Book Review: Command and Communications Frictions in the Gettysburg Campaign

Gettysburg remains one of the most studied battles in American history, with over 1,000 books written over the past century discussing nearly every aspect of the conflict. With the vast array of titles and subjects, it is tempting to think that every angle has already been covered ad naseum. However, author Phil Cole, in his Command and Communication Frictions in the Gettysburg Campaign, has written a dandy little treatise covering the communications and leadership issues and challenges that the commanding officers and their leading subordinates faced during the Gettysburg Campaign. It is a topic that has been addressed at times in various places, but not in a single volume that focuses on the communications problems that plagued both armies.

Cole first expertly tackles the issues surrounding command and leadership, discussing the tensions and awkwardness the army’s seniority system caused in organizational structure and military efficiency. He addresses the many changes in the leadership structure of both armies following Chancellorsville and those created during the battle of Gettysburg, noting 170 separate changes in commanders in the Army of the Potomac and 101 in the Army of Northern Virginia. New officers in new roles, often leading men who were totally unfamiliar their new commanders, created chaos at times in effective communications. A domino effect cascaded through the organizational structures as key upper echelon leaders were replaced with men lower in the ranks, or at times, from outside the particular corps, division, or brigade. Cole discusses personal relationships among the senior leaders, many of which were pre-war friends or rivals – relationships that at times clouded command decisions.

In the second half of this highly readable and well crafted book, Cole examines the issues of communications and information flow within the respective armies, discussing standard communications protocol of the day, individual communications styles of various commanders, the impact of messages received and interpreted, and the human factor. He looks at the effectiveness of discretionary orders versus hard and fast orders, as well as going into detail on the typical time it took for various orders to be delivered from level to level within the armies’ structures, a time frame of communications that progressively decreased from corps to division to brigade to regiment to company to individual soldiers.

These frictions in command and communications greatly influenced the armies and their performance during the celebrated campaign. At times, elements of the Army of the Potomac were clueless as to who was in direct command at a specific moment. Similar issues in the Confederate army altered Lee’s original goals and objectives for the campaign, and severely impacted his chances for success in the ensuing climatic Battle of Gettysburg. Cole’s fluid and readable writing style, his fresh interpretation of the command and communications issues, and his structure and flow of the book all add up to an enjoyable evening’s reading, one that will both inform and challenge the reader to dig even deeper into the subject matter.

The book is available from many on-line retailers, including

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