Wisdom from Gettysburg Heroes 150 Years After the Battle

This past week I watched Gettysburg with my two oldest boys for the umpteenth time. I’ve honestly lost count how many times I’ve seen it. But I could care less, because it’s my favorite movie. Last summer, I enjoyed touring the battlefield last summer with my family and my good Army buddy, Bill, who grew up in Gettysburg and knows the battlefield like the back of his hand.

The best book I’ve read on the battle (recommended to me by my friend Bill) is Gettysburg by Stephen Sears (available for $13.99 on Amazon). The book is beautifully written and includes fascinating details. It’s fantastic. Thinking through the battle, I thought of three key reasons why the Union won and the rebels lost.

1. Lee didn’t replace Stonewall Jackson‘s influence in his inner circle after the latter died following the battle of Chancellorsville. Lee needed the counsel of a trusted advisor besides Longstreet. He too easily dismissed the recommendations Longstreet made during the Gettysburg campaign. To make matters worse, Longstreet’s instincts were mostly right. Nevertheless, they went unheeded. Lee probably would have listened to both Jackson and Longstreet, but he didn’t elevate anyone to Jackson’s former position on his inner circle of advisers. Lee’s negligence led to failure on the battlefield. The implications for Army, business, and organizational leaders are clear. You must surround yourself with wise counselors to avoid failure. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14

2. General Buford demonstrated an extraordinary ability to visualize the battlefield, and he acted accordingly. He instantly saw the terrain advantages Gettysburg offered and arrayed his forces accordingly. The cavalry officer demonstrated excellent mission command by communicating the situation clearly to his superior, General Reynolds. Buford’s clear and convincing communication compelled Reynolds to increase his corps’ rate of movement, and his infantry arrived just in time to reinforce Buford and repel the Rebel attempt to force the Union to withdraw from the high ground. There are a few takeaways for leaders here. Reynolds demonstrated excellent mission command by trusting his subordinate on the ground. He listened to his cavalry commander and acted on his intelligence report and advice. At all levels, leaders need to visualize the operational environment. Leaders must trust their people on the ground. If their people are competent, leaders must listen and act on sound recommendations. Leadership by walking around and talking to subordinates is effective and keeps leaders in the loop. Good listening skills help leaders stay adaptive and flexible to changing business, military, or organizational dynamics. “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” James 1:19

3. Unlike Lee, Meade held a council of generals to determine the best way forward after the first day of fighting. Should the Union fight a defensive battle at Gettysburg? Was the ground favorable to Union forces? Should the army withdraw to a more suitable field of battle? Meade wanted the counsel of his generals, and he had some excellent officers to use as a sounding board (General Hancock being arguably the best voice due to Reynolds’ death on the battlefield earlier in the day). Meade demonstrated humility and a willingness to consider the advice of his lieutenants whereas Lee demonstrated arrogance and overconfidence in his army. Longstreet attempted to persuade Lee from executing poor tactics and strategy. Meade sought out advice from his advisers. They counseled him well, and Meade acted on that sound advice. When arrogance comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 11:2

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