05 December 2005 by Published in: General musings 6 comments

Today at lunch, I was talking with a friend. She raised a question about some of the things that go into the drafting of a business plan, and I was describing some of the elements of a well-written business plan. Somehow, the issue of the difference between strategy and tactics came up, and I asked her if she knew the difference between strategy and tactics. She did, which surprised me a little bit. However, it got me thinking about those differences and how they play into the effectiveness of a battlefield commander.

Strategy is the “game plan”, if you will. It’s the grand scheme that sets out the final goal of a particular campaign or movement. Tactics, on the other hand, are the means by which the strategy is implemented. Here’s an analogy from my professional life. Coming up with a means of presenting a case to a jury is the strategy. Identifying the witnesses, choosing the exhibits, and coming up with the list of questions to ask that witness are the tactics by which that strategy is implemented. It is possible to be a great strategist and a lousy tactician. It’s also possible to be an excellent tactician but not a good strategist. Those differences become really critical the higher the rank that an officer possesses.

Here’s what I mean by that. An officer may be truly great at designing a grand strategy, but be really bad at making tactical decisions on the battlefield. Here’s a great example of an officer who was a great strategist but who was never known as being much of a tactician–William T. Sherman. Sherman, for instance, designed and implemented the strategy for taking the war to civilians and sapping their will to continue the war. At the same time, Sherman was never considered to be much of a battlefield tactician. In fact, he was generally known as being somewhat cautious and tentative on the battlefield.

William S. Rosecrans is another example of a brilliant strategist who was not great on the battlefield. Rosecrans designed one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history in the Tullahoma Campaign, when he, through a series of flanking maneuvers, pushed Braxton Bragg’s army all the way across the State of Tennessee and back to Chattanooga with almost no bloodshed. It covered nearly the entire state and was accomplished without a major battle being fought. However, as plainly demonstrated at Chickamauga, Rosecrans was no battlefield genius. In fact, his battlefield performance often left a LOT to be desired, and his fleeing from the field at Chickamauga and running all the way back to Chattanooga pretty much put the nail in the coffin of Rosecrans’ career as a battlefield commander.

The converse is also true. A guy like John Bell Hood was a truly great tactician on the battlefield at the divisional level, but once he was promoted to corps command and then to army command, he demonstrated no gift for much of anything other than attacking straight ahead. “All of the lion and none of the fox,” Robert E. Lee reportedly said when he learned that Hood had been given command of the Army of Tennessee, and Lee was absolutely correct. In a series of head-long attacks that took little or no account of terrain, strategy, or anything else, Hood pretty much sacrificed an entire army between Atlanta and Nashville.

The truly great captain is the one who has mastered both strategy AND tactics. Those generals are few and far between for what ought to be obvious reasons. The American Civil War produced two such men–Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Grant demonstrated his tactical brilliance again and again, but in no instance no more so than at Vicksburg. Lee’s remarkable string of battlefield victories is proof positive of his tactical genius, and he had a real gift for strategy–look at how he drove McClellan’s much larger army back from the outskirts of Richmond in the summer of 1862.

The distinction between strategy and tactics is an easy one to confuse, but it’s important never to lose sight of that difference. It’s the difference between a truly great commander and a mediocre one.

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Comments

  1. Dave Kelly
    Tue 06th Dec 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Love your nuts and bolts topics. The publishing addiction stuff I can only stand back and read with gratitude for you folks sharing plumbing wisdom. No kiddin; it IS wisdom (hard won no doubt) πŸ™‚

    Tactics and strategy I feel comfortable kibbitzing on πŸ˜‰

    To press the analogy a bit. 19th Century and earlier readings address S&T as the ying and yang of military art. But as armies and technologies got more complex and sophisticated differentiating fighting skills from all the tasks required to develop the battle and provide ways and means of warfare required more subtlety. Thus terms like Grand Tactics and Grand Strategy came into use. Grand Tactics and Strategy were redefined between the World Wars by JFC Fuller and Liddell Hart (Sandhurst Boys School πŸ˜‰ ) into what we now know as Operational Art.

    To your Law firm again: The Organization, Goals and Means of the Firm are Stategic. The mustering of and preperations for trial are the Operational aspects of preparing cases for execution. The trials execution is the tactical portion of the business.

    Why the distinction regarding the CW? Because I think CW generalship looks pretty dismal when you look at the three hemispheres. (Understanding that US military expertise was limited to doctrinal schooling of 2 LTs and few persons had manuevered more than a small division in the generation before the war – anybody with greater experience being 65 or older.)

    Lee for example was actually both a poor tactician and a poor strategist. His forte was OA, not Strategy. His protection of Virginia and shying away from useful national dialog with Davis are on point.

    US Grant probably was the most well rounded general on either side. My only observation on Grants weakness was a timidity in dealing with superiors on strategy. Grant really didn’t make the 1864 strategy. He executed Lincoln/Hallecks. Grant had wanted to extend his indirect approach experiences in 1863 to 1864 but was told the manpower and time available required a direct approach.

    FWIW

  2. Tue 06th Dec 2005 at 5:20 pm

    Dave,

    Great comments, and great examples. Many thanks for writing and for adding this worthwhile contribution.

    I agree with you about Grant. He was really a remarkable man.

    Eric

  3. Fri 27th Jan 2006 at 11:54 am

    Hello, I was searching the web and found your article “Strategy vs. Tactics”. I really like your blog and found it worth while reading through the posts. I am looking to publish a comprehensive site reviewing many different articles and blogg. Please feel free to take a look at my blog at Strategic tactical planning and add anything your want.

  4. Fri 27th Jan 2006 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, and I will have a look at your blog this weekend.

    Eric

  5. Kirt John
    Tue 29th May 2007 at 8:35 am

    Hello all, although there can be many debates with the Civil War Generals, I would have to say that General Lee was a poor strategist, but a good tactician. My support would be because of the many battles that he won, makes him a good tactician, however, had he been a good strategist, he would of looked ahead and realize by staying mostly on the offensive during the early years of the war, cost him his Army of the Virginia. I would have to agree “fully with the statement’s on General Grant. However, with General Sherman, I would have to disagree and say that he was a good strategist, and a good tactician. His strategic abilities were already covered. His march through Georgia and the surrender of General Joe Johnston on April 17, 1865 at Raleigh, North Carolina backs up his tactical abilities.

  6. Sun 30th Dec 2007 at 10:46 pm

    Eric:

    Respectfully…

    You wrote, “The converse is also true. A guy like John Bell Hood was a truly great tactician on the battlefield at the divisional level, but once he was promoted to corps command and then to army command, he demonstrated no gift for much of anything other than attacking straight ahead. β€œAll of the lion and none of the fox,” Robert E. Lee reportedly said when he learned that Hood had been given command of the Army of Tennessee, and Lee was absolutely correct. In a series of head-long attacks that took little or no account of terrain, strategy, or anything else, Hood pretty much sacrificed an entire army between Atlanta and Nashville.”

    First, Hood’s four attacks on Sherman at Atlanta were all flanks…Peachtree Creek on the Union left; Bald Hill/Atlanta on the Union left and rear; Ezra Church on the Union right; and Jonesboro on the Union right. During his subsequent Tennessee Campaign Hood flanked Schofield at Columbia (to Spring Hill) rather than attack fortified Union positions. In his entire tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee, only at Franklin did Hood attack “straight ahead” as you say, and at Franklin he had no choice but to launch an immediate frontal assault, or allow Schofield to retreat into Nashville and join with Thomas. Even later at Nashville, Hood did not attack, rather, Thomas attacked Hood’s fortified lines south of the city. Call Hood aggressive, but to say he advocated frontal assaults is not so, otherwise he would have done so more than one time. Hood was of the Lee and Jackson school…offensive minded but prefered flanks.

    Finally, there is absolutely no primary source for the myth that Lee called Hood “All lion and no fox.” This is one of the countless rumors in Civil War history that have been repeated so many times that they have become an unchallengeable truth. A free steak dinner to anyone who can show me where Lee wrote that.

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