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BBravery in the face of the enemy is one of the most valuable leadership traits one can possess; especially during a war.

I don’t believe that bravery can be taught; perhaps it can be caught; but I suspect one is either born with it or not.

Take for instance Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain went from near obscurity to fame overnight when the film Gettysburg was released.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a college professor. Though not a soldier, he bravely stepped forward and enlisted—he was so determined to enlist that he told no one he was running away to join the army. That is exactly what he did. Chamberlain believed in the cause—preserving the union—so strongly that he left a comfortable life in Maine to endure the harsh realities of war.

He would probably have remained relatively obscure if it were not for the Battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain was the Colonel of the 20th Maine, part of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac was hapless and, in a sense, leaderless. Yes, General George Meade, two days before the battle, was given command of the army, but, in those two days Meade had done little except react to his opponent, Robert E. Lee. Lee had invaded Pennsylvania, scattering his Army of Northern Virginia from Chambersburg to Carlisle to York, approaching Harrisburg, the state’s capitol. Meade, learning the disposition of Lee’s troops saw the opportunity and moved to destroy Lee’s army piecemeal—something his predecessors, including McClellan (yesterday’s post) would never had done. Lee, becoming aware, quickly concentrated his troops in Gettysburg and the rest is, as they say, history.

General Gouverneur Warren

General Gouverneur Warren

Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine arrived the second day of the battle. Just in time. The Union line was in the shape of a fish hook and Chamberlain’s men were at the eye (where the line is tied) of the hook. Only they were not in position and the high ground (Little Round Top) was exposed. If the Confederates took possession of Little Round Top they could roll up the Union line. General Gouverneur Warren discovered the mistake and positioned Chamberlain and others on Little Round Top. Here’s the thing: Chamberlain was at the end of the line; if his troops faltered, the whole Union line could go to pieces.

So, Chamberlain placed his men and waited. The Confederates came. And then they came again. And again. Over and over they attacked Chamberlain’s position, to no avail. Then something awful happened—Chamberlain’s men ran out of ammunition! The next Confederate charge would undoubtedly succeed.

Painting of Chamberlain's charge on Little Round Top

Painting of Chamberlain’s charge on Little Round Top

What did Chamberlain do? He ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Charge?! Chamberlain and his men charged down the slope of Little Round Top, shocking the Confederates below, who promptly surrendered.

Chamberlain would go on to achieve other distinctions, rising the rank of General. He was present when Lee surrendered and supervised the laying down of arms by the Army of Northern Virginia.

Gettysburg became a defining moment for Chamberlain and after the war he went back to being a professor, then president of the college, then governor of the state of Maine. But, he never forgot Gettysburg and would visit it often. I believe this quote explains why he did so:

In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

I know it’s why I’m drawn to Gettysburg and other Civil War sites.

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Leadership Lessons

  1. Decisive action can often overcome the odds that seem to be stacked against you.
  2. Trust your gut.
  3. Be decisive; wavering will only lead to disaster (McClellan).
  4. Sometimes the solution is right in front of you (bayonets).
  5. Remember your past, learn from it, but also pay homage to it.
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