Reflections on Gettysburg

“After this urgent protest against entering into battle at Gettysburg according to instructions – which protest is the first and only one I ever made during my entire military career – I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.”
–General John B. Hood



Two years ago marked a pivotal experience for me. It was one that I did not anticipate at the time, nor fully appreciate the impact it would have upon me until later.  The event was a tour of Gettysburg.

I heard that a tour of Gettysburg was on the agenda while I was in NASA’s leadership development program.  So, what did I know about Gettysburg prior to my visit?  Well, I knew going in that Gettysburg was the site of the battle that turned the tide for the Union versus the Confederacy, and was also the site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Oh, and that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania.  In all honesty and embarrassment, that was about all I knew.

I soon learned a lot more than that, more than I could have imagined that affected me in fundamental and profound ways.

From an analytic view, I learned several leadership lessons from Gettysburg based upon my reading beforehand, organized into separate lessons as told mostly from the Confederacy point of view….

1) Leaders must recognize personal differences with subordinates, superiors, and peers.  Leaders must encourage all to work together to accomplish the mission and achieve tangible results.  Each side experienced this in the initial contacts.  The Confederacy gained the upper hand, yet John Buford’s cavalry made a stand that made a difference in the subsequent days.

2) Lee’s plan on Day 2 was perfect based upon the intel and assumed capabilities of his army and leaders.  He and his leadership team also showed the ability to react and adapt to a changing condition, at least initially.  However, the flaw in the plan was that there was no margin for error. In the end, his subordinates failed to ensure delivery on every key tactical element, which was required of Lee’s plan.  The troops failed to execute the final stages of the en echelon maneuver, and the leadership failed to adjust its leadership styles given the readiness level of its next line leadership.

3) Lee’s plan on Day 3 was one of desperation and did not consider alternatives, such as to withdraw to draw out the Army of the Potomac or to focus the attack from the east, for example.  Additionally, command of a key area was placed in the hands of an inexperienced person who made incorrect assumptions – that he would know if he was successful based upon the enemy’s response, which turned out to be a false indicator.

Overall, for the Confederacy there was no clear succession plan.  Capable lower level leaders demonstrated in extreme situations that they reached “The Peter Principle” in higher-level positions, at a time too late for the leadership to take corrective action.

As I reflected on these analytic lessons in leadership before my visit, it begged the question in my mind what would have happened if Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would not have died from his wounds and subsequent pneumonia from Chancellorsville a few weeks before.  Would that have made the difference in the outcome at Gettysburg?

As I reflected on that point while actually walking the fields of Gettysburg, I wondered about that point as well as the decisions and failings of leadership that led to the ultimate of consequences those three days.  My analytic thoughts turned to more emotional ones as I walked the fields in chronological order of the three days of battle.  I sensed the ebb and flow of the first day as the Confederacy made contact with Buford’s cavalry on the rolling hills to the west of town, when the leadership on both sides had no real sense of the battle yet to come.  I felt the split-second decisions of leadership as I stood on Little Round Top where Joshua Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets and charge.  I wondered about the certainties and uncertainties of leadership decisions as I stood where Lew Armistead died as one of the few in Pickett’s charge to make it beyond the Union lines.  I sought parallels of the consequences of the decisions of leadership at Gettysburg with the work of my organization at NASA – after all, we deal with decisions that can kill people – and felt deeply the loss of the crews of Challenger and Columbia.  When the day at Gettysburg drew to a close, I found that words failed me.  In some sense, they still do.

After the experience at Gettysburg, I walked the sites at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and felt a similar experience.  I reflected on the zenith of the Confederacy at Fredericksburg where Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet despite terrible odds defeated a much larger and better equipped Union army in what was essentially a rout.  Chancellorsville was a repeat in many respects of Fredericksburg, except that it cost the Confederacy dearly with the loss of Jackson.  All of these events speak volumes to me about the capability of teams when led by a leadership team that instills a sense of possibility versus inevitability, one in which the troops believe in its leadership on one side versus that on another where loss and defeat is the expectation.

What did I learn from Gettysburg?  That incredible accomplishments are possible with the belief they are possible, and that leadership is not a solitary endeavor.  We need people around us to believe, and we have to believe in ourselves.

On a final note, today is April 21.  For non-Texans, this date may have no significance.  For Texans, it is San Jacinto Day.  It is the day where the Texian Army, led by General Sam Houston, defeated a much larger and better equipped Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, marking the decisive battle and key victory of the fight for Texas independence.  In some sense, today is another lesson in leadership, about the power of belief in the possible and having faith in leadership and each other.

Reflections on Gettysburg