Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 7

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San Antonio, Texas, May 20, 1911.

My Dear Boy:—Let me tell you something about a wonderfully effective human machine, the Confederate Army. I sit facing a Confederate monument which depicts a self-reliant son of the Southland, the type of man real railway training helps to perpetuate. Hard by is a shrine to valor, the Alamo, a reminder of the duty of altruism which an individual owes to his fellows.

Fifty years ago two great armies were organized to fight to a practical, working conclusion some of the indefinite compromises of the Federal Constitution. Each army was supported by the intelligent spirit of an aroused people. Each sought in its organization and operation to give the most effective expression to that spirit. Jefferson Davis and his advisers sought to profit by the experience of the old United States Army and to avoid inherent weaknesses in its organization. So the Confederate Congress created the grades of general and of lieutenant general, in order that a general might command a separate field army, a lieutenant general a corps, a major general a division, and a brigadier general a brigade. By thus more exactly defining official status, jealousies were minimized. Until Grant was made lieutenant general in 1864, the Federal Army had only two grades of general officers, major general and brigadier general. This led to confusion, to bickerings, and to petty jealousies. Since a major general might command such distinct and self-contained units of organization as a division, a corps, or a separate field army, numerous special assignments by the President became necessary.

The Confederate Army had another feature of organization that was epoch-making. Samuel Cooper had been adjutant general of the United States Army, with the rank of brigadier general, issuing orders over his own signature from Washington “by command of” somebody else—Brevet Lieutenant General Scott or the Secretary of War. Because of his acknowledged efficiency in office work and administrative routine, Samuel Cooper was made adjutant general and inspector general of the Confederate Army. Did they give him the rank of brigadier general? No, sir; they made him a full general, and number one on the list, senior to Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston and G. T. Beauregard, who, as generals at one time or another, commanded separate field armies or territorial military departments. General Cooper at a desk in Richmond was the ranking officer of the Confederate Army. This detracted not one iota from the fame of Lee, the great soldier and the first gentleman of the South. On the contrary, the increased efficiency due to receiving instructions from a real superior, not under-strappers or chief clerks, made greater the reputation of Lee. From one viewpoint General Cooper was a high-class chief clerk for his President and the Secretary of War. From a broader view he was their technically trained, highly efficient chief of staff.

The Confederate Army gave in effect, but not in name, the chief of staff idea to the world as a great object lesson in the applied science of organization. Historians say that Jefferson Davis, himself a graduate of West Point, a veteran of the Mexican war, and Secretary of War in the cabinet of Pierce, meddled too much in military affairs when as President he should have been attending also to civil affairs. Be that as it may, the organization was elastic enough to meet just such variations of personal equation. Whether the President, the Secretary of War or the adjutant general (chief of staff) acted in a particular case, the subordinate knew who took the responsibility and that the action came from a real superior in rank.

The Confederacy fell. The passions of the time, the shortsightedness of prejudice, precluded the adoption at that time by the United States of any feature of the Confederate organization, however meritorious in principle and practice. It remained for the Germans, already applying the idea, to dazzle the world in 1870 and conquer France by the work of their general staff and its able chief, von Moltke. Not until after the costly lessons of the little war with Spain in 1898 did our Congress wake up and give the United States Army a general staff and a chief of staff. The new law includes several desirable features of elasticity. Among these is a provision for the selection by each administration of its own chief of staff. A permanent chief of staff might be an obstructionist or might become too perfunctory in compliance. The law wisely limits the selection of a chief of staff to about twenty general officers. This prevents playing untrained favorites. It permits any passenger conductor to be made superintendent, but forbids selecting an extra brakeman or the call boy. Furthermore, if conditions change or a new administration arrives, the chief of staff is not penalized for efficiency by losing out entirely, but reverts to his permanent status; the superintendent holds his rights as a conductor and bids in a good run according to his permanent seniority. This feature of good organization, the conferring of definite local superior rank, and the protection of the incumbent from unnecessary degradation, was discovered centuries ago by another effective institution, the Catholic church.

Life is a composite. The Army, like several railways, has been waking up to the fact that a lesson can be learned from the civil courts. A large city may have several courts and judges. A judge may sit for one term in the equity court, then in the criminal branch, and next in a court en banc. All the time there is only one office of record, one clerk of the court, with as many deputies as may be found necessary. When one judge wishes to know what another judge has done, the former does not write the latter a letter to inquire, but sends to the clerk’s office and gets the complete record up to date.

Are the railroads above copying sound working principles of efficiency from such tried institutions as the Army, the Navy, the civil courts and the churches? Certainly not, as some roads are showing in a highly practical way. Such movements as these are but expressions of a cosmic tendency, greater and more powerful than any one branch of human activity. Such trends of progress are noted by observers who happen to be favored with a view from the watch towers and who are able to make suitable adaptations because they realize that ideas are greater than men, that practical devices are greater than their inventors.

Sound ideas often depend for their development and permanency as working practices upon some great exponent of acknowledged capacity for leadership. In 1870 Bismarck had baited on the French and von Moltke had planned their discomfiture. In 1870 General Robert E. Lee, entering upon the last year of his life, was president of Washington and Lee University at Lexington, Virginia, where Colonel Allan, of Stonewall Jackson’s staff, was a prominent professor. There came to sit at the feet of these great teachers a mere boy in years, but an adult in intellectual grasp. This callow youth was of German lineage, but born and reared in New Orleans, a city stamped with the civilization of the French. Perhaps this modest youngster dreamed that twenty years later he would be a great railroad engineer—hardly, though, that in forty years he would, as a great railway operating man, be called the von Moltke of transportation. Strange, indeed, that this von Moltke, Julius Kruttschnitt, should find his opportunity for highest development under the Napoleon of our profession, Edward H. Harriman, himself among the last of the feudal railway barons. Stranger still that as this Napoleon was passing his von Moltke was starting the railways away from feudalism in interior administration by introducing within the latter’s own sphere the chief of staff idea of the Confederate, the German, and the American armies. For, my boy, the unit system of organization on the Harriman Lines, of which you have read more or less, is primarily a substitution of the modern chief of staff idea for the grown, dwarfing, irrational government by chief clerks.[1]

The unit system of organization requires that an official, whether the head of the unit or an assistant, shall, when absent on the line, be represented at headquarters by the senior or chief assistant of the unit. Such senior or chief assistant is in effect, though not in name, the chief of staff. Normally, this senior is number one on the list of assistants, but whoever is so acting becomes, as above explained, the senior for the time being, and when relieved reverts to his permanent place on the list. Rotation for this chief of staff depends largely on the personal equation of the head of the unit and of his various assistants. In the last two years some divisions have not rotated the chief of staff at all. One superintendent who credits the system with increased supervision and notable decreases in expenses is now rotating his assistants in the senior chair every two weeks.

There are diverse views on the subject of rotation in general. My own opinion is that it may or may not be desirable. I incline rather to rotation because it seems to be a biological concomitant of rational evolution. Nature rotates her seasons and her types. Where, as in the tropics, there is less rotation we find more stagnation and quicker death. Many soils are impoverished by neglect of proper crop rotation. The other day in a terminal, I found a superintendent lately rotated, like a Methodist minister, from another division. Favored with a fresh viewpoint, he was having switch engines give trains a start out of the yard, and was taking off a helper engine which for years had seemed an unavoidable expense. For what was in this particular instance a case of over-specialization he was substituting engines which could more economically perform the dual functions of switching and of pushing.

Speaking of yards, see if you have not some bright fellows on your staff who can figure out a car record that can be taken by the mechanical men, the car inspectors, that will answer all the purposes of transportation, including claims. Instead of two sets of specialists, car inspectors and yard clerks, partly duplicating each other’s work, see if you cannot develop one set of all ’round men with some interchangeability of function. No, you cannot do it all at once. Even if you have a workable scheme it will take a long time to establish. The Brown system of discipline required nearly twenty years for its complete extension to practically all American railroads, although in successful operation for nearly a hundred years at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The demerit system is better handled at West Point than is the Brown system on railways. This is because most of the officers are relatively better trained than railroad officials, having all been through the mill themselves. Better training cultivates the judicial quality. Too often the number of Brownies does not depend upon a fixed scale for a like offense, but rather upon how mad the superintendent is or on how hard he has been pounded by the typewriter in the offices above.

Before you condemn any system be certain that its apparent shortcomings are not the fault of your own interpretation and administration. We used to speak of engine failures alone. Nowadays we distinguish as between engine failures and man failures. Likewise there is a difference between a system failure and a man failure.

Affectionately, your own,

D. A. D.

  1. See appendix for a description of the unit system of organization.