Council of War

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Council of War

COUNCIL OF WAR. During wartime a commander might call together a formal assembly of senior subordinates to advise him about significant issues facing the army, usually in some sort of operational emergency. The members of such a council of war would be asked to express their opinions, sometimes in writing, about several proposed courses of action. No commander was obliged to accept a majority opinion of his subordinates. However, he would disregard their opinion only for what he thought were good and sufficient reasons, as he assumed that the subordinates knew in greater detail whether the soldiers in their commands would obey any orders he cared to give. The fact that a commander called a council of war was not considered evidence of indecision on his part. In fact, it would normally be seen as a prudent management style by both the highly stratified British army as well as by the less hierarchical American army. A commander might be accused of contempt for the judgment of his subordinates if he did not make them party to major decisions; it was to his benefit both to solicit subordinates' ideas and to instruct officers in the rationale for a particular course of action.

Sometimes decisions weighed in council involved cultural norms as well as strictly military matters, as when repeated councils of war convinced John Burgoyne that he could not renege on his decision to surrender once he had made the offer to Horatio Gates at Saratoga. Washington used councils to sound out his principal subordinates about the state of the army, and more than once at the start of his tenure at the siege of Boston was told that his proposals were too bold and would not be carried out by the soldiers. Always reluctant to admit defeat, Washington could allow himself to be persuaded by a council of war that it was more prudent to retreat and live to fight another day, as when his subordinates voted ten to three on 12 September 1776 to evacuate Manhattan Island south of Fort Washington. A commander could also use a council of war like a modern "committee solution" to dilute his own responsibility for decisions that events might prove incorrect or hasty, as when Burgoyne canvassed his subordinates about how to escape the American trap at Saratoga. Like most modern well-run committee meetings, a council of war could be used to ratify decisions a commander had already made or, less honorably, to give retrospective cover for decisions for which a commander wanted to evade responsibility. When a council of war met to consider whether the column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Roger Enos in Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec should turn back, Enos is said to have covered his own reputation by voting against the retreat after first assuring himself that the majority would vote the other way.

SEE ALSO Arnold's March to Quebec; New York Campaign; Saratoga Surrender.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Council of War