When do senior officers disobey legal orders? The obvious answer is never. Subordinates are supposed to execute orders without question. But we have examples of senior officers who defied orders and were not court martialed or shot for treason. In wartime we have two infamous military leaders who claimed justified defiance and disobeyed orders and in doing so helped win the battle and fame: Benedict Arnold and George Armstrong Custer. Later in their careers they both were immortalized for inglorious acts of disobedience.
Arnold is America’s most notorious traitor, rising to the rank of Major General in George Washington’s army before becoming a turncoat and fighting for the British as a Brigadier General. Newspapers compared the villainous defector to Lucifer and Judas. His treasonous act overshadowed his impressive military career in the Continental Army. While fighting for the Patriots, he earned the reputation as a courageous field commander. Lord Germaine, British Secretary of State, called Arnold “the most enterprising and dangerous” of all the American generals.
Battle of Second Saratoga
Arnold served under General Horatio Gates at the First Battle of Saratoga occurring in September 1777. The two generals suffered from vainglory and disliked each other. During the battle, Gates relieved Arnold of his command after a heated dispute when Arnold urged more aggressive action. A month later at the Second Battle of Saratoga, Arnold defied Gates’s order to stay off the battlefield. As the Patriots were being pushed back, Arnold darted onto the scene and led a spirited attack and captured a portion of the British defenses. Arnold’s justified defiance contributed greatly to the American victory ten days later when the British surrendered an entire army at Saratoga. News of the surrender convinced France to enter the war on the side of the Americans. Gates, however, downplayed Arnold’s contributions in his official reports and claimed most of the credit himself.
George Armstrong Custer
Custer is America’s most notorious epic hero, rising to the rank of Brevet Major General in the Civil War at the age of 23 before becoming enshrined as a vainglorious myth at the fateful Little Bighorn. President Grant considered Custer an egomaniac fool for slaughtering himself and his men. Custer’s Last Stand, however, overshadowed his impressive military career during the Civil War. General Phil Sheridan, commander of the Union Cavalry, presented to Custer’s wife, Libbie, the small writing-table on which General Grant wrote the conditions for the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Sheridan wrote to Libbie Custer and said, “there is scarcely an individual in our Service who has contributed more to bring about this result [Lee’s surrender] than your very gallant husband.”
Battle of Gettysburg
Custer served under Brigadier Judson Kilpatrick at the Battle of Gettysburg. Kilpatrick was a class ahead of Custer at West Point and both generals suffered from vainglory and disliked each other. On the morning of the third day of the battle, Custer intercepted a request from General David Gregg, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Division, for Kilpatrick to provide a brigade to bolster the Union’s right flank. Without receiving orders from Kilpatrick or telling his superior he was abandoning the 3rd Cavalry Division, Custer led his brigade immediately to the Rummel Farm, which is now called East Cavalry Field.
A few hours later, a furious Kilpatrick told General Pleasonton, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry commander, to order Custer back to Kilpatrick’s 3rd division located southwest of Big Round Top, now called South Cavalry Field. Pleasonton sent a messenger to General Gregg ordering Custer to return to Kilpatrick’s command. Gregg’s troopers were facing Jeb Stuart’s Invincibles, which was a much larger cavalry force. Gregg proposed Custer ignore the order and stay, which Custer did.
Custer subsequently led two break-neck saber charges that were successful in preventing Stuart’s cavalry from piercing General George Meade’s right flank and attacking the rear of the Union army.
Custer defied orders twice on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg claiming justified defiance. Custer’s efforts contributed greatly to Meade’s victory over Lee’s army at Gettysburg.
Arnold and Custer believed they were justified in defying orders and in doing so both contributed to a victory. What are the common traits of their justified defiance? Both officers took the initiative in response to enemy actions.
- Arnold observed the enemy breaking through the Patriot’s lines and ignored orders to stay off the battlefield and led a successful counterattack.
- Upon learning of Gregg’s request for Kilpatrick to give him a brigade, Custer volunteered his brigade without receiving orders from Kilpatrick.
- Later that day, Custer ignored orders to leave General Gregg’s division because it was greatly outnumbered and by the Confederates who were preparing to attack in full force.
- Thus, disobedience is rooted in initiative. Both Arnold and Custer realized the importance of seizing the initiative to preempt an enemy’s initiative.
Both men were effective because they possessed flexibility and tactical sense. In other words, they understood what needed to be done to turn the tide. Both men’s immediate superiors were pompous and vain.
- Arnold knew Gates was an incompetent commander and lacked the skills to make quick decisive decisions during a battle.
- Custer knew too much time would be wasted for Gregg’s courier to deliver his request for a brigade and that Jeb Stuart’s Invincibles would seize the initiative.
- Custer defied the second order to abandoned Gregg at a critical moment when Stuart’s larger force was preparing to attack.
- You might be justified in seizing the initiative and disobeying orders if you are certain a battle would be lost if orders from your superior are allowed to stand.
- If, however, you believe you are justified in defying orders and believe authority is a matter of individual judgment, you must be prepared to accept the consequences in victory and defeat.
- Fortunately for Arnold and Custer they were not reprimanded after defying orders as their defiance resulted in victories.
Unfortunately for both Arnold and Custer, their vanity in believing they always had a better tactical sense than their superiors and their penchant to disobey orders had disastrous results at the end of their careers. If Arnold had been captured for his treasonous actions he would have been hung and Custer paid the ultimate price for disobedience on the fields of Little Bighorn.
Note: My first historical novel of the Battle of Gettysburg was called Without Warning: The Saga of Gettysburg, A Reluctant Union Hero, and the Men He Inspired. This storyfocused on the Union infantry. My second historical novel of the Battle of Gettysburg is called Thundering Courage: George Armstrong Custer, The Union Cavalry Boy Generals, and Justified Defiance at Gettysburg. This story focuses on the Second and Third Union Cavalry Divisions at Gettysburg. Thundering Courage is projected to be published by Heart Ally Books in October 2023.
 Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle, Harper Collins, 1968, 33
 https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlufac/116/ Samuel W. Calhoun, “Did Custer Disobey?” Volume 6 Greasy Grass, published by Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, 9 May 1990, page 16, reprinted in Washington and Lee School of Law, May 1990.