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Sun Tzu Infulence in the Civil War

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The Importance of Sun Tzu’s Art of War

Justin James

History 305

Dana Chandler

November 11, 2011

According to the definition found in Webster, war is a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state. Throughout the ages there have been countless numbers of wars that have taken place for many different reasons in our world as we know it, whether it be to be for a political reason or to conquer neighboring lands. Along with wars comes philosophers and strategist that attempt to study all of their opponents moves and motives to ultimately gain the upper hand on their opponent. Possibly the most successful strategist known in history was a man that was known best by the name Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu authored what is known today as the greatest military strategic guide known in history which is used as guides to not only be successful in the military but also the corporate world as well as every day life. Many generals have used these strategic guides in order to be victorious in their conquests. However there also have been many generals that have failed to use these strategies correctly or did not use them altogether and ended up paying the ultimate price for refusal of doing so. The most notable general to do so was the Confederate’s general General Robert E Lee. During the battle of Gettysburg if Lee would have followed only a fraction of the rules and guid lines set by Sun Tzu he could have without a doubt been successful in arguably the most important battle in American history and could have possibly changed the outcome of the Civil War and ultimately changing the United States as we know it, but instead Lee would ignore the guidelines laid out for him hundreds of years before making almost every strategic error possible. In this paper I will show how disobeying some of Sun Tzu’s most important strategies cost General Robert E. Lee the most important battle of the Civil War and possibly his career, The Battle of Gettysburg. To first get a better understanding of the Art of War and its contents we must first get an understanding of the life of its author and the events of his life that caused him to write such works. There are no official records of Sun Tzu’s life or death. There are however records of his life that were written in the 2nd BC by a historian named Sima Qian Sun (Sun Tzu Biography-Life 2001). It is believed that Sun Tzu was born in 544 BC under the name Sun Wu. His family belonged to the Shi clan, an ancient class of landless aristocrats who lost their land during the Spring and Autumn period due to territorial hardships. During Sun Tzu’s time most Shi travelled as academic scholars, all except for Sun Tzu who decided to take on the job as a traveling mercenary. After working through the country for some time the ruling king of that time, King Hulu of Wu, (Sun Tzu Biography-Life 2001) hired Tzu to become his general around the time of 512 BC. Tzu’s military strategy soon became known all throughout China. He even proved his wisdom and strategic genius when asked to train two platoons of King Hulu concubines. Tzu placed two of the kings favorite and eldest women as the commanders of the platoon. He then gave them a list of simple commands that included left face, and right face that he wanted to be executed at the sounding of the king’s drum. Once the drum sounded rather than doing what Sun Tzu ordered the concubines simply stood there and laughed. Thinking that his orders may not have been understood correctly Tzu went back to the commanders and once again proceeded to give them instructions once more. Once more the king’s drums sounded and once rather than following his orders the concubines stood in place and laughed. This Tzu walked up to both women drew his sword and executed the two commanders. Once the King confronted him Sun Tzu simply stated “If the orders are not clear and commands not explicit it is the fault of the commander” (Tzu 1963). After this demonstration Tzu would have gain full control of the Wu army in order to try and conquer the State of Chu which was the most powerful State in the Spring and Autumn period. These events in hi life would ultimately lay the foundation for Sun Tzu to write the Art of War which would be the key to General Robert E. Lee’s success in defeating the Union Army if only he had not ignored their importance. By the Spring of 1863 General Lee decides to move his army of almost 60,000 men into Union territory. Lee’s plan was to attempt to destroy as many military posts as possible in Maryland, and Pennsylvania while majority of the union soldiers were occupied defending washington DC. Lee’s main objective was to attack and destroy Camp Curtin, one of the largest union bases at the time (Part 9). On the morning of June 30, 1863 an Infantry brigade of Confederate soldiers searching for shoes headed towards Gettysburg. While on duty a Confederate commander through his field glasses spotted a column of Union Calvary heading towards his position. On July 1 two divisions of confederates ran into Federal soldiers and a skirmish began. As Lee moves forward north towards Camp Curtin he hears word of the ongoing battle between the union and confederate soldiers and to rush 25,000 soldiers to Gettysburg, this would be the first of Lee’s many mistakes. In the Art of War Sun Tzu tells the reader that a commander should not move his men to battle without first fully grasping the situation at hand. Lee does the exact opposite. Rather than sending scouts to get a better understanding of what the battle fully entails he assumes that Union general Ulysses S. Grant has set up a massive army along Gettysburg. He decides to send a large amount of his army to a battle to without any information when in fact there were only 3,000 union soldiers occupying Gettysburg at the time of the skirmish. as Sun Tzu states “Move only when you see an advantage and there is something to gain, only fight when position is critical” (Tzu 1963) Gettysburg was a situation that Lee could have avoided and continued to his main objective. After initially suffering many casualties the union soldiers were forced to fall back along high ground near high ground known as Cemetery Ridge which provides a strong defensive front for the union soldiers. Even tho knowing that his opponent is well defended on high ground Lee still tells his subordinate officers to “Attack when you think its practical” (“Battle of Gettysburg” 1996), once again disobeying a critical rule set up by Sun Tzu. The Art of War states “If orders are unclear it is the fault of the commander (Tzu 1963). Because his orders were unclear the subordinate officer decided that all of his men were fatigued from the previous battles that it was not practical to battle and that they should rest before the next attack. Unknowing to his officers union reinforcements are moving in from Washington DC allowing the Union to build its army from 3,000 to about 100,000 soldiers. Confederate General James Longstreet saw the unions position nearly impossible for confederate forces to successfully take and suggested to Lee to move to a different position to possibly get an upper hand on the union army forcing them to march to low ground. Lee decides to attack while union is still occupied on Cemetery Ridge saying “The enemy is there so that is where i will attack (Part 9). Once again Lee defies what the Art of War teaches us as well as basic military knowledge. “If the enemy occupies high ground do not confront him”(Tzu 1963) is what Sun Tzu informs us when it comes to attacking an opponent. When lee commands his soldiers to attack the union soldiers to attack, who know have reinforcements, some of the bloodiest one sided battles of the Civil War take place including Little Round Top, Devils Den, Wheat Field, and The Peach Orchard ( “Battle of Gettysburg” 1996). On the third day of Gettysburg after taking monumental losses from the previous two days General Lee makes possibly the worst decision in military tactics, he continues to fight. In the Art of war Sun Tzu States “There are some armies that should not be fought, some ground that should not be contested” (Tzu 1963). General Lee decides to send his remaining army of 15,000 soldiers to march up to Cemetery Ridge to contest the Unions army which still has full artillery and greatly outnumbers the confederates. The infantry’s charge is led by Major General Pickett (Part9), as they advance through the open field that leads to the ridge union soldiers cut them down by the thousands with artillery and rifle fire. After all is said and done only 5,000 of the confederates army remain to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. Throughout history the would has seen many battles that have occurred for many reasons. Sun Tzu has helped many of history’s great leaders officers and generals become successful in being victorious with their endeavors through his book The Art of War which is possibly the most notable and impressive strategy guide known to man. For those that use it to its full potential they will be successful. However for those that ignore its simple yet important strategies they will fail to be victorious as General Robert E. Lee found out. His many mistakes from going into a battle blindly, to fighting a army that had the upper hand. These mistakes would ultimately cost Lee and the confederate army many casualties and possibly the most important battle in American history, the battle that changed the U.S forever, The battle of Gettysburg.

Works Cited "Part 9." The Art of War. Recorded May 26, 2009. History Channel . Web,
"Sun Tzu Biography-Life." Last modified October 30,2001. Accessed November 12, 2011.

The History Place, "The Battle of Gettysburg ." Last modified 1996. Accessed November 12, 2011. war .

Tzu, Sun. Art of War. Oxford University Press, 1963

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