Portrait of a Sigma

People often ask me to provide historical examples of the various ranks in the socio-sexual hierarchy. Alphas are always very easy to find, because history is largely a written account of the doings of the greater Alphas of society. Deltas are too common to escape notice, and Gammas frequently show up wherever disasters have taken place. Sigmas, on the other hand, tend to be much more difficult to notice and identify by virtue of their discomfort and disdain for the trappings of the social hierarchy as well as for the hierarchy itself.

But this example, taken from Volume II of A History of the Peninsular War by Charles Oman, is about as clear-cut as one can hope to find.

The officer who wrecked this part of Napoleon’s plan for the invasion of Portugal was Sir Robert Wilson, one of the most active and capable men in the English army, and one who might have made a great name for himself, had fortune been propitious. But though he served with distinction throughout the Napoleonic war, and won golden opinions in Belgium and Egypt, in Prussia and Poland, no less than in Spain, he never obtained that command on a large scale which would have enabled him to show his full powers. It may seem singular that a man who won love and admiration wherever he went, who was decorated by two emperors for brilliant feats of arms done under their eyes, who was equally popular in the Russian, the Austrian, or the Portuguese camp, who had displayed on a hundred fields his chivalrous daring, his ready ingenuity, and his keen military insight, should fail to achieve greatness.

But Wilson, unhappily for himself, had the defects of his qualities. When acting as a subordinate his independent and self-reliant character was always getting him into trouble with his hierarchical superiors. He was not the man to obey orders which he believed to be dangerous or mistaken: he so frequently ‘thought for himself’ and carried out plans quite different from those which had been imposed upon him, that no commander-in-chief could tolerate him for long. His moves were always clever and generally fortunate, but mere success did not atone for his disobedience in the eyes of his various chiefs, and he never remained for long in the same post. All generals, good and bad, agree in disliking lieutenants who disregard their orders and carry out other schemes—even if they be ingenious and successful ones.

But when trusted with any independent command, and allowed a free hand, Wilson always did well. Not only had he all the talents of an excellent partisan chief, but he was one of those genial leaders who have the power to inspire confidence and enthusiasm in their followers, and are able to get out of them double the work that an ordinary commander can extort. He was in short one of those men who if left to themselves achieve great things, but who when placed in a subordinate position quarrel with their superiors and get sent home in disgrace. From the moment when Beresford assumed command of the Portuguese army his relations with Wilson were one long story of friction and controversy, and Wellesley (though acknowledging his brilliant services) made no attempt to keep him in the Peninsula. He wanted officers who would obey orders, even when they did not understand or approve them, and would not tolerate lieutenants who wished to argue with him.

Notice that the very successful Alpha did not want the Sigma around potentially interfering with his own plans. This was actually a correct decision and demonstrates Wellesley’s excellent management instincts, although ideally he would have kept Wilson on hand for special operations where independent free-lancing was required. And speaking of special operations, notice that the Sigma was not merely independent, but also the innovator on the scene.

It was Wilson who first showed that the new levies of Portugal could do good service in the field. While Silveira and Eben were meeting with nothing but disaster in the Tras-os-Montes and the Entre-Douro-e-Minho, he was conducting a thoroughly successful campaign on the borders of Leon. From January to April, 1809, he, and he alone, protected the eastern frontier of Portugal, and with a mere handful of men kept the enemy at a distance, and finally induced him to draw off and leave Salamanca, just at the moment when Soult’s operations on the Douro were becoming most dangerous. The force at his disposal in January, 1809, consisted of nothing more than his own celebrated ‘Loyal Lusitanian Legion.’ 

 “But couldn’t he have been a gamma,” one can anticipate the inevitable objection. No, most certainly not.

Wilson received from Sir John Cradock the news that he had ordered the British garrison to evacuate Almeida, and to retire on Lisbon, as the whole remaining force in Portugal would probably have to embark in a few days. The new commander-in-chief added that he should advise Wilson to bring off his British officers and depart with the rest, as the Portuguese would be unable to make any head against Bonaparte, and it would be a useless sacrifice to linger in their company and be overwhelmed. This pusillanimous counsel shocked and disgusted Wilson: he called together his subordinates, and found that they agreed with him in considering Cradock’s advice disgraceful. They resolved that they could not desert their Portuguese comrades, and were in honour bound to see the campaign to an end, however black the present outlook might appear.


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