One hundred and fifty one years ago today, Abraham Lincoln offered up the greatest 272 words in American History. Only 139 days before, the largest battle in the Civil War, and in the history of North American before or since, saw catastrophic losses at the battle of Gettysburg. The final great battle of the war produced 23,043 Union and 28,063 Confederate casualties. As the two sides rode off after three bombastic days, on July 4, 1863 toward reinforcements and impending encounters, the citizens of Gettysburg, only 2400 strong, had to deal with the aftermath and bury nearly 4 times their town in battlefield dead.
Seems strange to bring up the Battle of Gettysburg in a coaching blog, but some unmistakable coaching moments can be gleaned from this tragic time in American History.
Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart had taken his troops through four major battles in the 16 days prior to Gettysburg, having travelled without proper rations and literally no sleep for his men for two and a half days when they arrived. After being beaten back repeatedly, Stuart’s men were the last to cross back to the Potomac in retreat and were described as in “"wretched condition—completely worn out and broken down.”
Out of the Box Thinking:
The Union forces held high ground and waited for an expecting charge from the Confederate Army on the third day of the battle. At 1 p.m. the Confederates let loose an artillery barrage that was meant to soften up the Union’s foothold on the high ground. The Union cannons answered back. After an hour though, the Union guns fell silent and the Confederates took this silence as they had knocked out the North’s artillery options. They had been fooled. The North wanted to lure the South into charging them and was saving ammunition. Only 5,750 Union soldiers defended the onslaught of over 13,000 Rebels but as the Southerners charged, they soon realized they had been duped. Northern canons once again fired and cut through the onslaught, taking out many of the Rebels in the first few minutes of what would now be called, “Pickett’s Charge.”
A good soldier could reload and fire his rifle 2-3 times in a minute so the Union stacked their infantry 4 deep in straight lines to ensure as one infantryman fired we went to the back of the line and reloaded so a continuous spray of fire was slowing the Southern forces.
Humility and Humanity:
General Robert E. Lee, carrying an air of invincibility of both himself and the Army of Northern Virginia into Gettysburg after repeated successful campaigns while heading north, made some disastrous decisions based on sketchy intelligence, especially on the third day of the battle. Lee met his men on the field, beaten down and surrounded by bodies and carnage as they retreated, telling them, “All this has been my fault.” His men and historians considered this to maybe be Lee’s finest hour, displaying humility and his concern for his men. “He told one of his Generals, “”Upon my shoulders rests the blame.” Days later, he wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis and again took responsibility for his army’s defeat saying, “It is my fault. I asked more of these men then I should have.” The Confederate Army would never recover from Gettysburg and had to fight a defensive war the last 21 months before Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9th in Virginia.
Simple is Better:
President Abraham Lincoln, suffering from the onset of smallpox, stood by attentively as Edward Everett, a popular orator and academic delivered his 2 hour, 13,000+ word speech at the dedication of the National Memorial Cemetery on the Gettysburg battle field. Then, a weak and pale Lincoln removed his trademark stove pipe hat and in 2 minutes, had encapsulated what Everett had spent two hours explaining. The crowd was stunned by its brevity and many in the days immediately after panned it but it stands now as one of the greatest speeches in American history.
Gettysburg is now an American icon. Travel to the town and enjoy lunch at the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill or the Lincoln Diner. You can buy Civil War replicas of uniforms and weapons on the City’s streets but the true history is sadly just a few blocks from downtown, in the National Cemetery that Lincoln dedicated with his Address.
Coaches can look so many places to find inspirations and lessons about how to be better at what we do. They usually come without a big price tag and certainly without body counts. On this day though, President Lincoln, perhaps the greatest “Coach” in our Nation’s history, said it so eloquently:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863