent some time seizing Susa and vainly attacking the acropolis. He returned north to Seleukeia and then went on to the two Douras, more marches of 400km. So, from the victory over Xenoetas to the occupation of Doura was at least ten weeks, and quite likely half as much again. If the battle took place in the spring, it was high summer before Molon’s army seized Doura-Europos and Doura.

So, whereas Molon had benefited in his first year from the slow response from Syria to his advance – due mainly to the distance that Xenoetas had to travel – he had now forfeited that advantage. The news of the defeat of Xenoetas will have reached Hermeias rapidly, quite possibly by a courier crossing by the desert route by way of Doura and Palmyra, and then Antiochos almost as quickly. And one further piece of news will have arrived: Molon had taken the royal title. Polybios does not mention this, but coins were produced at Seleukeia in his name as king. After winning battles, especially that against Xenoetas’ army, it is quite likely that the army had insisted he make himself king. It was a move which might well solidify his support in the forces, either by suggesting confidence in his powers or by implying that they were complicit, and therefore would be regarded as traitors by Antiochos. Thus Molon had been driven by his victory to that proclamation; it was now quite impossible for him to make any compromise, either with Hermeias or with Antiochos. (The absence of the mention of Molon’s kingship by Polybios is another sign that he was using a pro-Antiochos source, which would have, no doubt, consistently denigrated Molon’s claims.)

This was also the news which finally destroyed Hermeias’ argument. If Molon was now a king, he was clearly a suitable object for Antiochos to attack. He was also now a direct threat to Antiochos himself, and not just to Hermeias, and this was also a solution to the obvious necessity of marching the full royal force to deal with the rebel. It also rescued Antiochos from the lack of progress in the Bekaa Valley. He could now abandon the offensive there with a clear conscience, as there was a more urgent matter to be dealt with.

A royal council held at Apameia degenerated into a slanging match between Epigenes and Hermeias, the former recommending a rapid march to the east with the king in command. Hermeias, clearly feeling his political footing unstable, abused Epigenes, but the latter had the better of the argument so that Hermeias swung round to support him. This is presented by Polybios as deviousness and insecurity on Hermeias’ part, particularly in his decision to change his position and support Epigenes’ argument for rapid action. And yet this, as noted before, is just what the royal council was for: to discuss responses to crises. There is obviously scope for disagreement, and with the importance of the issue, no doubt the argument was heated. It is a later interpretation, reflected in Polybios’ account, which insists that Hermeias was entirely selfseeking and unpleasant.

By now, however, the army was disgruntled. It had not been paid, and, whatever arguments had been advanced for abandoning the offensive in Syria, the soldiers knew they had suffered a clear defeat. Confidence in the king was no doubt at a low ebb, and the news of disagreements in the council cannot have helped the soldiers’ morale. Now they were about to be ordered to march east for a new campaign, a march which would take perhaps two months. A mutiny developed, demanding their pay.

Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part III

217 BC – During the Wars of the Diadochi at the Battle of Raphia, Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt with 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 war elephants fought the army of Antiochus III. The Antiochids suffered just under 10,000 foot dead, about 300 horse and 5 elephants; 4,000 men were taken prisoner. The Ptolemaic losses were 1,500 foot, 700 horse and 16 elephants. Most of the Antiochid elephants were taken by the Ptolemies.

The royal coffers were empty. The constant campaigning of the past three years (and earlier) had been expensive, and there will have been no revenues coming in from Asia Minor (for the last twenty years) or from the east (since Molon’s rebellion). Babylonia was the major cash cow of the treasury, and nothing will have come in from there for the past year, since Molon’s conquest, or even before, since money will have been needed to organize resistance. So when the mutiny at Apameia began, the king was trapped. Hermeias seized the opportunity this offered to regain his influence. He offered to meet the soldiers’ demands from his own resources. That he was so rich he could pay for an army of perhaps 25,000 men might, to the suspicious mind, suggest that one of the reasons the royal treasury was empty was that Hermeias had been looting it. Whatever suspicions the king might have had to be suppressed, and he accepted Hermeias’ offer. But Hermeias had his own price, which has that Epigenes should not be allowed to accompany the king on the eastern campaign. Reluctantly Antiochos agreed.

Then Hermeias is said to have developed a plot which saw that Epigenes was implicated in Molon’s intrigues. Another letter was found, from Molon to Epigenes, presumably soliciting his support. This is claimed by Polybios to be another of Hermeias’ forgeries. The letter is said to have been planted in Epigenes’ quarters by a suborned slave, then found by the commander of the citadel at Apameia. The king being off on campaign, Epigenes was forthwith executed for complicity in the rebellion. There are, yet again, no reasons necessarily to accept the accusation of forgery; the disputes between Epigenes and Hermeias were well known, and Molon would obviously take advantage of it, so a letter from him to Epigenes is fully to be expected. Epigenes should, of course, have reported the letter to the king, but then his access to him was through Hermeias.

It was another sign that Hermeias felt that his position was under threat that he increased the guard around the king, a quite reasonable precaution given the mutiny and the fact that the king was heading for a new war. No doubt Hermeias expelled any man he did not feel he could rely on. He also decided to accompany the king on the eastern expedition. Part of the army, a regiment or corps called the Kyrrhestai, continued their mutiny (the rest expressed gratitude to Hermeias, who evidently made sure his action had been well publicized). The Kyrrhestai were a group of soldiers who had presumably been recruited from the northern region around the city of Kyrrhos. They marched away, presumably going home, but were pursued, defeated, and suppressed by a loyal force commanded by generals, though the fighting lasted for most of the year.44 The king ignored this and marched east.

That march took a long time. He went by the northern route, that used a century before by Alexander, along the better-watered lands along the foot of the mountains. Antiochos halted at the Euphrates, presumably to gather and organize his forces. A winter camp was made at Antioch-in-Mygdonia, which is the old city of Nisibis (this is the present Nusaybin), where the army stayed for ‘forty days’ – a period of time effectively vague. The army moved on to the Tigris in the spring.

At some point Antiochos linked up with the force under Zeuxis. (Diomedon drops out of the account; perhaps he was in command of the forces on the Euphrates.) By approaching along the northern route Antiochos was avoiding the more difficult route along the Euphrates, and at the same time protecting the forces there. Molon had concentrated his forces at Babylon, the better to be able to strike in whatever direction the king approached, and he still had to be concerned about the undefeated Diogenes in Susa.

It is clear that Antiochos had learned a good deal about military campaigning. He was accompanied by Hermeias, who had some notion of military strategy, and it may have been by his advice that the northern route was chosen. But having collected Zeuxis and his forces the king had also gained access to independent advice. Zeuxis had been a middle-ranking officer before Molon’s invasion, and had emerged as a sensible commander under the pressure of events and as his superiors were killed or otherwise driven away. He had thus come to command all the remnant royal forces in northern Babylonia. The rest of the royal council had been intimidated into supporting whatever Hermeias was saying, but Zeuxis arrived free of that influence, though it is said that he knew of the fate of Epigenes, which means he knew of Hermeias’ part in contriving that fate.

The army moved on from Nisibis to a place called Libba. This is not located, though one modern historian puts it at about the site of the former Assyrian city of Assur, just north of the junction of the Tigris with the Little Zab River. Certainly Libba must have been somewhere in that area. A council was held to decide the next stage in the campaign. In the knowledge that Molon was in Babylon or nearby, Hermeias recommended a march along the west bank of the Tigris, no doubt with the aim of trapping the enemy army by getting between Seleukeia and Babylon. Zeuxis, however, who clearly knew more about the local geography than anyone else present, recommended marching along the east bank of the Tigris. He pointed out that the west bank was less well supplied with provisions, and that the army would eventually reach the Royal Canal, which it would be unable to cross. The Royal Canal connected the Euphrates and the Tigris, reaching the latter at Seleukeia; Molon would thus be able to use it for protection on his north. This must have reminded Antiochos of the cul-de-sac he had marched into in the Bekaa Valley. The east bank, however, had ample provisions and Antiochos would have the Tigris as a flank protection. By moving swiftly the enemy army could be trapped inside Babylonia and would be unable to reach Media. It was clearly desirable to finish him off without having to conduct a campaign in Media. The key was the Diyala Valley, in which Apollonia was – this was the place Molon had used as his base after his irruption from the mountains.

The two armies had about the same distance to march to reach Apollonia, but Antiochos’ set off first. It would take a few days for the news of Antiochos’ direction of march to reach Babylon – the straight line distance from Libba to Babylon is about 250km – so he had that much start. Molon immediately understood the threat and marched off at once to try to reach Apollonia first. He failed, in part because he had first to construct a bridge over the Tigris to get his army across. The two armies camped about 7.5km apart. Molon appreciated his problem, which was that his army was now less reliable than ever, and that he was outnumbered. He tried to organize a night attack, usually guaranteed to cause panic in the victim, but during the march he found that a ten-man unit had deserted and he had to assume that Antiochos now knew of his intention; he returned to his camp, causing a brief panic at the unexpectedness of his arrival.

So it came down to a battle. Antiochos must have hoped to avoid one – the enemy was his own troops, after all, and casualties amongst his forces had not been light in the last years – but Molon had no choice now. The battlefield appears to have been in a wideish pass where the Diyala cut through the Jebel Hamrin. The terrain did not favour the usual phalanx attack, being uneven. So both commanders put the phalanx in the centre, on the least unfavourable ground, with cavalry on each flank. But Antiochos took out a force of infantry and cavalry for a reserve, in two sections. The disposition of the armies was thus traditional, but Molon had concentrated much of his cavalry on his left wing, where they faced Antiochos himself. The two cavalry wings were to be the active elements, and Molon and his brother Neolaos commanded right and left wings respectively; Antiochos took command of his right (facing Neolaos) and the royal left was under the joint command of Hermeias and Zeuxis (an interesting combination). We are not told who commanded the phalanx forces, probably because once launched they were uncontrollable, and in this case were scarcely involved.

Polybios’ account of the battle suffers from his use of a source which favoured Antiochos over Hermeias and Molon probably produced by Antiochos’ propaganda department a short time later. He attributed the victory to the king’s presence, which induced Neolaos’ forces to surrender as soon as the fight began. It has been pointed out, however, that Neolaos’ force was largely composed of Median horsemen, who were much less automatically loyal to the dynasty than the Macedonians of the phalanx. This does not preclude their surrendering, of course, particularly since the officers were probably Greeks and Macedonians, and so susceptible, but it leaves the Polybian explanation less compelling, particularly as it had been evoked all too often in the previous pages. It has therefore been suggested that the reserve was used as a surprise flanking manoeuvre, and this may be so, despite there being no evidence for it. Whatever the reason, Neolaos’ wing surrendered.

The wing under Molon himself did well, but having lost a large part of his army, Molon himself was defeated. The phalanx could now be taken in flank, and this always induced a rapid surrender. Molon committed suicide, and his forces either fled or surrendered. It seems that casualties were relatively few, at least among the ordinary soldiers and junior officers. The high command, however, knew that the king would take his revenge, and ‘all who had taken part in the plot’ fled and killed themselves. Polybios is vague on numbers and details, but illustrates the matter by describing the end of Molon’s family: Neolaos killed his mother, his own family, Molon’s family, persuaded Alexander to commit suicide, and then did so himself.

This was sufficient for the king’s purposes. He displayed Molon’s body in the pass leading to Media as a clear warning, and as a message to all concerned that the rebellion was over. Then, having complained about their conduct, he accepted the surrendered troops back into his service.

Antiochos is credited with the victory by Polybios, but to go from incompetence and bad planning to a clear strategy and victory in a few months suggests that others were involved. The account of the decisive royal council before the advance on Apollonia alternatively suggests that the king had few clear ideas of his own, if the advance was really a matter of choosing between the plans of Hermeias and Zeuxis. Yet this is exactly what a council is for, and that he chose the better of the options placed before him (and the more adventurous) implies a modicum of sense in the king. In the actual execution it would seem he had the services of competent officers, for his staff work – the march, supplies, the disposition of the forces, perhaps the use of the reserve – all suggest professional expertise. In Hellenistic warfare it was the advance preparations, and such simple notions as using a reserve unexpectedly, which produced victory; once battle was joined the commanders usually had little influence over events other than to unleash the reserve at the right moment; indeed they usually fought in person, which would surely prevent any carefully thought-out decisions in the heat of the action.

Nevertheless the king would necessarily receive the credit – he was, after all, in overall command – and this would obviously enhance his personal authority in the council, and among the soldiers, and build his own confidence. Hermeias was nevertheless still a potent force. The balance of internal power was shown in the aftermath. The surrendered army was given new officers and sent back to their Median home. The victorious army had to go home the opposite way, and some were presumably sent off almost at once. The governing group went to Seleukeia from where new arrangements for provincial affairs were made.

The city had played an equivocal role in the rebellion. Having first been held by Diomedon after Xenoetas’ defeat, it then apparently tamely surrendered to Molon, though to be sure this was after Diomedon and Zeuxis had withdrawn with their forces. It was well fortified and had a large population, and was on the west bank of the Tigris, so it could have been defended for some time. Zeuxis had originally prevented Molon crossing the river by seizing all the boats in the vicinity, but this was probably not possible this time, for they had been used to transfer Xenoetas’ army across the river and were no doubt now scattered along both banks. Molon would therefore need to besiege the city, but this did not happen; evidently it surrendered at Molon’s arrival.

Hermeias set about ordering punishments. Those who arranged the surrender were the city magistrates, who had the old Macedonian name of the Adeiganes. He exiled them, and others who had supported them were punished ‘by mutilation, the sword, or the rack’, as Polybios graphically puts it. The distinction between the responsible magistrates and others implies that the Adeiganes had only surrendered as a result of pressure from the citizenry, and that the city greeted Molon in a divided and no doubt fearful state. Hermeias also imposed a fine of 1,000 talents on the city collectively.

The king allowed this to go on for a time, then intervened, reducing the fine to 150 talents (harsh enough in all conscience). The punishments had created even more fear and disturbance, and it was apparently this which persuaded the king to call a halt. It is noticeable that he did not rescind the other punishments – Polybios’ pro-Antiochos source would undoubtedly have pointed this out had it occurred. He depicts the matter as a dispute between Antiochos and Hermeias, and so it may have been, but only in retrospect. Hermeias’ policy largely prevailed, and it was only when it became obvious that harshness was causing even more trouble that the policy was relaxed. Without that interpretation one might see the affair as evidence of a double-act operation of good-cop-bad-cop, the king’s forgiveness being a political ploy, possibly pre-arranged with Hermeias, to bring the city back to loyalty. It is evident that Hermeias was still able to make policy on his own.

The governors of the region all needed to be replaced. Molon’s position in Media went to Diogenes, the loyal defender of the Susa acropolis, whose decision to return there after the defeat of Xenoetas was important in distracting Molon for a decisive couple of months; his post was now filled by Apollodoros, otherwise unknown, presumably one of the officers and royal philoi who had proved himself in the past year as both loyal and competent. The Persian Gulf province, formerly governed by the now disappeared Pythiadas, went to Tychon, another man who had presumably proved to be both loyal and able during the campaign.

In Iran there were other problems. The southern regions of Elymais and Persis were semi-autonomous, but were far too distant for the king to deal with when he was in Seleukeia, and meanwhile affairs in the west were demanding his attention. In northern Iran, however, was another sub-kingdom, Media Atropatene, whose King Artabarzanes had evidently supported Molon in his rebellion. He may, in fact, have had no real choice in the matter, but the situation was uncertain enough to require royal attention. Artabarzanes was also the nearest of these sub-kings to Seleukeia and to reduce him to subservience would have a useful wider effect on the other sub-kingdoms. He was regarded as the ‘most important and vigorous’ of the sub-kings, according to Polybios; his support of Molon now that Molon had gone, may have translated into full independence. Also Hermeias opposed the idea of the royal expedition in Iran, which was an inducement for Antiochos to undertake it.

Two items of news received from the west illustrate the instability of these court politics. Queen Laodike gave birth to a son – Antiochos had evidently done his dynastic duty with despatch – which would be a cause for celebration. To Hermeias it was another opportunity. He changed to supporting the king’s campaign into Media, in the knowledge that it was quite possible that the king would not survive it, and that then he would have the opportunity for a lengthy regency for the infant. Once again the interpretation of Hermeias’ actions is put in the worst possible light. As a senior royal adviser coping with the aftermath of Molon’s rebellion it must have been obvious to Hermeias that the expedition against Artarbazanes was a sensible idea. It is quite possible he did anticipate, even hope for, the king’s death, and it would be remiss of him not to take the possibility into account; it is even possible that he attempted to secure the king’s death, but this looks like an interpolation by later pro-Antiochos propagandists, for nothing actually happened.

Antiochos took a force into Media and successfully intimidated Artabazanes into surrender. While on this campaign the second piece of news from the west arrived, that Akhaios in Asia Minor had declared himself king. Polybios links this with Antiochos’ expedition and the possibility of his death on campaign. This conjunction and interpretation might be thought to imply that Hermeias was involved somehow in Akhaios’ usurpation, but Hermeias was out for his own hand, and having Akhaios as king would hardly be in his interest; we may assume that Akhaios thought the moment right for his declaration – he may possibly have heard a rumour that Antiochos had been killed on campaign. He was, in fact, now as much of a threat to Hermeias as to Antiochos.

This was an even more urgent matter for the king than to view his own new son. It was to be expected that Akhaios would attempt to secure control of north Syria as soon as possible. He might thus be able to seize control of the new prince, who, if Antiochos died in his adventure, he could become regent for, or kill. Or he could take up with the Kyrrhestai, still holding out in their mutiny; even if Antiochos survived his adventure in Iran, Akhaios in control of Asia Minor and Syria (and possibly allied with Ptolemy) would be in a powerful position to defeat a royal counter-attack, and Antiochos in such a case will have had to rely to a degree on the Median army he had just defeated.

Yet another piece of news had its effect on all involved. The death of Ptolemy III had produced a nasty crisis in the court in Alexandria. The first minister, Sosibios, had evidently felt under threat, and had reacted with a series of murders – any of the new king’s relatives he could reach, including at least two of his brothers and his mother. In this he was acting very much with the king’s agreement. Clearly this was destabilizing far beyond the confines of the court, and Antiochos may already have become aware that the governor of Koile Syria, Theodotos the Aitolian, who had defeated his attack in the Bekaa Valley, was now disaffected and fearful for his own safety. There was thus much to bring Antiochos back to Syria, but first he had to solve his own court problem and get free of Hermeias.

Hermeias’ reputation has suffered severely from his treatment in Polybios’ narrative – the only source available. There is enough information in it, however, to provide an alternative story. For one thing he was clearly an able man. A foreigner, perhaps not even a Greek, he had secured his high position by his own ability, for he can have had no source of influence in the Seleukid kingdom. His advice may not always have been followed, but it had always been in the interest of the king, even if it also was to his own benefit. His mistake was no doubt arrogance, to be expected in a man in his position, and he clearly used violence, both overt and covert, to stay in power. But his main error was to stay on too long. There was no tradition of graceful retirement in the ancient world, though it would have been best, both for Hermeias and for the king, had he invented such a manoeuvre. But once in power he had no choice but to stay there, and having surrounded the king with guards, both men were stuck in their positions, the one unable to let go, the other unable to get free except by violence.

The story of the elimination of Hermeias has some curious aspects, one of which is that it is unclear just what happened despite the apparent detail of Polybios’ account. Polybios places it after the submission of Artabarzanes, but apparently before the news of the rebellion of Akhaios arrived; nor is it clear where it took place, though the implication is that it took place in Media, and soon after the expedition into Atropatene ended. But the story is almost free of connections with other events, as though Polybios was consulting a version which was essentially free-standing.

The account Polybios presents is that Antiochos, already uneasy about Hermeias’ power and intentions, was contacted by his doctor, Apollophanes, who expressed his own fears for the king’s safety (and incidentally his own). Given that Hermeias’ conduct for the past year and more had been overbearing and even threatening, one would have thought that such an exchange of views was coming rather late in the day. The involvement of Apollophanes may well be emphasized (or invented) in order to deflect criticism from the king, for it is the doctor who is described as organizing the plot which removed the minister, with Antiochos given a purely passive role. In fact, these roles might well be reversed to provide an even better narrative. A pretence at illness allowed the king to be isolated from the guards who surrounded him – guards who were primarily loyal to Hermeias – and for contacts to be made with those whom Antiochos trusted. Hermeias was then summoned to a meeting at an unusually early hour, unaccompanied by his own people; he was stabbed to death by Antiochos’ conspirators.

The plot, once the king had achieved his pseudo-medical isolation, did not need the doctor, and he fades away from the story. In fact it is clear that the king was the prime mover in the whole sequence. In the actual assassination he is said to have gone aside, leaving his followers to commit the murder, a transparent device of the storyteller to transfer the guilt away from the king, and one which, after all the plotting and secrecy, is wholly unbelievable; if Antiochos was so keen to eliminate Hermeias that he contrived, or even organized, the plot, he would surely be present to see that it was carried out.

The deed is said to have met with widespread approval, and the king on his way back to Syria was greeted approvingly, which may have owed more to his defeat of Molon and the relief felt at the end of the war than any knowledge people had of the death of Hermeias. One wonders also if the apparent approval masked a certain fear; a king who could kill his own senior adviser in a secret plot may well inspire widespread fear. (It is also possible, of course, that the approval was invented by the author of Polybios’ source.) In Apameia it is said that Hermeias’ wife was killed by stoning by the women of the city, and that his sons similarly by the children. One can believe that the family was murdered, for this was the standard practice to prevent a vendetta arising, but the allocation of the task to women and children leaves a very bad taste.

Memorandum Dictated in 1946 by General Alfred Jodl on Hitler’s Military Leadership

[General Alfred Jodl, former Chief of the Operations Staff of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, dictated this memoir, which he entitled “The Influence of Hitler on the Leadership of the War (Brief Reflections on Hitler as a Strategist),” to the wife of his defense counsel while he was a prisoner at Nuremberg—excepting the last two paragraphs. These he dictated later to his own wife, after he had been sentenced to death. The tone of the addendum, which his wife transcribed from shorthand, is understandable in view of the sense of indignation Jodl felt.

[Anyone attempting to write the history of Alfred Jodl’s life will find it difficult to penetrate the mask of the general who was condemned to death by the International Military Tribunal and executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. He felt constrained—if I understood him correctly—to wear this mask by virtue of the ethos he had grown to accept as an officer, and out of respect for the Chief of State whose failings he perceived far better than others, but whose positive gifts—as this brief memoir demonstrates—he still acknowledged even in the cell in which he awaited execution. That Alfred Jodl, at the bottom of his heart, no longer believed in victory after the winter campaign of 1941-1942, and certainly not after Stalingrad the following winter, has already been mentioned. His tragedy was that he felt morally obligated, as a matter of official responsibility, not to divulge what he thought. Consequently, he moved sharply against anyone who arrived at the same conclusion. To General Walter Warlimont, his closest associate, he once said, in response to a skeptical remark, that Warlimont really belonged in a concentration camp.

[To grasp the full implications of Alfred Jodl’s role is to perceive the frightful fate of those discerning General Staff officers who felt duty bound to be loyal to their Chief of State and Supreme Commander, who saw through and despised him as an autodidact but at the same time were fascinated by his “sixth sense,” and in the end were condemned before the world as his accomplices.

[Jodl’s relationship with Hitler will be made clear by a passage that a General Staff officer, who was assigned to Führer Headquarters in 1945, wrote during the winter of 1945-1946 (before Jodl’s death sentence was pronounced): “Jodl was not one of the people who crept before Hitler. He spoke his mind openly, bluntly, and often in very harsh terms. But what he said did not get through. The very first time I heard him briefing Hitler it was clear to me that Jodl did not have the slightest illusions about the real situation. He saw things objectively and clearly. He also gave the unmistakable impression, often in an almost cynical fashion that he made no effort to suppress, that so far as operational ability was concerned, he regarded himself superior to Hitler. His stance in regard to Hitler was occasionally even pedantic. But he thereby also revealed clearly that he was convinced he was preaching to deaf ears. He did not allow himself to be put upon. He occasionally went so far as to put Hitler in the position of having to acknowledge that either he himself or else Jodl was an idiot. Hitler would not take him up on it. Everything Jodl said simply bounced off him with no visible effect. I was told that earlier Hitler had had a great deal of confidence in Jodl and consequently also in the Operations Staff of the OKW. But during the battles in the Caucasus, Jodl had once visited Field Marshal List, who in Hitler’s opinion had failed, and when he returned to Führer Headquarters he defended him against Hitler. Thereupon Hitler lost confidence in him and also broke off all personal contact with the entire OKW Operations Staff, with whose leaders he had often previously eaten. The only reason Jodl was not relieved at that time was that Hitler was concerned that any successor he could find would be even more ‘unreliable.’ “]

Among the many concepts more often used than understood is the word “strategy.” Almost everyone knows it, almost everyone uses it, but many would have nothing to say if they were asked: “What is strategy, then?” People speak of it because they know or sense that the success or failure of strategy in war decides their fate also. Thus it concerns everyone directly, and everyone sees it much more clearly than he does the operational problems of battle. To judge or criticize the latter [i.e., tactics] is something people enjoy doing—even the officer corps, in fact, insofar as it does not belong to the General Staff. That is strange. Whether an attack should have been mounted sooner with weaker, or later with stronger forces, whether strength should have been concentrated on the right or the left wing, whether one should have broken through rather than encircled, or perhaps not even have attacked at all, whether the other fronts could have been weakened still further, whether one should have remained on the defensive, have ordered the troops to attack in order to pin down the enemy, or perhaps even have had them withdraw behind a sector of the battle front—these are all problems of military leadership, specifically operational ones, which even the carping critics tend to avoid. For in order merely to speak on these matters, one needs military maps, data concerning one’s own and the enemy’s strength, the condition of the troops, their equipment and armament, and their supply of munitions. But these are secrets that remain hidden in the files and charts of the General Staff, and even if they should later find their way into works on military history, they would never provoke a public controversy to the same extent as the strategic plans and problems of the war. The manner in which operations are conducted is regarded by everyone as a specialized scientific matter, no different than medical discussion of new methods of surgery.

The protective curtain of a clandestine science is drawn around tactics, with an impenetrably secret terrain surrounding it, so that no one will be able to find his bearings who in the course of a diligent life has not combined theory and practice in the auditorium and on maneuver, preparing himself to walk these tortuous paths. But in strategy everything appears simple and direct. Is it not obvious and self-evident to every layman that Hitler should not have attacked Russia, because Russia was stronger than we believed it to be, and because defeat was therefore inevitable? Has the frightful catastrophe that Germany suffered not provided irrefutable proof? In these terms, it does not seem difficult to describe the essence of strategy. But it is not so simple to analyze the basic elements and colors in this picture, which must be done in order to put together this seemingly uncomplicated and self-evident picture with its endlessly complex technological details.

Clausewitz could still define the concept of strategy very simply by saying that it is the teaching of the use of battles for the purposes of the war. The concept has remained, but what it comprehends has changed. Ever since war began to assume an ever more total character, that is, ever since it relentlessly drew the entire state, with all its functions, together with every citizen, regardless of occupation, sex, or age, into its orbit, the strategic leadership of war has developed into so universal a function that it has come to include every aspect of state leadership, thereby exceeding the limits of purely military responsibilities. Thus we see—in this war for the first time—how the concepts of “strategy” and “warlord,” which once were identical, began to subdivide. No longer did we see any soldier who led the war as a whole, but only military operations. Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek were the strategists of this war, and—more or less heeding the advice of the soldiers standing at their side—they intervened as warlords only indirectly in the actual conduct of military operations. Only in Japan, which in this respect simply had not kept pace with the times, did the military machinery fight its way to political power and lead the country—though divided and without a strong political hand—in a war that was waged not as a means of politics, but rather with politics being made to serve as handmaiden of war. The reader should have a clear picture of this transformation before we go on to consider in greater detail Hitler’s influence on the war, on the campaigns, and on the individual battles. Otherwise we cannot confront the question that has been posed again and again: How was it possible for the German military leaders and professionals to permit a layman and former corporal of the First World War to dictate to them the prescription for victory and defeat? Those who pose this question have not yet adequately understood what strategy in the modern sense is all about.

I believe it is necessary to define the concept in the following terms: Strategy is the supreme leadership activity in warfare. It comprehends foreign and domestic policy, military operations and economic mobilization, propaganda and popular leadership, and must harmonize these vital aspects of the war effort in terms of the purposes and the political goal of the war. Only when the concept of strategy is understood in such terms is it clear that no general but only a statesman can be a strategist, though this does not preclude the possibility that both functions may be united in one person, as was the case in China.

Hitler was a statesman. He was a dictator. He was Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht and since 1941 Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well. He had unleashed the war, and it was up to him and no one else to lead it. He did in fact lead the war. It was Hitler who gave the order in the spring of 1939 to prepare military plans for the attack on Poland. No soldier could know whether the attack would take place, whether it would be provoked or unprovoked, a war of aggression or of defense; for even a politically defensive war could be waged by Germany—given its central position and the constant prospect of a two-front war—only as a military offensive. When the propaganda machine began to run and mobilization on the Polish border was ordered, all the leading soldiers were indeed quite clear about the operational questions confronting them, but the political, the strategic remained for them a veiled secret. Had Hitler himself not implied and even stated in his addresses that he confidently expected to reach a settlement with the West? Was the mobilization backed by a serious determination to attack Poland, or was it only a means of exerting pressure for negotiation, as had been the case in 1938 with Czechoslovakia? Was this hope not confirmed when, on August 26, 1939, the ordered attack was halted? The details of the struggle of the Great Powers to preserve the peace were unknown to the Commanders-in-Chief and their staffs, with the exception of Göring.

If there is anything that clearly demonstrates the revolutionary character of Hitler’s method of leadership, it is that he did not concede to his military working staff, the OKW, and within it, the Operations Staff, the role of strategic adviser. All attempts I undertook in this direction failed. Hitler was willing to have a working staff that translated his decisions into orders which he would then issue as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, but nothing more. The fact that even men like Frederick the Great would have their own thoughts and decisions tested and re-examined against the often contrary ideas of their generals made no difference to Hitler, who resented any form of counsel regarding the major decisions of the war. He did not care to hear any other points of view; if they were even hinted at he would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation. Remarkable—and, for soldiers, incomprehensible— conflicts developed out of Hitler’s almost mystical conviction of his own infallibility as leader of the nation and of the war. To reflect individually on the dozen or more decisions that determined the course of the war would be psychologically and historically tempting, but that cannot be the purpose of this sketch. The man who succeeded in occupying Norway before the very eyes of the British Fleet with its maritime supremacy, and who with numerically inferior forces brought down the feared military power of France like a house of cards in a campaign of forty days, was no longer willing, after these successes, to listen to military advisers who had previously warned him against such overextensions of his military power. From that time on he required of them nothing more than the technical support necessary to implement his decisions, and the smooth functioning of the military organization to carry them out.

Quite apart from Hitler’s arbitrarily dictatorial methods, there is the question of the position taken by senior military leaders regarding his individual decisions. These varied. Unanimous rejection, unanimous agreement, or divided counsel followed each other as in every war and under every regime. But it was always Hitler whose restless spirit would first cast its spotlight into the dark future long before the eyes of his military staff were able to perceive anything tangible or threatening in that darkness—with one single exception: the occupation of Norway. The danger that threatened our war effort if England had been able to secure bases in Norway and thereby block the sole reliable exit from the North Sea to the Atlantic was perceived first by the navy. But—as in the case of all ideas he himself had not conceived—Hitler was initially skeptical and hesitant, until in January 1940 he seized the initiative and ordered the most daring of solutions, once there could no longer be any doubt about the threatening intentions of England.

Let us leaf further, however, in the great memories which at some time in the future will form a book on Hitler’s strategy. First we come upon the decision to attack in the West. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army [General Walther von Brauchitsch] did not want to do it. To remain on the defensive on the border and along the Westwall, letting the war go to sleep, was his desire, his contribution to peace, which he sought to cloak behind military reasons, particularly the inadequate preparation of the army for so gigantic a task. Not all leading soldiers shared this opinion and belief, but it was the prevailing opinion in the High Command of the Army. Hitler ordered the attack through Belgium and Luxemburg, later also through Holland. One has to use time, he said; it works for no one automatically, but only for him who makes good use of it. And he decided to attack in the course of the very same winter. The generals all objected; there was not a single one who did not warn against it. But it did them no good at all. Only the weather god was harder than Hitler, denying us the needed period of clear freezing weather. It was necessary to wait until the dry spring. May 10, 1940, was correctly chosen. Hitler staged his breakthrough via Maubeuge toward Abbeville. He had overruled the General Staff’s thought of a broad encirclement [through Belgium, as in the Schlieffen Plan] by initially careful but then increasingly tenacious and unhesitating intervention in the operational leadership. Once more Hitler’s will triumphed and his faith proved victorious.

First the [enemy] front collapsed; then Holland, Belgium, and France collapsed. The soldiers were confronted with a miracle. They were still amazed when Hitler gave the order to prepare for the invasion of England. Eight weeks earlier they would have regarded this order as the vagary of a madman. Now they applied themselves with faithful zeal to the work, careful and confident, exploring every dubious improvisation. But by September the British air force had not been subdued. Goring was skeptical; Raeder was cautious; in the Army High Command they were confident; Hitler wavered. He shared the army’s belief that England could be beaten in a short time as soon as one was well established on the island. But whether the landing would succeed depended upon nautical imponderables which were strange to him. Perhaps this strategic decision was the only one in the course of the war in which Hitler let himself be counseled. The warnings of the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy together with an evaluation of the situation that I prepared for him decided the issue. The attempt to land in England was abandoned. Hitler turned toward the Mediterranean in order to strike at England there. But before doing so, he took a firm grip on the equipping of the army, which—all too slow, bureaucratic, and backward—had long been a thorn in his side. “The soldier should fight; that is his job. Everything else civilian specialists understand better.” He created the Ministry for Weapons and Munitions under [Fritz] Todt, leaving only the building of airplanes and ships with the air force and the navy. From then on Hitler determined the monthly quota as well as the direction and scope of all production of weapons and munitions down to the last detail. All the Operations Staff [of the High Command of the Wehrmacht] had to do was to give him the exact figures: inventory, utilization, and production during the previous month. But beyond this, Hitler’s astounding technical and tactical vision led him also to become the creator of modern weaponry for the army. It was due to him personally that the 75-mm anti-tank gun replaced the 37-mm and 50-mm guns in time, and that the short guns mounted on the tanks were replaced with the long 75-mm and 88-mm guns. The Panther, the Tiger, and the Königstiger [i.e., Tiger II] were developed as modern tanks at Hitler’s own initiative.

But let us return to the chronological sequence of strategic decisions. There was a military breathing pause. Political considerations became paramount during the second half of 1940. Rumania requested German instructional and training troops. Reluctantly and carefully, but step by step, Bulgaria attached itself to the Axis. Only Spain showed a cold shoulder. To what extent the influence of Canaris on the Spanish generalissimo played a role in this is a question I will not go into. Above all, it was bitter for Hitler to have to give up his plan to take Gibraltar with Spanish help or approval. This military intention of Hitler had the general sympathy of his military advisers, and even today I have no doubt that the attack on the mighty rock fortress, which we had meticulously thought through and prepared in detail, would have been successful.

But instead of being able to carry out this strategically correct plan, Hitler found himself constrained to hatch the cuckoo eggs that Italy had laid in the nest of our joint war effort. On his own initiative and despite the negative attitude of the Army High Command, Hitler had offered his friend Mussolini help in Africa. It was rejected with the explanation that tanks could not operate in the desert. But then in the last days of October 1940—in violation of all agreements not to disturb the peace of the Balkans—Mussolini attacked Greece. Hitler, who wanted to prevent this attack, arrived a few hours too late in Florence. He was enraged, but the god of war even more so. The latter had never been a friend of the Italians. And now he quickly changed sides. English tanks drove Graziani’s beaten army back to the border of Cyrenaica, and instead of winning a quick victory over the Greeks, the Italians found themselves threatened with the loss of Albania and of the divisions which were holding on there only with difficulty. Concern was now stronger than pride in Rome, and cries for help crossed over the Alps as far as the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler decided that in view of modern long-range aerial warfare we had to wage the war as far from the periphery of the Reich as possible. Therefore [Hitler ordered] help for Africa through Rommel and good mobile armored troops. He wanted no conflict with Greece, so he refused help in Albania. But for the spring of 1941 he ordered that an attack against Greece from Bulgaria be prepared in case this should become necessary after all, or even be forced on us by an English landing in Greece.

There was not much consultation before these decisions. They were unfortunately constrained—as much as Hitler’s generals on purely military grounds resisted this commitment of forces to different theaters. For meanwhile the specter of a massive Russian concentration of forces on the eastern borders of Germany and Rumania had taken concrete form, and Hitler was weighing the thought of preventive war. The world has learned from the Nuremberg Trial of many voices that warned against this march [into Russia]. All agree that it was definitely Hitler’s idea originally. Both [the fact that the idea originated with Hitler and that he was warned against it] are historical facts. The court judges according to good and evil, world history in terms of correct and false. I will not concern myself here with either of the two judgments, but rather only point out that the danger from the East was seen by all soldiers, and Hitler’s concern was shared, more by some, less by others. Opinions differed whether the danger was really so acute and whether it might not have been possible to deal with it by political means. On that question it will be necessary to await a later judgment. Here we are interested only in the influence it had on Hitler’s waging of the war, and of that the following can be said: the decision for the campaign against the USSR, Plan “Barbarossa,” was his decision and his alone. He did, however, make the final decision only on April 1, 1941. For at this time an event occurred that effectively delayed the beginning of the attack against the almost completely assembled Soviet forces by four to five weeks. For Hitler it was like a beacon that revealed Stalin’s intentions.

It was the military coup in Belgrade the night after Yugoslavia’s accession to the Tripartite Pact. Hitler was beside himself. He virtually dictated his decisions to the assembled Commanders-in-Chief and the Reich Foreign Minister. He tolerated no discussion of whether the political attitude of the Yugoslavian government should first be clarified diplomatically. So far as he was concerned, Yugoslavia was in league with Russia, prepared to strike us from behind when we marched into Greece, and was trying to establish contact with the English, who at the beginning of March had landed at Piraeus. And as a matter of fact, the Yugoslavian Army did mobilize on the borders. Beginning on April 6, it was overrun by German troops, even though these had very hastily concentrated, and within a few weeks it had reached the point of dissolution— [though these were] the same soldiers who then, only scantily clad, would for years wage a bitter guerrilla war under Tito’s leadership, until they were developed into a new Communist army.

The attack on Russia began on June 22 [1941]. The two-front war had been unleashed. It could lead to success only if it were possible to win an annihilating victory over the enemy on one front. This failed by only a little, but that little sufficed, together with the catastrophe of the cold winter, to carry Hitler’s train of victories, after having reached this culmination, over onto a declining track. When in 1942 he decided once more to commit all his forces in the attempt to break down the Russian colossus, he was not contradicted in principle by his military advisers; but there were many among them who would rather have seen the second major attack in the North, beginning with the capture of Leningrad, than in the direction of the Caspian Sea. The great apparent success of this campaign ended with the catastrophe on the Don and before Stalingrad. When toward the end of the year Rommel, defeated before the gates of Egypt, fell back on Tripoli as the Allies landed in French North Africa, it was clear not only to the responsible soldiers but to Hitler himself that the god of war had now turned from Germany and gone over to the other camp. With that, Hitler’s activity as a strategist was essentially ended. From then on, he intervened more and more frequently in operational decisions, often down to matters of tactical detail, in order to impose with unbending will what he thought the generals simply refused to comprehend: that one had to stand or fall, that each voluntary step backwards was an evil in itself. Opinions differ as to whether he thereby hastened or delayed the end of the war. One thing only is certain: he could no longer come to a strategic decision. But perhaps there was no longer one to be reached.

He could not surrender. None of the opponents would consider negotiating since agreeing on unconditional surrender as their wartime goal. Therefore what was Hitler to do? He could only fight to the end or seek his own death. Throughout his whole life he had been a fighter, so he chose the first course. Heroism or insanity, opinion throughout the world will always differ on it. Could he not, in order to save his people unnecessary suffering, have come to an earlier end? As a matter of fact, this very thought did concern Hitler during the last days of his life. When he informed me on April 22 [1945] of his decision not to leave Berlin again but to die there, he added: “I should already have made this decision, the most important in my life, in November 1944, and should never have left the headquarters in East Prussia.”

But his military advisers—today one often hears it said—should certainly have made it clear to him earlier that the war was lost. What a naive thought! Earlier than any other person in the world, Hitler sensed and knew that the war was lost. But can one give up a Reich and a people before they are lost? A man like Hitler could not do it. He should have fallen in battle rather than taking flight in death, it is said. He wanted to, and he would have done so if he had been physically able. As it was, he did not choose the easier death, but the more certain one. He acted as all heroes in history have acted and will always act.

He had himself buried in the ruins of his Reich and his hopes. May whoever wishes to condemn him for it do so—I cannot.


[The foregoing reflections are complemented by the following passage in a letter Jodl sent to his wife. When she had written to him, after the interrogation at the Nuremberg Trial of Field Marshal Erhard Milch on March 8 and 11, 1946, concerning her own estimation of Hitler, he answered her that in many respects he agreed, although on one or another point he saw things somewhat differently, though for a number of reasons he did not care to go into it. He then went on as follows:]

When I read how Frank Thiess, breaking with historical tradition after fifteen hundred years, tries to reach a true picture of Justinian,7 then I must think more than ever of the present and am reminded of how the history of that man who brought the whole world into flux was falsified during the course of his life, in part even by himself. And so I find myself thinking again and again whether it might not be my responsibility to set the historical record straight without the slightest regard to my personal defense. And I would do this except for two considerations. In the first place, that is not the primary purpose of the court, which can bring an end to any such attempt by application of the legal concept of “irrelevance.” In the final analysis, the attempt would be futile, because the archives of the other side remain closed. In the second place, I ask myself: Do I then know this person at all, at whose side I led for so many years so thorny and self-abnegating an existence? Did he not play with my idealism, too, and only use it for purposes that he concealed in his innermost being? Who will boast of knowing another when that person has not opened to him the most hidden corners of his heart? Thus I do not even know today what he thought, knew, and wanted to do, but rather only what I thought and suspected about it. And if today a picture is unveiled in which one had once hoped to see a work of art, but one is confronted only with a diabolical distortion, then it is up to the historians of the future to rack their brains over the question of whether it was that way from the very beginning, or whether this picture had gradually transformed itself with the course of events. At times I often make the mistake of blaming [Hitler’s] origins, only to remember how many peasants’ sons have been given the name “the Great” by history. The ethical foundation is what counts.

US Army Leaders of Skill and Character in The Battle of the Bulge

General Bruce C. Clarke

The situation at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge was a daunting one for American forces along the thinly manned line in the rugged Ardennes region. Having achieved total surprise at the strategic and tactical levels, the Germans attacked the 80-mile sector with a 2.5:1 initial advantage in assault infantry, a 4:1 edge in tanks, and a 4.7:1 superiority in artillery. That the battered American line bent—or, more appropriately, “bulged”—but did not break is at combat’s most basic level a tribute to the courage, tenacity, and sacrifice of the individual GIs who chose to stand and fight against such seemingly overwhelming odds. Yet, the leadership actions of American senior commanders—the “generals of the Bulge”—ultimately determined whether the GIs’ sacrifice in the U.S. Army’s greatest battle would yield victory or defeat.

The Battle of the Bulge, therefore, put American leaders at all levels to the test in what was, in effect, the greatest “leadership laboratory” of the war in Northwest Europe. Evaluating how American senior leaders met that challenge—their successes as well as their failures—reveals not only their level of skill at battle command but, importantly, their strength of character.

Further, simply pointing out the successes and failures of American battle leadership in this watershed battle begs an overall assessment. Historian Forrest Pogue said, “You never get it absolutely right. History is always escaping us.” Yet, “history” also demands an attempt at a comprehensive accounting and a fair appraisal of the performance of American senior leadership in the Battle of the Bulge.


The shortest and simplest answer to the question of how American senior leaders performed in the Ardennes fighting is perhaps best summed up by a quote from historian Martin Blumenson’s reflective essay on Eisenhower and his top lieutenants: “Success on the battlefield speaks for itself.” That is, because the ultimate test of the effectiveness of combat leadership is battlefield victory, American commanders in the Ardennes should therefore be judged successful leaders. However, such a simplistic answer not only ignores the failures of senior commanders before and during the battle, it also slights the truly outstanding successes of those individual leaders whose command decisions proved vital in achieving, as Charles B. MacDonald characterized it, “the greatest single victory in U.S. history.”

Certainly, failures in American leadership led to a situation that permitted Hitler to organize and launch his great offensive against a sector of the line so weakened that German battlefield success seemed highly probable. This leadership failure and the resulting German strategic surprise were later compounded by the inability of the Allies to launch a timely, coordinated counteroffensive that could have trapped and destroyed the bulk of German troops in the bulge. Both of these leadership failures represented serious lapses in battle command on the Allied, principally American, side of the battle line. To these two failures at the strategic level must be added the biggest leadership failure of the battle at the tactical level—the mass surrender of two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division.

Examining the actual conduct of the battle once the German attack began, however, yields an overwhelmingly positive assessment of how American battle leadership fought that campaign. Although American senior commanders were responsible for the one-sided conditions in the Ardennes through their actions in the months preceding the attack, they nevertheless responded to the assault in a timely fashion with solid, effective, competent leadership that proved successful in gaining control of the battle and winning it. Their actions at the operational and tactical level combined to overcome the strategic blunders and turn a potentially disastrous situation to the Allies’ favor.

Eisenhower may have invited the German riposte in the first place with his insistence on a general Allied offensive advancing along multiple axes that left the Ardennes thinly manned, but he largely redeemed the situation by reacting to counter quickly, then defeat, the German attack. Similarly, Bradley’s egregious failure to exert aggressive, positive command of his army group from the very beginning of the battle was effectively offset by Eisenhower’s unusually active role in the actual conduct of the fighting. For once forsaking his habitual hands-off approach to the exercise of battle command, Ike intervened early and appropriately to create the conditions leading to the defeat of the German offensive. Moreover, Bradley’s “intransigence in failing to move his headquarters” to a position from which he could exercise firm and effective control of the fast-moving battle prompted Eisenhower’s most morally courageous decision of the war—giving British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery command of all U.S. forces in the northern half of the bulge. A “team player” throughout his career, Ike again demonstrated this defining characteristic at a critical moment in the battle by placing the good of the Allied coalition ahead of national pride or any personal animosity he felt toward the abrasive British field marshal. By doing so, Eisenhower clearly proved that he was an Allied commander, not merely an American one—even though his action effectively relieved of command his longtime friend and West Point classmate, Bradley.

Although Bradley vehemently decried Ike’s decision to give Montgomery command of two-thirds of Bradley’s 12th Army Group—calling it Eisenhower’s “worst possible mistake”—the chaotic tactical situation and Bradley’s (and First Army commander Courtney Hodges’s) own failures made the command change the course of action most likely to accomplish Ike’s intent of regaining control of the battlefield and then trapping the bulk of German forces in the Ardennes. That Eisenhower’s plan—clearly outlined to his senior subordinates at the 19 December 1944 meeting in Verdun—failed to cut off and destroy most enemy troops in the Ardennes was due more to the inherent nature of coalition command than to any egregious leadership failure on Ike’s part. Like politics, coalition command is “the art of the possible,” relying on building consensus rather than merely issuing orders. Eisenhower did all that seems reasonably possible as a coalition commander to achieve his goal of trapping the Germans: Ike told the British field marshal his commander’s intent—and impatiently reminded Montgomery several times over subsequent days; he gave Montgomery command of the forces sufficient to accomplish that objective; and Ike quickly set in motion Patton’s counterattack as the southern pincer in his planned envelopment. In short, Eisenhower had given Montgomery all the tools the British field marshal needed to launch a timely attack from the north. However, as leader of an allied coalition Ike lacked any practical means of forcing Montgomery to promptly obey. Eisenhower could—and did—attempt to motivate Montgomery into launching a timely attack from the north, but he could not compel the British commander to do so as he could his American subordinates.

Yet, even though Ike failed to motivate Montgomery to launch a more timely counterattack on the north of the bulge that in conjunction with Patton’s thrust in the south might have cut off and annihilated nearly all enemy forces, the 100,000 (or more) precious combat troops, hundreds of panzers, and last major reserves of war materiel the Germans lost in the battle were, nonetheless, unavailable to confront Ike’s armies—and Stalin’s massive forces in the East—during the subsequent battles for Germany.

And, at the operational level, Patton’s aggressive development and execution of the American counterstroke from the south more than made up for Bradley’s lack of a firm hand at the helm of 12th Army Group. Patton really didn’t need Bradley’s help anyway.

It was Patton again, along with his West Point classmate, William H. Simpson, and some outstanding subordinate commanders at the corps, division, and regimental levels who created battlefield success when Hodges’s failures and bad decisions threatened to doom First Army. With Simpson rapidly flooding First Army area with reinforcements, Patton striking swiftly to relieve Bastogne, and solid subordinate commanders like Middleton, Gerow, Hasbrouck, Cota, Barton, Fuller, and Clarke stubbornly frustrating every enemy move, Hodges’s army not only survived, it ultimately triumphed, despite the First Army commander’s poor leadership.

Mistakes of leadership and command at the tactical level, including the horrendous disaster that befell the 106th Infantry Division, also tended to be redeemed by the successes of American battle leadership in the Ardennes. Even though Middleton and Jones failed to save the 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiments of Jones’s 106th Division from encirclement and surrender on the Schnee Eifel in front of St.-Vith, Clarke’s masterful mobile defense of the area with his combat command of the 7th Armored Division and attached units largely compensated for the loss of the infantrymen. Further, despite the Germans’ rapid rush through the Losheim Gap, the Americans’ stalwart defense of the commanding Elsenborn Ridge stymied the enemy’s ability to exploit the rupture. It seems clear that when the leadership successes and failures of this battle are closely examined—when the actions and command decisions of the senior American commanders and their resulting impact on the battle’s outcome are weighed and measured on the scales of victory and defeat—American battle leadership was a tremendous success.

The senior leaders like Eisenhower, Simpson, Patton, Middleton, and Clarke actually won this greatest land battle in U.S. history; they didn’t merely survive it. Their battle leadership in the Ardennes was not that of military incompetents or amateurs who didn’t know their jobs. Ike and the other successful American commanders showed they knew exactly what had to be done, and they quickly set about doing it. On balance, American battle leadership in America’s greatest land battle proved decisively successful.


These U.S. Army senior World War II commanders all had to study and learn their trade, then practice it before they could become successful battle leaders, and they had all engaged in the systematic study of warfare, in one form or another, their whole adult lives. With few exceptions, these leaders attended a progressively higher series of schools and professional military education courses, alternating with ever more demanding command and staff officer assignments. Through these alternating line and school duties, they gained a background of knowledge and professional skill leading to positions of ever-increasing responsibilities. Once the war began, they gained combat experience and learned valuable lessons in combat command on the battlefields of North Africa, Sicily, and France.

The meek, the incompetent, and the troublesome were, for the most part, weeded out on those same battlefields, their places taken by others who, having been similarly prepared, were moved up from subordinate commands or were impatiently waiting in the wings for their own chance. They all learned the basics of their trade between the World Wars in service schools like the Command and General Staff School, the War College, and the Army Industrial College. They supplemented the basics with practical knowledge gleaned from a variety of command and staff assignments in troop units spread over the globe in such places as the Philippines, Hawaii, the Canal Zone, and the United States. While still junior officers, they challenged their ingenuity and broadened their perspectives and experience in other varied duties such as organizing and running the Civilian Conservation Corps, teaching ROTC and coaching college football, or managing an engineer district the size of Texas. They served apprenticeships under more senior commanders like George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Fox Conner, and Adna R. Chaffee and they continued to learn.19 And throughout their careers, they interacted with and learned from each other, growing as leaders.20 When the lucky few were chosen from the pack and given senior command during the war, the competent ones gained valuable combat experience they put to good use and continued to advance. Those found lacking in competence, skill, and higher command ability typically were summarily sent back to the States to serve in training units or to perform administrative duties—often, the humiliation of being removed from overseas combat assignments was made even worse when the failed leaders were, in effect, demoted by being forced to revert to their much lower prewar “peacetime Army” ranks.


The commonality of prewar training, education, and experience of the U. S. Army’s senior World War II leaders raises another vital question: If these officers’ preparation and backgrounds were so similar, why did some succeed while others failed? The answer has little to do with their prewar career experiences or even the unpredictable vagaries of luck. The answer lies within each man. It’s called character. The phrase “character counts” is a time-worn, often overused platitude. Yet, it has the single redeeming virtue of being true. The personalities of leaders vary. The specific techniques, procedures, and command styles leaders use to control the ebb and flow of battle typically are unique to the individual. But the key, defining quality that separates leadership success from failure is character and it does, indeed, count. Strength of character is the common denominator shared by successful leaders of such disparate personalities and command styles as Eisenhower, Simpson, Patton, Middleton, and Clarke. And it is the quality most often found lacking in those instances of leadership failure displayed notably by Bradley, Hodges, and Jones.

Character is created by the values and beliefs instilled in an individual from an early age by family, trusted friends, and admired role models; then, it becomes deeply embedded and reinforced through defining life experiences; and, finally, it is internalized by faithful adherence to a strong ethical code that places selfless service and duty above purely personal gain. Strength of character not only allows leaders to recognize what “the right thing to do” is in a difficult situation, but also provides them the inner strength and moral courage to actually do it when they otherwise might be tempted to take the easy way out.

The Battle of the Bulge placed incredible stress on commanders at all levels, particularly American senior leaders whose decisions determined the fate of thousands of soldiers reeling under the German onslaught. Under such phenomenal pressure leaders of character showed their mettle. Leaders lacking in this defining quality usually failed, unless they were incredibly lucky or an exceptionally competent subordinate stepped forward to fill the leadership void. Several instances of contrasting character among senior commanders during the U.S. Army’s greatest battle stand out.

Eisenhower’s morally courageous decision on 20 December 1944 to relieve Bradley of army group command for the duration of the battle demonstrated the strength of Ike’s character and revealed a weakness in Bradley’s. Ignoring the fact that his command failures to this point in the battle had essentially forced Eisenhower to implement the action while unable to provide valid tactical reasons as to why he should retain his entire command, Bradley’s protests seem clearly to be motivated by how Ike’s decision would affect his own image and career. As Jonathan Jordan perceptively wrote, although Bradley could not articulate to Ike why giving Monty command of two-thirds of his army group was a bad idea tactically, he clearly realized that “it was certainly a bad move for Omar Bradley” professionally.

At the army level, the command decisions, prompt actions, and coolness under stress of both the steady Simpson and the volatile, brilliant Patton stand in stark contrast to Hodges’s egregious lapses in character and judgment. In particular, Simpson’s unselfish and key contributions to providing Eisenhower with many of the troops Ike needed to turn the tide of the battle—and his loyal support of Ike’s decision to place Ninth Army under Montgomery’s command—demonstrated superb strength of character.

VIII Corps commander, Middleton, not only demonstrated character that was calm and cool under fire, but featured Middleton’s moral courage in going against accepted tactics, organization, and procedures. When he broke up Roberts’s 10th Armored Division Combat Command B into smaller formations and when he used combat engineers as fighting infantrymen, Middleton realized that his actions would inevitably garner criticism. Yet, he knew that in the desperate situation it was “the right thing to do” and had the moral courage to do it.

Perhaps the starkest contrast in character revealed by the Battle of the Bulge was that between Bruce C. Clarke and Alan Jones. Although the precarious situation of Jones’s 106th Division at St.-Vith during the first two days of the German onslaught was hardly of his making, Jones nevertheless failed to exhibit the necessary strength of character that might have prevented a bad situation from becoming the disaster for his division that it was. Clarke was disturbed at the chaos that Jones’s weak leadership allowed to reign in his division headquarters, but he was personally appalled when he witnessed that Jones, in Clarke’s words, “deliberately lied” to his corps commander Middleton by intentionally misrepresenting the dire situation as “things are looking up…we are going to be all right”—and according to Clarke, continued to lie to cover it up over the next few days. In contrast to Jones, Clarke’s character was severely tested during the week-long cauldron of his magnificent defense of St.-Vith—and came through in flying colors.

The best of the U.S. senior commanders had their share of failures, and even the unluckiest ones, those most victimized by the unexpected German offensive, experienced at least some measure of success. Combat is an incredibly confusing and obscure environment, and the waging of war is an imprecise science that, if it follows any law, seems most faithful to the Law written by the mythical Murphy. Sorting out the “good” leaders from the “bad” is no easy task; they are often two manifestations of the same commander’s leadership and character. But, in the end, whether they were good leaders or bad, heroes or victims, most of the senior combat leaders of the American Army in northwest Europe found themselves in the Ardennes that terrible December to face what became one of the greatest tests of their battle leadership the war would produce. In this final exam in battle leadership that called on all their knowledge and experience they had gained over the decades leading up to the Battle of the Bulge, it seems clear that the leaders of skill and character passed this test.

John Pope in Command I

August 9, 1862. It was the moment of crisis at the battle of Cedar Mountain. Hand to hand fighting sent the left wing of Stonewall Jackson’s army reeling back in confusion. Jackson realized he needed to rally his men. He raised his sword, rusted to the scabbard, grabbed a battle flag, and shouted to his men “Jackson is with you, rally brave men, and press forward”!

John Pope came from the West with a chip on his shoulder. His command of the Army of the Mississippi had suited him. His singular accomplishment was capturing the Mississippi River strongholds of Island No. 10 and New Madrid back in April, bagging 5,000 prisoners (he boasted of 7,000), 158 cannon, and many war supplies—all without losing a man. Now he was called East to build a new army out of the three bedraggled armies that during the spring Stonewall Jackson had chased through the Shenandoah Valley. This Army of Virginia promised to be a most troublesome command, and John Pope resented the assignment: “I especially disliked the idea of service in an army of which I knew nothing beyond the personnel of its chief commanders, some of whom I neither admired nor trusted.” Still, Pope understood he was there to bring new energy and a new harder tone to the war in Virginia.

Pope was forty, West Point class of 1842, and served capably (two brevets) in the Mexican War. As a Republican in the antebellum army he was a rarity, but with the coming of war his politics helped jump him from captain to brigadier general to major general. A journalist wrote of him, “In person he was dark, martial, and handsome—inclined to obesity . . . possessing a fiery black eye, with luxuriant beard and hair. He smoked incessantly, and talked imprudently.”

Pope assumed command of the Army of Virginia on June 27 and sorted out his forces. These comprised John C. Frémont’s Mountain Department, Nathaniel Banks’s Department of the Shenandoah, and Irvin McDowell’s Department of the Rappahannock. These departments devolved into corps in the new army. The three corps commanders were senior in rank to Pope, but only Frémont was affronted. There was bad blood there, and Frémont asked to be relieved. Washington was happy to oblige him and the Union army saw no more of the Pathfinder.

Franz Sigel took Frémont’s command, designated First Corps. Sigel’s troops included Louis Blenker’s German division, whose misadventures in the Valley gained them infamy as the thieving Dutchmen. Blenker was gone now, his men scattered among Sigel’s division commanders—Robert C. Schenck, the former Ohio congressman quick to retreat at Bull Run; Adolph von Steinwehr, who served without notice under Blenker; and Carl Schurz, German revolutionary and like Steinwehr, awaiting the test of battle. Sigel, a lieutenant under the Grand Duke of Baden and an 1848 insurgent, had compiled a spotty record in the West and held his post due mostly to his connections in the German American community. He was of high temper and large gesture—in his long cloak and wide-brimmed hat he looked, said Alpheus Williams, “as if he might be a descendant of Peter the Hermit.” Whatever Pope thought of Frémont, he thought far worse of Sigel, calling him “the God damndest coward he ever knew.” Sigel, equally blunt, appraised Pope as “affected with looseness of the brains as others with looseness of the bowels.”

The Second Corps was General Banks’s. A Massachusetts governor and congressman, a Republican stalwart, Banks represented the purest expression of political general. He was derided as Stonewall Jackson’s commissary in the Valley, but in fact Banks managed a retreat that saved his men if not their supplies. His division heads were Alpheus Williams, the former militia officer whose command promise survived the Valley debacle; and West Pointer Christopher Columbus Augur.

McDowell’s Third Corps was the largest, soundest element of the Army of Virginia, with divisions led by Rufus King and James B. Ricketts. West Pointer King was in his first command, and Ricketts, the veteran artilleryman wounded and captured at Bull Run, was leading infantry for the first time. Martinet McDowell still looked to erase the Bull Run stain from his record, and remained as unpopular with the troops as ever. At a review his horse threw him, and from the ranks, sotto voce, came a call for three cheers for the horse.

Pope’s brigade commanders were a mixed lot. In McDowell’s and Banks’s corps such as Abner Doubleday, Marsena R. Patrick, John Gibbon, Samuel S. Carroll, Samuel W. Crawford, George H. Gordon, and George Sears Greene would go on to achieve notice (or better) in the Army of the Potomac; less would be said of those in Sigel’s corps.

The variegated elements of the Army of Virginia lacked any shared experience, and what combat record they had was poor. At first glance, said Pope, his new command was “much demoralized and broken down, and unfit for active service. . . . Of some service they can be, but not much just now.” Staff man David Strother entered in his diary, “There seems to be a bad feeling among the troops—discouragement and a sense of inferiority which will tell unfavorably if they get into action. . . .” They had not been paid for months, and desertion was endemic; a thousand officers were absent without leave.

Angered at the lack of spirit and the defeatist attitude, Pope issued, on July 14, a blunt address to the Army of Virginia. “I have come to you from the West,” he proclaimed, “where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found. . . .” Warming to his subject, he listed certain phrases he was “sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of ‘taking strong positions and holding them,’ of ‘lines of retreat,’ and of ‘bases and supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas.” Strong positions should be taken in order to launch attacks, he said. Focus on the enemy’s lines of retreat, not your own. “Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”

Marsena Patrick wrote that Pope’s address struck him as “very windy & somewhat insolent.” To George H. Gordon it implied “a weak and silly man.” Brigadier John P. Hatch said he would “be astonished if with all his bluster anything is done.” But in the ranks many recognized Pope’s target as the officer corps and many agreed with him. In his diary a cavalryman wrote, “Pleased with Gen’l Pope’s address. He seems an energetic—‘go ahead’ man—such a one, as this department needs, and has ever needed, and has never had! Our Potomac Generals paid too much attention to reviews and inspections and parades. . . . We have been out-generaled here.”

It was well understood that Pope’s address skewered General McClellan’s way of making war. In Washington, Pope missed no chance to denounce the Young Napoleon. Dining with Treasury Secretary Chase, he claimed McClellan’s “incompetency and indisposition to active movements were so great” that should he, Pope, ever need assistance in his operations, “he could not expect it from him.” He urged the president to relieve McClellan without delay. He testified to the Committee on the Conduct of the War on McClellan’s failings. And he spread his poison among his own generals. George Gordon recalled a talk at headquarters in which Pope described mismanagement on the part of McClellan, “for whom he seemed to entertain a bitter hatred.”

Pope’s address was followed by notorious general orders that on paper promised to inflict the harshest treatment on Virginia’s civilians. Pope would tell General Jacob Cox that the orders were dictated, in substance, by Secretary of War Stanton. But to all and sundry, the orders were General Pope’s. The most draconian of them would not be carried out, but nothing lessened their initial impact. General Lee was roused to cold fury. “I want Pope to be suppressed,” he told Jackson. “The course indicated in his orders if the newspapers report them correctly cannot be permitted. . . .” He strengthened Jackson “to enable him to drive if not destroy the miscreant Pope.”

Pope’s General Order No. 5 permitting the army to “subsist upon the country” was interpreted by the rank and file as a license to steal, and Marsena Patrick was outraged. The troops, he told his diary, “believe they have a perfect right to rob, tyrannize, threaten and maltreat any one. . . . This Order of Pope’s has demoralized the Army & Satan has been let loose.” An officer of Banks’s reported, “The lawless acts of many of our soldiers are worthy of worse than death. The villains urge as authority, ‘General Pope’s order.’”

William Franklin, who knew Pope from the old army, told his wife, “We look with a good deal of interest upon Pope’s movements, having a shrewd suspicion that if he does not look out he will be whipped. After his proclamation he deserves it.” Fitz John Porter too was acquainted with Pope. To editor Marble of the New York World he termed Pope “a vain man (and a foolish one) . . . who was never known to tell the truth when he could gain his object by a falsehood.” Porter wrote Washington insider Joseph C. G. Kennedy, “I regret to see that Genl. Pope has not improved since his youth and has now written himself down, what the military world has long known, an ass.” Pope’s army would only get to Richmond “as prisoners.”

When he learned that Jackson was stalking Pope, McClellan anticipated within a week “the paltry young man who wanted to teach me the art of war” being in retreat or whipped. “He will begin to learn the value of ‘entrenchments, lines of communication & of retreat, bases of supply etc.’” McClellan issued orders to the Army of the Potomac that “will strike square in the teeth of all his infamous orders & give directly the reverse instructions to my army—forbid all pillaging & stealing & take the highest Christian ground for the conduct of the war—let the Govt gainsay it if they dare.”

McClellan’s prediction that Pope would be in retreat or whipped within a week was off the mark by more than a week.

Pope posted his army along the north bank of the Rapidan River awaiting resolution of the Army of the Potomac’s dilemma. Should McClellan march on Richmond from Harrison’s Landing, Pope ought to be secure. If it was decided to evacuate the Peninsula, however, Pope had reason for concern until such time as the two armies were united.

In mid-July Lee had sent Jackson northward to keep an eye on Pope and to guard Gordonsville and the Virginia Central, the rail link to the Shenandoah. On July 27 he reinforced Jackson with a division, to enable him to “strike your blow and be prepared to return to me when done if necessary.” His boldness was rewarded. Burnside’s force arriving at Aquia Landing meant McClellan would not be reinforced, then evidence of an evacuation, then the Yankees abandoned their toehold at Malvern Hill. Confident now, Lee further strengthened Jackson’s hand and prepared to send Longstreet’s wing north as well. He needed to dispose of the Army of Virginia before the two Yankee armies combined and disposed of him. Pope pushed Banks’s Second Corps forward to Culpeper, some 20 miles north of Gordonsville. Jackson too moved toward Culpeper.

On August 9 Pope sent Banks an order, delivered verbally by a staff colonel. Nathaniel Banks lacked military credentials but as a veteran politician he well knew that a verbal directive was worth far less than the paper it should have been written on. An aide took down the order and read it back for the colonel’s approval: “Genl Banks to move to the front immediately, assume comd of all the forces in the front—deploy his skirmishers if the enemy approaches and attack him immediately as soon as he approaches—and be reinforced from here ​—” Afterward Pope insisted his order only obliged Banks to take up a defensive position and wait to be reinforced . . . which only confirmed John Pope’s reputation as a liar.

Banks’s advance took position near Cedar Mountain, some seven miles south of Culpeper. Jackson was known to be close by. Pope intended a general advance that day, with Sigel’s First Corps and half of McDowell’s Third moving forward in support of Banks’s Second. Sigel fumbled his marching orders, McDowell lingered in the rear, and so on August 9 Nathaniel Banks found himself alone with Stonewall Jackson. As the Battle of Cedar Mountain unfolded that day, Jackson would outnumber Banks by 15,000 to 9,000.

Action began at midday with an artillery duel. Then the guns fell silent. It was brutally hot. Division commander Alpheus Williams invited the officers of his old brigade to “a good lunch of coffee, ham, etc.” They took their ease under a shade tree, “and everybody seemed as unconcerned and careless as if he was on the lawn of a watering place.” Afterward Williams mourned the fact that of all the officers he invited to his luncheon that day, not one survived the next few hours unhurt.

Williams’s two brigades, under Samuel Crawford and George H. Gordon, held the right of the line. Crawford had gained notice as the army surgeon who manned the guns at Fort Sumter; this was his first field command. Gordon, a West Pointer and Mexican War veteran, had shared with Williams their Shenandoah Valley travails. Christopher Augur’s division held the left. Augur and his three lieutenants—political general John W. Geary and West Pointers Henry Prince and George S. Greene—would see their first serious action this day. Banks accepted that he would be “reinforced from here” to mean the nearby division of James Ricketts. But Pope, at Culpeper, anticipated no fighting and assigned no role to Ricketts.

At about 4:00 p.m. the artillery exchange resumed. Soon enough Banks sighted skirmishers creeping forward to pick off the Union gunners. That, he concluded, was enough of a Confederate approach to satisfy his orders. He signaled his two division commanders to attack. Christopher Augur on the left moved first, with the brigades of Geary and Prince. Geary’s advance met a withering blast of artillery and musketry. As he pressed his men forward Geary was hit in the arm and the foot and had to leave the field. His wounding set a deadly trend. Division commander Augur was severely wounded, then Henry Prince of Augur’s second brigade was captured. George Greene, the only general officer left, took the division command. The fighting was stalemated.

It was a different story with Banks’s other division, under Alpheus Williams. The attack here was launched by Crawford’s brigade. Like Christopher Augur, Samuel Crawford was leading his first battle. Nevertheless, his three regiments, 1,500 men, managed to turn Stonewall Jackson’s flank, threaten him with disaster, and even put Stonewall himself at grave risk in the bargain.

Crawford’s charging line made it across a wheat field, with losses, and reached a woods and struck . . . nothing. Through some oversight Jackson’s left flank was uncovered. The triumphant Yankees turned in behind the Rebels. One after another, regiments of a Virginia brigade crumpled and collapsed. A 5th Connecticut veteran described “such a hand to hand conflict with bayonet and gunbutt as was equaled by only a few contests of the war.” Geary’s and Prince’s men firing from the front and Crawford’s from the rear left the embattled Confederates seemingly surrounded. One of those surrounded was Stonewall Jackson himself, who had to scramble for safety as he tried to rally reinforcements to mend his broken line.

It was a victory that could not be sealed. Jackson had an entire division at hand, and Banks was woefully slow to bring up his reserves. Ricketts’s division of McDowell’s corps, the supposed support, never appeared. Crawford’s survivors were forced back by counterattacks, then Geary’s and Prince’s men fell back as well.

It was nearly dark now and for the Union high command one more adventure awaited. Pope had reached the scene, roused by the thunderous gunfire, and was conferring with his generals when Rebel cavalry made a sudden dash into their lines. Chaos erupted. There was a mad dash for horses, and generals and staffs pelted away through the woods in every direction. Alpheus Williams thought the fire “killed some of our horses if nothing else,” and “altogether the skedaddle became laughable in spite of its danger.”

Cedar Mountain was Nathaniel Banks’s battle from start to finish. He believed (properly so) that Pope’s verbal order required him to take the offensive. He might have confirmed the order, if just to learn if Ricketts was his support. That he did not was probably deliberate, for he was determined to settle scores with Jackson for his Valley trials, and believed his corps plus Ricketts’s division would be enough to do so. Banks had written his wife, “The day we have waited for so long has at last come. I am glad.” Yet he neglected to call for Ricketts, and he was too slow to exploit Crawford’s breakthrough. “The action was totally unnecessary and about as great a piece of folly as I have ever witnessed on the part of an incompetent general,” wrote one of Gordon’s officers.

The cost to Banks in officers was severe. Division commander Augur, wounded; brigade commander Geary, wounded; brigade commander Prince, captured. Crawford’s brigade that shattered Jackson’s flank was itself shattered. Fifty-six of its eighty-eight officers were casualties; the three regiments suffered losses of 49 percent. Federal casualties came to 2,403, against Jackson’s 1,418. There was “a good deal of hard feeling between the officers of Genl Banks and Head Quarters—they say that they were needlessly sacrificed.” Banks satisfied himself that he had given Stonewall Jackson a check (two days after his victory Jackson pulled behind the Rapidan to regroup). Banks told his wife, “My command fought magnificently,” which was true. “It gives me infinite pleasure to have done well,” which was self-flattery.

The Army of Virginia’s check at Cedar Mountain rudely awakened John Pope to his danger. He telegraphed Halleck, “I am satisfied that one-third of the enemy’s whole force is here, and more will be arriving unless McClellan will at least keep them busy and uneasy at Richmond.” Halleck sent a sharp dispatch to McClellan: “There must be no further delay in your movements. That which has already occurred was entirely unexpected, and must be satisfactorily explained.” Halleck told his wife, “I have felt so uneasy for some days about Genl Pope’s army that I could hardly sleep. I can’t get Genl McClellan to do what I wish.” McClellan told his wife he found Halleck’s telegram “very harsh & unjust,” and in any event, Pope deserved what was coming to him. “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week—& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be—such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.” Thus General McClellan’s frame of mind as he set about removing the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula and joining it with Pope’s Army of Virginia.

It must be done by the book, McClellan ruled—a careful, calculated disengagement from a powerful, threatening enemy. Halleck’s evacuation order was dated August 3. Rather than setting the army on the march for Fort Monroe while removing the sick and the army’s baggage by water, McClellan held up the march for ten days. There was no help for this—“Our material can only be saved by using the whole Army to cover it if we are pressed.” Porter’s Fifth Corps only started from Harrison’s Landing on August 14, reached Fort Monroe on August 18, and shipped out for Aquia Landing on August 21. The corps following waited for shipping space. It was August 26 before the last of them began embarking.

On August 13, as McClellan husbanded his forces at Harrison’s Landing to fend off attack, Lee ordered the other wing of his army, under Longstreet, to join Jackson on the Rapidan. Lee himself left on the 15th to take command of the evolving campaign. He left two infantry divisions to guard Richmond and a brigade of cavalry to keep an eye on the Army of the Potomac. For more than four months on the Peninsula, George McClellan had faced a phantom Rebel army of his own devising. Now, as unknowing as ever, he faced the ghost of a Rebel army.

McClellan felt sure the troops realized he was not responsible for the retreat. “Strange as it may seem the rascals have not I think lost one particle of confidence in me & love me just as much as ever.” But he viewed once-favored lieutenants with less favor. William Franklin and Baldy Smith lacked energy and initiative and “have disappointed me terribly.” This rounded out his estrangement from Smith. As to Franklin, he no longer doubted his loyalty—a distrust dating back to Lincoln’s ad hoc war council in January—but “his efficiency is very little.” Only Fitz John Porter still earned McClellan’s unwavering admiration.

Halleck had promised him command of the two armies so soon as they were united, but McClellan did not hurry north to claim the post. He watched from afar, expecting Pope to come to grief . . . and expecting to be called to pick up the pieces and once again save the Union. On August 21 he was elated to find his plan working. “I believe I have triumphed!!” he wrote Ellen. “Just received a telegram from Halleck stating that Pope & Burnside are hard pressed—urging me to push forward reinforcements, & to come myself as soon as I possibly can!. . . Now they are in trouble they seem to want the ‘Quaker,’ the ‘procrastinator,’ the ‘coward’ & the ‘traitor’! Bien. . . .”

As the Potomac army haltingly set off on the new campaign, its high command was partially recast. Sumner’s Second Corps, Heintzelman’s Third, and Franklin’s Sixth remained as before, but the Fourth Corps was broken up. To be rid of Erasmus Keyes (Republican, abolitionist), McClellan left him at Yorktown with a one-division corps, part of the Department of Virginia. Keyes’s other division, under Darius Couch, was dispatched to the defenses of Washington. Keyes, a victim of his politics, idled at Yorktown for a year, served on the retirement board, and finally resigned in May 1864. He could take pride in his role at Seven Pines, even if only the men of his own corps recognized it.

Burnside’s Ninth Corps was first to reach Pope’s army, but Burnside himself remained at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, distributing the parts and pieces of the Army of the Potomac as they arrived via Aquia Landing. Jesse L. Reno commanded the Ninth Corps in the field, comprising his own division and that of Isaac I. Stevens. Porter’s Fifth Corps followed the Ninth in debarking at Aquia. The divisions of Morell and Sykes remained with Porter, but John Reynolds’s Pennsylvania Reserves were stripped from the Fifth Corps and attached to McDowell’s corps, Army of Virginia, where they had served in McDowell’s Army of the Potomac days. Because of the rapidly shifting campaign, the Second, Third, and Sixth Corps were debarked at Alexandria.

(There now appeared in the capital the somber figure of Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, released after more than six months in military prisons, seeking both justice and a command. No one in the administration had a hand in Stone’s release. It was the work of his civilian supporters and Senator James A. McDougall, who posed the question, Who says Stone is a traitor? and answered, “Rumor says it—the great manufacturer of falsehoods.” McDougall attached a rider to a military pay bill entitling any serviceman “now under arrest and awaiting trial” to be tried within thirty days. Edwin Stanton had no case—never had a case—against Stone, but still he delayed his release to the last moment. At the White House Lincoln said, by Stone’s account, “that if he told me all he knew about the matter he should not tell me much.” At Halleck’s office Stone found no explanation, no assignment, no orders. McClellan sought Stone for a divisional command, but Stanton turned away the request. There seemed no end to the ordeal of Charles Stone.)

John Pope in Command II

Map of Thoroughfare Gap Battlefield core and study areas by the American Battlefield Protection Program

Pope heard nothing regarding command of the joint armies, and assumed Halleck himself would come out from Washington to take the command. Old Brains had no such intention. He—and everyone in the administration—fervently hoped that John Pope, with as much help from the Potomac army as need be, would prevail over the Rebels. A victory by the combined forces under Pope ought to dispose of McClellan without messy political consequences. Heintzelman called it a disgrace. “They want to be rid of McClellan & dont dare to go at it openly. This splendid army has to be broken up to get rid of him. . . .”

Lee fumbled his first advance against Pope’s Rapidan line, and Pope hastily pulled back behind the Rappahannock. His move caught General Meade’s attention: “It appears that Genl. Pope has been obliged to show his back to the enemy & to select a line of retreat.” Lee probed Pope’s new line. On August 22 Jeb Stuart swung around Pope’s western flank and raided his headquarters at Catlett’s Station on the Orange & Alexandria, the Army of Virginia’s supply line. Captured dispatches revealed Pope’s situation and the reinforcements he expected, and confirmed Lee’s appraisal of the situation—that he had scarcely a moment to spare to strike before Pope became too strong to strike at all.

Lee divided his forces to maneuver around Pope’s army and get in his rear—expanding Stuart’s raid on the Orange & Alexandria into a full-fledged offensive. On August 25 Jackson’s 24,000 men slipped away upstream to cross the Rappahannock at an unguarded ford, and turned north, disappearing behind the Bull Run Mountains. Longstreet’s 30,000 stretched their lines to cover Jackson’s old postings and continued skirmishing to occupy the Yankees in front of them.

McClellan’s lieutenants were uniformly pessimistic as the new campaign unfolded. George Meade told his wife the enemy “are evidently determined to break thro Pope and drive us out of Virginia, when they will follow into Maryland & perhaps Penna. I am sorry to say from the manner in which matters have been mismanaged that their chances of success are quite good.” John Reynolds was of like mind: “I am very fearful of the operations. . . . Pope’s Army has not seen or met anything like the force we know left Richmond before we did.” Phil Kearny wrote bitterly, “We have no Generals. McClellan is the failure I have proclaimed him. . . . He will only get us in more follies, more waste of blood, fighting by driblets. He has lost the confidence of all. . . .”

Fitz John Porter was the most public with his complaints. He continued feeding disparaging news and views to editor Marble’s New York World. Disaster was expected: “Military principles violated in case of Pope & putting Burnside where he is. . . . Pope is a fool. McDowell is a rascal and Halleck has brains but not independent.” He echoed McClellan’s wishful thought: “Would that this army was in Washington to rid us of incumbents ruining our country.”

John Pope, for his part, had no illusions about what to expect from the Army of the Potomac. Influence peddler Joseph C. G. Kennedy had passed around for all to see Porter’s July 17 letter with its belittling remarks about Pope. As Pope listened, Phil Kearny denounced the “spirit of McClellanism” infecting officers of the Potomac army and singled out Porter as not to be depended upon. Pope had no illusions about his own army either. He complained that Sigel’s troops must march, “because they will not fight unless they are tired and cannot run.” He insisted to Halleck that Sigel was “perfectly unreliable” and ought to be replaced. Banks’s corps, too, was weak and demoralized and would best be held in the rear. Only McDowell’s corps could be counted on.

On August 25, the day Jackson disappeared behind the Bull Run Mountains, Pope’s Army of Virginia was arrayed defensively behind the Rappahannock. Sigel’s corps held the line to the west and Banks’s to the east, with McDowell’s corps in support at Warrenton. The pieces of the Army of the Potomac were scattered widely. Jesse Reno’s two Ninth Corps divisions had made contact with Banks, but Fitz John Porter’s two Fifth Corps divisions were downstream at Kelly’s Ford. Porter wanted to know who was issuing orders—was it Halleck, Pope, Burnside? “Does General McClellan approve?” he asked plaintively. Reynolds’s Pennsylvania Reserves were attached to McDowell’s corps at Warrenton. Of Heintzelman’s Third Corps, Kearny’s division had reached Warrenton Junction, on the Orange & Alexandria, with Hooker’s division following. Sumner’s Second Corps and Franklin’s Sixth were en route from the Peninsula.

Pope found the command status confusing. He assumed, he told Halleck, “you designed to take command in person.” Until then he did not know what forces were his to use. Was he to “command independently” against the enemy? On the subject of command Halleck was silent. McClellan too questioned Halleck. He asked “whether you still intend to place me in the command indicated in your first letter to me, & orally through Genl Burnside. . . . Please define my position & duties.” Halleck furnished him no satisfaction. On August 26 McClellan took ship for Alexandria and (as he told Ellen), like Mr. Micawber “am waiting for something to turn up.”

When he took command of the Army of Virginia, John Pope found the army’s railroad supply network in the hands of Herman Haupt, the railroad construction engineer and superintendent recruited by Secretary Stanton. Haupt had everything in working order and the trains running on time. He noted the evils he had corrected: “Military interference, neglect to unload and return cars, too many heads, and, as a consequence, conflicting orders.” The only way to run a railroad, said Herman Haupt, was under a single head, on a fixed schedule. Pope reasoned that since the railroad carried army supplies, he would put army quartermasters in charge and dispense with Haupt. In a matter of days the evils returned: Trains stopped running on time, and often just stopped running. Orders came from the field and from Washington and from everywhere in between. Troops lagged in reaching Pope. Supplies lagged reaching the front. Lack of forage crippled the cavalry. The War Department telegraphed Haupt, “Come back immediately; cannot get along without you; not a wheel moving on any of the roads.”

On Haupt’s return, Peter Watson of the War Department advised him, “Be patient as possible with the Generals; some of them will trouble you more than they will the enemy.” For example, Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis. On August 22 Sturgis brought the Orange & Alexandria to a standstill by commandeering four trains to take his division to the front. Haupt found Sturgis well primed with drink and threatening to arrest him, “for disobedience of my orders in failing to transport my command.” Haupt had strict orders from Halleck and Pope that he alone ran the railroads, and soon came a telegram from Halleck promising arrest for Sturgis unless he gave up the trains. Believing in his muddled state that the order came from Pope, Sturgis blurted, “I don’t care for John Pope a pinch of owl dung!” Savoring his construction, he repeated it several times before staff persuaded him that the order was from the general-in-chief. “He says if you interfere with the railroads he will put you in arrest.” “He does, does he?” said Sturgis, drawing himself up. “Well, then, take your damned railroad!”

When Jackson left the Rappahannock on his flank march, he did not escape notice. A Rebel column off to the west, “well closed up and colors flying,” was reported to Banks. He forwarded the sighting to Pope: “It seems to be apparent that the enemy is threatening or moving upon the valley of the Shenandoah via Front Royal, with designs on the Potomac, possibly beyond.” (Confederate interest in the Valley was well known to Nathaniel Banks.) Pope agreed. For Halleck he gauged the column as 20,000 strong and added, “I am induced to believe that this column is only covering the flank of the main body, which is moving toward Front Royal and Thornton’s Gap.”

Pope took comfort in this belief. Seeing the Rebels off to the Valley made them, in effect, someone else’s problem. There should now be time to properly combine the two armies, and with Halleck in command, meet the new threat. Pope did not set forces on the trail of the enemy column, nor did his cavalry track it.

Before dawn on August 26, near the village of Salem midway between the Blue Ridge and the Bull Run mountains, Jackson roused his column from its bivouac. A turn west (which John Pope anticipated) would lead to Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge and Front Royal and the Shenandoah. A turn east would lead to Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains and the rear of the Army of Virginia. By noon Jackson’s column was passing through Thoroughfare Gap. No Federals barred the way, or sounded the alarm. That afternoon, Lee with Longstreet’s troops left the Rappahannock and set out on the same route Jackson had taken.

At 8:00 p.m. on the 26th Colonel Haupt’s telegrapher at Manassas Junction reported, “No. 6 train, engine Secretary, was fired into at Bristoe by a party of cavalry—some say 500 strong. . . .” Haupt passed the news to Halleck. Jackson’s vanguard, it developed, had cut the Orange & Alexandria at Bristoe Station, then five miles up the line captured Manassas Junction, the Army of Virginia’s principal supply depot. By day’s end General Pope was aware that his communications were cut, and by more than a party of cavalry. It was belatedly reported to him that a substantial body of Confederate infantry, artillery, and cavalry had traversed Thoroughfare Gap and just then was squarely between his army and Washington.

Once over his surprise, Pope saw opportunity here. McDowell made the case: “If the enemy are playing their game on us and we can keep down the panic which their appearance is likely to create in Washington, it seems to me the advantage of position must all be on our side.” This flanking column of Jackson’s may have cut communications with the capital, but Pope held the central position in the area of maneuver. If they moved quickly, the Federals might fall on Jackson from two, possibly three directions.

Pope’s orders for August 27 had his forces abandon the Rappahannock line and pivot 180 degrees. On the left, McDowell with his own corps, Sigel’s corps, and John Reynolds’s division would advance from Warrenton northeasterly to Gainesville, on the road Jackson had followed to Manassas Junction. Jesse Reno’s two Ninth Corps divisions, with the Third Corps’ Phil Kearny, were to march north from the Orange & Alexandria to support McDowell. Banks’s corps and Porter’s two Fifth Corps divisions would move in support from Warrenton Junction. Joe Hooker’s division, Third Corps, was directed up the railroad toward those Rebels who might still be at Bristoe Station. The total force came to some 70,000 men.

These Potomac army units brought a sense of relief to the beleaguered Army of Virginia. David Strother of Pope’s staff was curious to meet the Peninsula generals so praised in the papers. “Hooker is a fine-looking man, tall, florid, and beardless,” he noted in his diary. “Heintzelman is a knotty, hard-looking old customer with a grizzled beard and shambling one-sided gait. Evidently a man of energy and reliability.” Another of Pope’s officers, Carl Schurz, described meeting the famous Phil Kearny: “A strikingly fine, soldierly figure, one-armed, thin face, pointed beard, fiery eyes,” wearing a jauntily tipped cap that gave him the look of a French legionnaire.

Irvin McDowell saw here the chance to retrieve his fortunes. Washington Roebling of the staff wrote in his journal, “All day long McDowell was in an excited but exhilarated state of mind, very hopeful and confident, but savage as a meat axe, as one poor Wisconsin private can testify, his head being half knocked off because he straggled.” Francophile McDowell was heard to mutter that tomorrow would see “une grande bataille, une grande bataille, une grande bataille. . . .”

Pope designed his orders to press Jackson from the west and south with every man then under his control. Advancing on Jackson from the east, by Halleck’s order (and Pope’s request), was to be Franklin’s Sixth Corps of McClellan’s army, just then at Alexandria. Colonel Haupt, intent on getting his railroad running, pitched in on his own account. He collected an idle brigade of Franklin’s, under George W. Taylor, and two Ohio regiments of Jacob Cox’s division, just arrived from western Virginia, and sent them with a work train down the Orange & Alexandria to see how far they could get.

On the map this convergence of Union forces looked most promising. However, these forces were widely scattered to start with, and under a varied lot of generals from a varied range of commands. To further complicate matters, the Potomac army units were arriving from the Peninsula short of cavalry, artillery, transport, ammunition, and provisions. Most columns marched without cavalry in the lead. “Every minute came a new order,” Alpheus Williams wrote; “now to march east and now to march west, night and day.”

While most Federals spent August 27 marching, three clashes with Stonewall Jackson marked the day. When word reached Washington of the affair at Manassas Junction, the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery was sent out to put things right. At daybreak the “heavies,” acting as riflemen in this their first venture outside the capital, stumbled into Jackson’s men and met a storm of fire. Colonel Gustav Waagner admitted his men “became a little scattered, but nevertheless the retreat was conducted in tolerably good order.” Soon the trains with Colonel Haupt’s ad hoc expedition reached the scene. George Taylor’s New Jersey brigade (Phil Kearny’s ex-command) deployed against the supposed party of raiders and was startled by the same deadly fire that drove off the heavies. Taylor ordered a withdrawal. In the Jerseymen’s scramble to get back across the railroad bridge over Bull Run, Taylor fell mortally wounded.

The third clash with Jackson originated on Pope’s orders. Sam Heintzelman had his Third Corps at Warrenton Junction, and despite the delays and headaches, he was encouraged. “The rebels have lost the opportunity to defeat Pope,” he told his diary. “Our reinforcements are coming in position too rapidly”—just a day or two more. But he was troubled by a command void: “No one appeared to know what to do, or rather to think it necessary to do anything.” In Pope’s realignment, the Third Corps became the right wing. Phil Kearny and Joe Hooker were two of the best fighting generals in the Potomac army, yet Pope elected to deliver only a half swing. He split the Third Corps, assigning Kearny to the center and Hooker to advance alone up the railroad.

Hooker scouted the Rebel position at Bristoe Station, then swiftly deployed his three brigades to engage Jackson’s lieutenant Dick Ewell. Under Cuvier Grover, Joseph B. Carr, and Nelson Taylor (filling in for Dan Sickles, busy politicking in New York), the Yankee brigades fought their way around the Confederates’ flank. At sunset Ewell withdrew to Manassas. Limited ammunition prevented any pursuit. Absent Kearny’s division, Hooker’s fight at Bristoe Station fell short of its promise.

Herman Haupt’s estimate of 20,000 Rebels holding Manassas Junction and blocking Pope’s supply line came as sobering news for General Halleck—and for General McClellan. From Alexandria he wrote his wife on the morning of the 27th, “Our affairs here now much tangled up & I opine that in a day or two your old husband will be called upon to unsnarl them.” Only Franklin’s Sixth Corps and Sumner’s Second, some 25,000 men, remained under McClellan’s command, and Halleck was calling on him to send Franklin’s corps to Pope “as soon as possible.”

It soon developed that General McClellan doing anything “as soon as possible” was impossible. With Jackson cutting Pope’s telegraph link to Washington, reports from the front originated with Fitz John Porter, who retained a roundabout link with Burnside at Falmouth. Announcing battle was imminent, Porter waxed contemptuous: “Would that I were out of this; I don’t like the concern.” “The strategy is magnificent, and tactics in the inverse proportion.” “I find a common feeling of dissatisfaction and distrust in the ability of any one here.” “I wish myself away from it, with all our old Army of the Potomac, and so do our companions.” Burnside warned Porter about his imprudent language but was obliged to forward these dispatches to headquarters. From reading them McClellan framed his own distinctive view of events.

His first thought was to hold Franklin’s corps at Alexandria until it could be massed with Sumner’s arriving corps. Halleck said that Franklin “should move out by forced marches.” McClellan said the Sixth Corps was not yet fully equipped; Franklin could not “effect any useful purpose in front.” The real threat was not to Pope but to Washington itself. “I think our policy now is to make these works perfectly safe, & mobilize a couple of Corps as soon as possible, but not to advance them until they can have their Artillery & Cavalry.” He had no time for details, replied the harried general-in-chief. “You will therefore, as ranking general in the field, direct as you deem best.” So it happened that no marching orders were issued to the Sixth Corps on August 27 . . . and no marching orders were issued for August 28, either. Franklin told his wife, “We are still in status quo, and I hardly think we will move for a while yet.”

David Strother closed his August 27 diary entry with the prediction “Tomorrow there will be a grand denouement.” That was Pope’s prediction as well. His orders for the 28th breathed fire and purpose. He told Phil Kearny, “At the very earliest blush of dawn push forward with your command with all speed to this place . . . and we shall bag the whole crowd.” He repeated the image to McDowell, and added, “Be expeditious, and the day is our own.” His orders directed all his forces to or toward Manassas Junction.

General Pope’s exploits in the Western theater had involved static, fortified enemy positions—Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, New Madrid in Missouri, Corinth in Mississippi—and that experience perhaps fed his confidence that the next day, August 28, he would find Stonewall Jackson waiting at Manassas to receive his attack. Even the sight during the night of a giant conflagration at his supply base, easily visible to every Yankee soldier within 10 miles, did not persuade him that perhaps his quarry had finished his work there and was moving on.

As was indeed the case. Through the night, the Confederates slipped out of burning Manassas north by west, by various routes, to take up a position on the edge of the battlefield of First Bull Run (as henceforth it would be numbered) just north of the hamlet of Groveton on the Warrenton Turnpike. Jackson and Lee, in communication by courier, were confident now of reuniting the two wings of the Army of Northern Virginia. Their task was to engage Pope in battle before the arrival of any more of McClellan’s army made the odds too long.

Thanks to what cavalry was still functioning, McDowell was aware of Longstreet’s approach to Thoroughfare Gap. Commanding almost half the combined Federal forces, he initially thought to post four divisions to defend the Gap. But none of Pope’s orders for August 28 mentioned Longstreet or any threat he might pose, and his orders were explicit: McDowell to “march rapidly on Manassas Junction with your whole force.” McDowell decided to not quite obey. He directed James Ricketts’s division of his corps to Haymarket, three miles east of Thoroughfare Gap. Ricketts was to keep close watch to the west, and should an enemy force appear, “march to resist it.” While less than even a half measure, this seemed to McDowell better than doing nothing.

Then, on August 28, nothing went according to plan. All morning Pope “nipped into delinquents of all grades,” wrote Colonel Strother. One delinquent was Fitz John Porter, whose delayed start earned him a black mark in Pope’s book. Another was Franz Sigel, whose slow assembly held up those behind him. Sigel then marched off in the wrong direction. This proved merely an irritant, for there was no Stonewall Jackson to fight. Kearny reached Manassas Junction about noon to find Pope’s supply base one square mile of ruins. “Long trains of cars lately loaded with stores of all kinds were consumed as they stood on the track, smoking and smoldering, only the iron work remaining entire,” Strother wrote. “The whole plain as far as the eye could reach was covered with boxes, barrels, military equipment, cooking utensils, bread, meat, and beans lying in the wildest confusion. The spoilers had evidently had a good time and feasted themselves while they destroyed.”

Interrogation of stragglers had Jackson headed to Centreville. Pope ordered McDowell to redirect his pursuit to Centreville. Pope’s courier crossed one from McDowell carrying a cavalry report of Longstreet at Thoroughfare Gap. This caused Pope to think of changing his target to Longstreet. Defeating him or driving him away would isolate Jackson and ensure his defeat as well. New orders, sent at 2:00 p.m., went to McDowell: Halt the march to Centreville and instead assemble at Gainesville, on the Warrenton Pike east of the Gap. Heintzelman’s and Reno’s corps would also be directed there. That should be force enough to crush Longstreet.

But just then came fresh evidence regarding Jackson, as noted by Heintzelman: The enemy at Centreville “are reported 30,000.” By this point John Pope was being swayed by whatever latest word reached him. He abandoned the short-lived movement against Longstreet and reverted to pursuing Jackson—and reverted as well to his conviction that (as he later testified) “we were sufficiently in advance of Longstreet . . . to be able to crush Jackson completely before Longstreet by any possibility could have reached the scene of action.” At 4:15 p.m. yet another set of orders went to McDowell: “Please march your command directly upon Centreville from where you are.” Also redirected to Centreville were Sigel, Kearny, Reno, and Hooker. Figuratively throwing up his hands, McDowell set off to find Pope for a face-to-face meeting.

“A dozen orders were given & countermanded the same day and the troops subjected to a lot of useless marching,” complained staff man Washington Roebling. Meanwhile, James Ricketts found himself confronting the vanguard of Longstreet’s wing of Lee’s army. Ricketts’s orders were to “march to resist,” so while the rest of McDowell’s troops pushed east to seek out Jackson, he pushed west with his division to contest the advance of 30,000 Confederates.

In the forty hours since they learned of Jackson’s raid on Manassas, Pope and his confidant McDowell had neither met nor exchanged dispatches to craft joint operations for the swiftly evolving campaign. On August 28, except for his brief flurry of interest in Longstreet, Pope simply ignored that half of the Rebel army and devoted all his energies to cornering Jackson. McDowell had serious concerns about Longstreet’s threat, but failed to communicate them to Pope. Had he exercised command discretion and twelve hours earlier attempted to block the narrow defile of Thoroughfare Gap, in the manner of the Spartans at Thermopylae, he might have created a problem for Lee. As it was, Ricketts engaged in a forlorn hope.

John Pope in Command III

Exchanged after his capture at First Bull Run, James Ricketts was in his first infantry command. By the time he approached the Gap it was securely in Longstreet’s hands. Veteran gunner Ricketts used his batteries to keep the Rebels at arm’s length for a time, held his line until dark, then pulled back to Gainesville. His sole accomplishment that afternoon was to accurately locate Longstreet’s half of the Confederate army. Even that, through no fault of his, proved an empty gesture.

McDowell’s Corps, Army of Virginia, did the Federals’ fighting on August 28. While Ricketts sparred with Longstreet to the west, John Reynolds’s and Rufus King’s divisions were marching eastward along the Warrenton Pike in search of Jackson. At midday Reynolds had a brief skirmish with Rebel pickets a mile or so short of Groveton. Reynolds’s Peninsula veterans chased the intruders away and resumed their march—much to Jackson’s disappointment; by the time his troops formed up the Yankees were gone. Jackson recognized that more Yankees ought to be coming his way soon enough, and got ready to bring John Pope to battle.

In late afternoon King’s division came in sight—four brigades, led by John P. Hatch, John Gibbon, Abner Doubleday, and Marsena R. Patrick. Just then General King suffered an epileptic seizure, his second in a week. King would be hours recovering, but his lieutenants were not informed that the division was leaderless. None of the four (and only one of their fifteen regiments) had been in battle before, but all four were West Pointers and their men had considerable training and drill.

The Rebels opened on Hatch’s lead brigade with artillery, and Hatch replied with his own battery. But Jackson’s chief focus fell on the second brigade in the Yankee column, John Gibbon’s Westerners—2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana. Gibbon was a tough and loyal regular from North Carolina (his three brothers served the Confederacy), a captain of artillery in the old army who had the knack for training volunteers. He had outfitted his men with distinctive black Hardee hats, tall-crowned regulars’ headgear that they wore with pride, calling themselves the Black Hat Brigade.

Gibbon sighted horses emerge from the woods north of the turnpike and thought Rebel cavalry, but then the horses turned in unison. “My experience as an artillery officer, told me at once what this meant; guns coming into ‘battery’!” Quickly he called up his old command, Battery D, 4th United States, to counter the enemy fire. He spoke with Doubleday, whose brigade was next in line. Since by report Jackson was at Centreville, they decided this must just be horse artillery, and Doubleday suggested storming it. “By heaven, I’ll do it!” said Gibbon, and he deployed the 2nd Wisconsin. The 2nd was the division’s sole veteran regiment. On July 21, 1861, uniformed then in gray, it had charged Henry Hill and suffered grievously from both enemy and friendly fire. Without warning, battle lines of Confederate infantry came streaming out of the woods to meet the Wisconsin men, and “there burst upon them a flame of musketry.”

Gibbon hastily brought up the rest of his brigade and a battle royal erupted. In his memoir, reflecting on three years of combat, Gibbon wrote that at Groveton “for over an hour the most terrific musketry fire I have ever listened to rolled along those two lines of battle. It was a regular stand up fight during which neither side yielded a foot.” Gibbon called on General King for support and got no reply. He called on Patrick for support, got no reply, and was blunt in his report: “Patrick’s brigade remained immovable and did not fire a shot.” (In his journal Patrick noted dismissively that Gibbon “under whose order I know not sailed into the wood” to bring on a fight; lacking orders from King, he stayed out of it.) Doubleday, who had urged on Gibbon, supplied two regiments to brace his line.

The firefight continued until it was too dark to see. Only then did the two sides break apart. John Gibbon wrote his wife of “my desperate fight of Thursday during which my men were literally slaughtered. . . .” The slaughter cost the Black Hat Brigade 725 of the Federals’ 1,025 casualties; the 2nd Wisconsin lost nearly two-thirds of its men. Jackson spent 1,250 casualties to reveal his presence to John Pope.

General King, weakened by his seizure, had an unsteady grip on command. (The next morning he turned the division over to John Hatch.) He and his generals debated their predicament. They could not find corps commander McDowell—nor could anyone else. McDowell had ridden off eastward to find Pope, failed to locate him, and as a staff man put it, “could not find our way across the plains of Manassas.” They camped in the woods to wait for dawn and enlightenment. King and his lieutenants agreed that their four brigades, one of them crippled, dare not face Jackson alone in the morning. Orders were to head for Centreville, but the enemy blocked that path. Ricketts’s division at Gainesville might help . . . if McDowell so ordered. John Reynolds, good soldier that he was, had ridden to the sound of the guns and offered his division for the morning. Would that be in time, or enough help in any case? Without their corps commander to decide such critical matters, a decision was taken and reported to McDowell, wherever he might be found: “Our position is not tenable, and we shall fall back toward Manassas. . . .” Ricketts followed. So it happened that the way was left open on August 29 for Longstreet to unite with Jackson.

Rufus King would afterward be criticized for this decision, in a chorus led by John Pope, but with his limited knowledge of larger events it was the only rational choice. The true failure of command was Irvin McDowell’s. To absent himself from supervising half the army at a critical moment in the campaign was culpable negligence. He was still missing the next morning, and Pope lost his temper. “God damn McDowell, he is never where he ought to be!”

Notice of the Groveton fight reached Pope in late evening of the 28th. He leaped to the conclusion that Jackson had been intercepted in flight from Centreville. Heintzelman entered in his diary, “From the information we had we supposed the rebels retreating on Gainesville & McDowell on their front & that all we had to do was to follow them rapidly.” Pope assured his staff “the game was in our own hands.”

John Pope was truly confident he finally had Jackson trapped. He imagined McDowell’s corps, the divisions of King and Ricketts, to be west of Jackson on the Warrenton Turnpike. To the south of Jackson was Franz Sigel’s corps, three divisions under Robert Schenck, Adolph von Steinwehr, and Carl Schurz. Close by Sigel was Reynolds’s division. Pope ordered Sigel to “attack the enemy vigorously” at first light. Certain he had Jackson boxed in from west and south, Pope arranged a strike from the east. To Kearny at Centreville went instructions to march at 1:00 a.m. on August 29: “Advance cautiously and drive in the enemy’s pickets to-night, and at early dawn attack him vigorously.” Hooker would follow him, said Pope. “Be sure to march not later than 1. . . .”

Phil Kearny, reported one of his colonels, was “in one of his crabbiest moods,” his fancy accouterments far to the rear, reduced to coffee and hardtack, his only servant “a damned miscellaneous migratory contraband.” In any case he had his fill of John Pope and his repeated orders sending him this way and that way, always with great urgency, never with any result. The least tolerant of men to begin with, Kearny told Pope’s messenger, “Tell General Pope to go to Hell. We won’t march before morning.”

John Gibbon determined to hunt up Pope to brief him on the situation at Groveton, and on the morning of August 29 found him at Centreville in hot temper. Pope had by now learned of King’s withdrawal, but knew nothing of McDowell’s whereabouts. At Gibbon’s urging, he tried to reset the trap for Jackson. Fitz John Porter’s corps at Manassas, along with King’s (now Hatch’s) division, was ordered to march to Gainesville, west of Jackson’s position, to cut off his retreat. “I am following the enemy down the Warrenton Turnpike,” Pope told Porter. “Be expeditious or we will lose much.”

Gibbon volunteered to deliver the orders to Porter at Manassas, where he found as well the missing Irvin McDowell. Without orders himself, McDowell saw his command melting away, but Porter soothed him by pointing out that he was still senior officer. McDowell decided to march toward Gainesville with Porter’s Fifth Corps, plus Hatch, with Ricketts to follow. McDowell had yet to see Pope, had yet to deliver Ricketts’s report of the 28th that Longstreet was through Thoroughfare Gap and likely to advance in their direction on the 29th.

The orders Gibbon delivered marked Porter’s second change of direction that morning. At dawn Colonel Strother had awakened him with Pope’s order to march to Centreville for a pending “severe engagement.” Porter read the new order and then wrote a dispatch of his own. Porter asked Strother how to spell “chaos.” Strother told him, and “at the same time divined what he was thinking about.”

Porter was indeed thinking that chaos (he chose not to use the word) described the tangled arrangement of Union forces. His dispatch, to Ambrose Burnside, who forwarded it to Washington, described the Rebels “wandering around loose; but I expect they know what they are doing, which is more than any one here or anywhere knows.” He added, “I hope Mac is at work, and we will soon get ordered out of this.” Thus Fitz John Porter’s state of mind as he went to war on August 29.

By the time he came to issue marching orders to Joe Hooker and Jesse Reno, Pope had calmed down. He directed them to follow Kearny on the Warrenton Pike. Pope now had every man under his command on the move except for Banks’s corps, guarding the army’s trains. In none of these communications did he mention Longstreet.

On August 28 Sam Heintzelman asked, “I cannot see why troops were not pressed forward from Alex. to attack this force in our front yesterday.” General-in-Chief Halleck had the same thought. That evening he telegraphed McClellan, “There must be no further delay in moving Franklin’s corps toward Manassas. They must go to-morrow morning, ready or not ready.” McClellan’s reply was apocalyptic: “The enemy with 120,000 men intend advancing on the forts near Arlington and Chain Bridge, with a view of attacking Washington & Baltimore.” Morning on August 29 saw Franklin’s Sixth Corps march out of Alexandria all of seven miles, to the village of Annandale. There it halted on McClellan’s order and spent the day listening to the roar of battle off to the west. In midafternoon, receiving a query from the president, McClellan replied, “I am clear that one of two courses should be adopted—1st To concentrate all our available force to open communications with Pope—2nd To leave Pope to get out of his scrape & at once use all our means to make the Capital perfectly safe. No middle course will now answer.” In halting Franklin, McClellan had adopted course two: to let Pope get out of his scrape as best he might.

Convinced that Jackson was trying to escape, Pope left no room for the possibility that his foe was seeking a battle and held good defensive ground on which to fight it. Jackson’s three divisions took advantage of concealing woods and the fills and cuts of the roadbed of an unfinished railroad. First on the scene on the 29th was Franz Sigel’s corps. Lacking guidance from anyone who fought at Groveton the day before, Sigel felt his way onto unknown ground.

Sigel’s corps was only 9,000 strong, refugees from Pathfinder Frémont’s Mountain Department, with an unhappy history against Jackson in the Valley back in the spring. First to engage was Carl Schurz’s division. His brigade commanders, Wladimir Krzyzanowski and Alexander Schimmelfennig, were like Schurz émigrés from the revolutionary turmoil in Europe. Only Krzyzanowski had seen action previously, leading the 58th New York at Cross Keys in June.

All was perfectly still, Schurz remembered: “The skirmishers pass the detached groups of timber and enter the forest. The line of battle follows at the proper distance. No sign of the enemy. A quarter of an hour elapses. Perfect stillness all around.” He began to wonder if the enemy was there at all. But then Krzyzanowski’s advance found A. P. Hill’s defenders and opened a bitter, extended firefight in the woods that soon drew in Schimmelfennig’s brigade. Schurz’s opening gambit was stymied but he managed to hold his own while waiting for support.

To Schurz’s left, Robert Milroy rushed his independent brigade into action without benefit of reconnaissance. Milroy was a lawyer and onetime Indiana militia captain with a low opinion of professional soldiers (he called Pope “our miserable humbug-bag of gas”), and he pushed his four little regiments blindly into action. They lost a quarter of their numbers and were knocked back to their starting point.

A pattern of uncoordinated assaults was set. Farther to the left, Robert Schenck’s division, supported by John Reynolds’s Pennsylvania Reserves, engaged fitfully with infantry and artillery but without unified direction . . . or accomplishment. On the right, however, the arrival of Kearny’s division—“Kearny did not start till after daylight & detained us,” Heintzelman grumbled—with Hooker and Reno following, seemed to promise a major push by the Army of the Potomac. Schurz was heartened to see orders from Sigel—in field command now that battle was joined—addressed to Kearny, telling him to take action immediately against Jackson’s left.

In his report to Sigel, Carl Schurz wrote, “On my right, however, where General Kearny had taken position, all remained quiet, and it became clear to me that he had not followed your request to attack. . . .” Heintzelman recalled, “There was so long delay that I sent to him a second order to move at once.” Hooker would complain that despite orders “repeatedly delivered . . . General Kearny’s Division did not move until several hours after my division had been driven from the forest. . . .”

Once again, as he had at Seven Pines and Glendale, Phil Kearny marched to his own drum, ignoring orders from a superior he had little respect for—in this case what was worse, from “an officer of a foreign country.” (The next day Kearny sent a note to Adolph von Steinwehr, one of Sigel’s generals whom Kearny knew from his years abroad, that offered amends. It seemed that Sigel had bristled at a letter critical of German soldiery that Kearny had sent to New Jersey’s governor. “I fancied Genl Siegel as extremely arrogant,” Kearny admitted, but he asked Steinwehr to apologize for him for the way he reacted to Sigel’s messenger . . . and by implication, to the order the man delivered.)

While Kearny’s animus toward Sigel was a factor in his slowness to act, there was more to it. This battle presented Kearny with a new command challenge. At Williamsburg, at Seven Pines, at Glendale he had responded to Rebel assaults—the enemy was in plain sight; his task was clear. Here he was ordered to mount an attack of his own devising, against an unseen enemy in an unknown position. He reacted with unaccustomed caution. He sent Orlando Poe’s brigade on a turning movement but pulled back when Poe met return fire. In time just three regiments of David Birney’s brigade supported Carl Schurz’s firefight.

Joe Hooker had particular cause to complain, for his men came close to breaking open the battle. Hooker objected to a frontal assault with just the 1,500 men of Cuvier Grover’s brigade, and proposed instead a joint attack with Kearny on the right. General Pope, taking the command, agreed. The Rebels’ railroad embankment line was formidable, so Grover sidestepped into the woods a quarter mile to the right. From that cover he launched a sudden charge, “and here occurred” (Grover reported) “a short, sharp, and obstinate hand-to-hand conflict with bayonets and clubbed muskets.” The Yankees surged ahead and broke a second line. But they were taking losses and nothing was seen of Kearny on the right, and finally the attack faltered and fell back. Grover returned with two-thirds of the men who started.

Next marked for action, by Pope’s disjointed thinking, was Jesse Reno’s little Ninth Corps division. James Nagle’s brigade spearheaded an assault that like Grover’s breached the railroad barricade but soon had its flanks beaten in and collapsed with heavy losses. In each of the day’s scattered, mistimed Union offensives, Jackson’s lieutenants met the point of attack with superior numbers and prevailed.

At 5:00 p.m. Kearny finally mounted his attack. His advance—John Robinson’s and David Birney’s brigades—sought to turn Jackson’s left. Kearny personally saw his men into the fire. “His simple words, ‘Now boys, do your duty!’ made our blood thrill and steeled our courage,” wrote New Yorker Theodore Dodge. To his wife, Colonel Alex Hays, 63rd Pennsylvania, Robinson’s brigade, described an experience entirely typical of the Federal assaults that day. His men answered his order to advance “with a deafening cheer. We drove them before us like sheep until they took shelter behind the railroad.” There they met “the most terrible fire I have ever experienced.” And there the 63rd stayed, unable to advance, unsupported, running out of ammunition. Hays suffered a bad leg wound, and soon the Rebels counterattacked his undermanned front. After an hour of this punishment they were driven back from the railroad line. Hays, who earned his brigadier’s star this day, counted the 63rd’s loss as 103 of 357 engaged. Kearny, not attacking in concert with Hooker (or with anyone else), was stymied.

At Pope’s headquarters that afternoon, Heintzelman made note, “We are looking for Porter & McDowell.” Pope was persuaded that the daylong series of attacks, however limited in results, had fixed Jackson in place so that Porter’s and McDowell’s corps might turn Jackson’s right, and more, cut him off from the rest of Lee’s army—which by Pope’s calculation would not arrive for another day at least. He staked his expectations on a joint order he had sent Porter and McDowell at 10 o’clock that morning. Whatever he intended by this order, it befuddled both generals. Pope was here repeating his episode with Nathaniel Banks at Cedar Mountain—insisting an order of his had a meaning not at all evident in the order itself.

The joint order told Porter and McDowell to march their two commands toward Gainesville. When they connected with the rest of the army on the line of the Warrenton Pike, “the whole command shall halt. It may be necessary to fall back behind Bull Run at Centreville to-night. I presume it will be so, on account of our supplies.” The rest of the enemy force—that is, Longstreet’s command—“is moving in this direction at a pace that will bring them here by to-morrow night or the next day.” Pope qualified his instructions—“If any considerable advantages are to be gained by departing from this order it will not be strictly carried out”—then qualified that by insisting the troops “must occupy a position from which they can reach Bull Run to-night or by morning.” Beyond anything else then, the whole army must be prepared promptly to fall back on Centreville. Nothing was said in the joint order of attacking Jackson’s right or indeed of attacking anywhere at all.

At midday, pondering Pope’s joint order, Porter and McDowell noted strong signs of an enemy force to the north and west, blocking their path to Gainesville. As Porter phrased it, “We had enemies where we expected to find friends.” This was, of course, Longstreet’s column. Longstreet had made a swift march from Thoroughfare Gap to link up with Jackson’s right, then formed his line at a 45-degree angle with Jackson’s line. Lee discussed with Longstreet a strike at the flank of Pope’s forces just then attacking Jackson, but this Yankee force on the Manassas–Gainesville road on their flank caused them to pause. They bided their time to see if the miscreant Pope would walk into their trap.

As he and Porter puzzled over what to do, McDowell was handed a dispatch from cavalryman John Buford, who had been tracking Longstreet. Buford reported seeing, at 8:45 a.m., a large force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry pass through Gainesville. This could only be Longstreet, and meant that he and Jackson were uniting their forces. McDowell had failed to report to Pope James Ricketts’s Thoroughfare Gap intelligence of yesterday; now he failed to forward Buford’s crucial sighting as well. McDowell told Porter they could not reach Gainesville without a fight. Therefore he was joining the rest of the army, posting his corps to fall back on Centreville, per the joint order. He said, “Porter, you are out too far already; this is no place to fight a battle.” Porter had better remain, but if he had to fall back, “do so on my left.”

McDowell’s corps made contact with the rest of the army at 3:45 p.m. At 4:30, apparently untroubled that his flanking force was now reduced by half, Pope sent to Porter “to push forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible, on his rear. . . .” At 5:45 McDowell himself arrived at headquarters. He somehow talked his way clear of the awkward fact that he had told Porter to remain in harm’s way and then marched off with his own corps to a safer place. He showed Pope John Buford’s early-morning sighting of the enemy arriving in force at Gainesville from Thoroughfare Gap. This, finally, was enough to persuade Pope that Longstreet was uniting with Jackson, but McDowell either kept silent or forgot the signs of Rebel troops in numbers on and west of the Manassas–Gainesville road. Consequently, Pope got it in his head that Longstreet was simply reinforcing Jackson’s position north of the Warrenton Pike—not the truth that Lee with his two lieutenants had formed the wide-open jaws of a trap for a stubbornly unwary John Pope.