Friday, June 29, 2012

The Last Full Measure

Today was our last full day in the Washington D.C. area and we spent it actually on the road to Antietam and Gettysburg. Although I have been to other Civil War sights, these were new to me, so it was a great experience to go and also to go with our professors who know so much about history and can really make it come alive. 

Our first visit was to Antietam, one of the most pivotal battles in the war because there the Union was able to stalemate Robert E. Lee, stopping his northern charge and giving Lincoln the political capital he needed to, 3 months later on Jan. 1, 1963, sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam also was a great lesson in leadership for two other reasons. 

The first relates to this bridge. This is called today Burnside Bridge, named for General Burnside whose forces took the bridge, routed the Georgian forces above and essentially ended the battle by cutting Lee off from his supply chain, forcing his retreat back across the Potomac. It is somewhat humorous that it is named for him because Burnside really didn't want to be there, and for most of the battle, he barely tried to take the bridge. However, because his troops eventually did take the bridge, he gained great credit for ending the battle and became the hero of Antietam. Sometimes, you get credit even when you don't deserve it.

The second lesson comes from the guy who should have gotten the credit, General McClellan. As the supreme commander, McClellan should have received much credit for stopping Lee, however, because he failed to capitalize on the victory, he was later removed from his position by Lincoln. McClellan could have ended the war at Antietam, yet because he was convinced Lee had more troops in waiting (based on faulty intelligence and his own fear) he spent the entire battle a mile behind the lines with 40,000 additional soldiers which he never committed to the fight. Had he committed them, crushed Lee's army, the war might have ended three years earlier. But being too far away from the action, and fearful of what might be, he stayed back.

From Antietam we journeyed up to Gettysburg. There we saw the cost of leadership, including overconfidence, first hand. General Lee, having seen his troops overcome the odds time and again had become so confident in them that he decided to commit them to a fight on ground not of his choosing, against a foe he had little intelligence about and who occupied the high ground. The picture on the right illustrates that high ground. This is the top of Little Round Top, and below is the valley called the "Devil's Den" or the "Valley of Death". Into this valley, Lee pushed his troops time and again, vainly trying to capture the high ground, they never did. 

Yet despite this defeat, Lee pressed on and the next day ordered General Pickett to lead 15,000 men across a field towards cemetery ridge where he believed the Union had undercommitted their resources and a break could be made. To the left we see that field, a mile long march from cover, up a small rise into the teeth of Union artillery and guns. The stone marker in the picture is called "The high water mark of the Confederacy". 

Had they broken the lines, they might have been able to defeat the Union and Gettysburg, push on to DC and ultimately force Lincoln to sue for peace. Instead, his forces decimated by cannon and rifle fire, the last of the charge died there, at the high water mark. And the end of the confederacy was in sight (although it took two more years). While his men were brave, his tactics sound and his fight strong, Lee's overconfidence and refusal to withdraw to more favorable ground, cost his men dearly.

That dear cost is shown at the cemetery where Abe Lincoln delivered his famed address.  Of course no Confederate graves are found here, but the empty field with marker upon marker (no names, just numbers, this was before dog tags) is a stark reminder of the real costs of war and the real costs of leadership. As a leader you ask people to commit their lives to the task, it may very well cost them their lives. This was perhaps the most moving part of the trip for me so far as our professor pulled his copy of the address from his pocket and read it for us.

The Gettysburg Address has really taken root in my mind as a reminder of the true costs of leadership. Of considering closely what we are asking of those who follow us and taking seriously that it is often them, not us, who will hallow the ground of victory or defeat. Too many pastors, politicians, business leaders and others forget this and in their hubris (Lee), fear (McClellan), frustration (like Burnside) or anxiety (too often me) stay away from the fight, and leave others to give a last full measure of devotion. So I close this series of my blog (we fly home tomorrow) with Lincoln's words...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

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.

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