Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Organizational Learning in a Military Environment: George H. Sharpe and the Army of the Potomac

Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Organizational Learning in a Military Environment: George H. Sharpe and the Army of the Potomac

Article excerpt

On February 24, 1865, George H. Sharpe, who was then serving with the Union armies besieging the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, wrote his uncle Jansen Hasbrouck in Kingston, New York, to announce he had just been promoted from the rank of colonel to brigadier general. (1) Normally, such an event would have been an occasion for pride and rejoicing, but in Sharpe's case those emotions were tempered by frustration over the unusual steps he had been forced to take in achieving recognition he felt he thoroughly deserved.

As the person principally in charge of intelligence operations for the North's largest army since early 1863, Sharpe gathered, collated and analyzed information from a wide variety of sources, winnowing the false from the true and creating an actionable context to inform decision-making by senior Northern commanders. The organization he built and led carried out an educative function that one historian rated "alongside the war's well-known innovations, such as the control of distant armies by telegraph and the development of ironclad warships" (2) and that a Central Intelligence Agency monograph said "foreshadowed the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Division" that was created several decades after the end of the American Civil War. (3) Despite such accomplishments, however, recognition did not come easily for Sharpe.

In the letter to his uncle, Sharpe said that "When [Army of the Potomac Commander General George G.] Meade recommended members of his staff [for promotion], I had just been removed to that of the Lieutenant General [Ulysses S. Grant, overall commander of the Union armies] and he left me out. This irritated me a little..." (4) In response to what he considered a snub from Meade, Sharpe successfully sought the endorsement of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, "who very naturally recollected that I was one of the very few staff officers he knew, and with whose services he was personally acquainted." (5) He also gained written recommendations from General Joseph Hooker, who commanded the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville and had initially named Sharpe to his intelligence post; General Daniel Butterfield, who served as chief of staff Mr Hooker and, for a time, Meade; and General Andrew A. Humphreys, Meade's chief of staff for the previous year and a half. Ultimately Meade learned of Sharpe's actions, and added his recommendation to the others. (6)

While Sharpe was pleased with the outcome of his efforts, in his letter he also indicated his unhappiness at having been forced to undertake them. He explained to his uncle that he had not written him for some time, because "I am one of the hardest working men in the Army, when we are lying still. My only relief is when we begin marching or fighting--and I take it you don't want a letter written on horseback." (7) And indeed, Sharpe's tenure as head of intelligence for the Army of the Potomac had been characterized by a considerable amount of hard work, as well as by other, less positive, influences.

The Union Army began intelligence operations almost immediately after the onset of hostilities with the South. General George B. McClellan retained Allan Pinkerton's detective agency as his personal intelligence service when he assumed command of the Eastern theater's Army of the Potomac in the summer of 1861, (8) and General John C. Fremont created a similar organization, called "Jessie's Scouts" in honor of his wife, when he was named commander of the Western theater of the war at about that same time. (9) Beginning in 1862, Grant relied on an extensive intelligence network operated under the direction of General Grenville Dodge to monitor Confederate activities during his Western campaigns. (10) None of these operations were as comprehensive or as successful as Sharpe's, however.

Sharpe did not leave extensive personal correspondence from the Civil War period, although a significant amount of his official communication is available. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.