Pivotal Gettysburg battle offers lessons in leadership, shaping nation
GETTYSBURG — In the morning stillness, when the breaking sun warms the air just so, mist nestles in nooks between rolling, green hills topped by rows of cannons — a sight preserved for 150 years in memories, photographs and soldiers' letters home.
Gettysburg is a lesson, a hub, an apex, an Address. It is tragedy and victory, a battlefield and a home. It is fertile land and consecrated ground.
“There is something about this place,” said Gene Wellens of Green Bay, Wis., during a recent visit to Gettysburg National Military Park, where commemoration of the battle's 150th anniversary begins Sunday night.
Like many, Wellens struggled to pin down why, exactly, Gettysburg occupies a place in contemporary American culture so much more prominent than other Civil War battles. It was a turning point, certainly, but many historians argue that other battles — including Vicksburg, Miss., which surrendered at the same time as Robert E. Lee's defeat at Gettysburg and snapped the Confederacy in two — held more strategic value.
Rather than any single facet of the three-day battle, perhaps Gettysburg owes its enduring prominence to a confluence of factors, just as the confluence of roads in this quiet corner of Adams County led to the battle in the first place. Here, monument-adorned fields of grass and wheat submit themselves like the body of a young hero, at once warning of the colossal cost of war and testifying to the best attributes of those who fight it.
“There were so many points in the battle over those three days where it could have gone differently ... and each one of these has lessons,” said Robert Wilburn, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Washington, who teaches a class called “In the Footsteps of Leaders.”
The program, one of several coordinated with the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, takes business and public policy students to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield and examine leadership decisions made by commanders in the places where they made them.
“You get into things like leadership style — the way Robert E. Lee managed his generals versus the way Gen. (George) Meade did,” Wilburn said, comparing Lee's hierarchical leadership at Gettysburg to Meade's more hesitant, collaborative style.
Col. Joshua Chamberlain's command of the 20th Maine, memorialized in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Killer Angels,” offers modern managers an abiding lesson in how to bring wayward or skeptical subordinates into line, said Greg Hanifee, who teaches a program similar to Wilburn's at the University of Maryland.
Just before the battle, Chamberlain took charge of a group of deserters, Hanifee said. Rather than shoot them, Chamberlain led them with the rest of his unit to Little Round Top on the Union Army's left flank. When the Confederates attacked, he offered them rifles; almost all of them joined the fight.
“Had he not done that, they might not have been able to hold Little Round Top,” Hanifee said.
Chamberlain's leadership culminated in a last-ditch bayonet charge down the rocky hillside when his men ran out of bullets, just one example of “the dramatic nature of the fighting” that contributes to Gettysburg's place in history, said Lt. Col. David Siry, a history teacher at United States Military Academy at West Point.
On July 2, the day of Chamberlain's charge, the 262-man 1st Minnesota Volunteers Regiment launched a suicidal sprint into thousands of advancing Confederates, buying time for reinforcements to strengthen the Union line. The following day, Confederate Gen. George Pickett led a doomed charge by 15,000 men across a mile of open field into those Union lines.
North America's largest
Gettysburg remains the largest battle fought in North America, according to the Gettysburg Foundation, which uses private funds to support programs at the National Park. Of more than 158,000 troops who fought, 51,000 became casualties. About 7,000 died on the battlefield, Siry said — more than three times as many American troops in three days as the war in Afghanistan claimed in almost 12 years.
By July 15, 1863, the number of dead reached 13,000, said Ted Gajewski, a licensed battlefield guide and retired steelworker from Clairton. Gajewski compared that to the Vietnam War, in which about 58,000 Americans died.
“Gettysburg, in three days, takes 22 percent of the entire number (killed in) that 20-year Vietnam War,” Gajewski said. “Three days.”
The battlefield's adornment reflects the enormity of the fighting. More than 1,300 monuments dot the 4,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park.
“Gettysburg is the world's largest collection of outdoor sculpture,” National Park Service Ranger Katie Lawhon said.
Outcome was key
It remains a clear inflection point in American history.
“If Lee wins this battle, there's a very good possibility that Lincoln does not win a second term of office,” Gajewski said. Lincoln's Democratic opponents campaigned on a platform of peace, even at the expense of unity, and many people in the North had grown weary of the war even before Lee's invasion, he said.
Had Lincoln lost, “There is no doubt in my mind that all 11 states (in the Confederacy) would have broken away and formed their own separate country. And if you carry that premise just one step further, existing territories like Montana, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Arizona — why do they have to join?” Gajewski said. North America “would've looked more like the map of Europe.”
From there, the dominoes continue to tumble, he said.
“It was the industrial might of the United States that won World War II,” Gajewski said. That might would not have existed without the Union, and the Union might not have survived a defeat at Gettysburg, he said. “That is what makes Gettysburg so important.”
President Lincoln captured that importance the following November when he delivered a brief address to dedicate the cemetery where many of the Union dead remain buried. The Gettysburg Address “remakes the whole war” from an anti-insurrection campaign into a defense of the country's founding principles, Siry said.
“This battle becomes the battle that changes the nature of the war,” Siry said.
Often, it takes years to realize the historical importance of events, said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Seminary Ridge Museum, which opens in Gettysburg on Monday.
“But Gettysburg was one of those events that, almost immediately, everyone understood that it meant something,” said Franco, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “People were coming to see the battlefields before they had removed the dead.”
The battle's anniversary could draw as many as 200,000 people to this secluded corner of Pennsylvania where, 150 years later, the fields retain their gravity.
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.