Gettysburg Day One: Lessons in Leadership
Day One of the Alumni Association’s Civil War Battlefield Study Tour to Gettysburg was, of course, Day One of the battle. Our faculty leaders, Terry Winschel ’77 and Parker Hills, started by giving us the political and military context for the years leading up to Gettysburg. They’re a terrific team.
Parker, the retired general, wears a watch that tells military time, reels off one-liners and what I’m assuming are Southern aphorisms (if they’re not, they should be), and punctuates his PowerPoints with snappy sound effects, everything from typewriter keys to explosions to snippets of Beethoven.
Terry’s picked up a trace of a southern accent after decades in Mississippi as the historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, but his native Pittsburgh still occasionally comes through. He tells stories so smoothly that despite my notoriously bad handwriting, my notes from his sessions are pristine. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in the notebook’s lines. (Not when Parker was speaking.) Terry isn’t wearing a watch, and if he needs a PowerPoint, Parker pushes the buttons.
The combination is fantastic; it’s obvious they’ve known each other since Parker was a mere Army captain. They met at Vicksburg, where Terry was giving tours of the battlefield and Parker was bringing soldiers to learn. Part of the reason the country has national battlefields is to educate the military, and one of the important lessons is the importance of terrain.
After an afternoon on the battlefield, I could see why. Getting a feel for the ridges and rises and valleys by walking over them, looking from one point to another and understanding what the soldiers saw, realizing how near or far the battle lines were provides an entirely new perspective. Terry’s and Parker’s commentary make the battle more real.
Another critical lesson: the importance of leadership. They spent a considerable amount of time introducing us to the generals. Not just Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, and George Meade, who took over command of the Union forces five days before the battle, but their corps commanders (their top assistants), too.
While you’d think that having a new general commanding would have been a massive adjustment for the Union, it turns out that the Confederacy had it worse. Lee had just reorganized his army after the death of Stonewall Jackson, and he had, essentially, an entirely new management team. Two of his three corps commanders and three of his nine division commanders were learning on the job—not just how to lead larger groups of men into battle, but how to interpret and understand orders from their boss, Lee. What a place to learn.
I’m not going to recount the battle. (Read something from our “syllabus,” or sign up for a tour; believe me, I can’t to do it justice here.) But I want to highlight one part of our day.
We ended our tour on the top of Cemetery Hill—the high ground south of town—which was the meeting place for the Union forces. The theme of leadership came through once more as Parker and Terry recounted what happened when two generals disagreed in front of their men, a situation that could have gone badly.
We’d heard the story in the morning, too. The repetition, several of us agreed afterward, is one of the great ways Terry and Parker teach. Hearing pieces of the stories again on the battlefield brings back what we’ve heard in the classroom, and by repeating snippets as we move around the battlefield, they cement our understanding of what happened.
Anyway, here’s the story: Gen. Oliver O. Howard of the 11th Corps figured he was the decision-maker as the ranking general on the field, and he wasn’t pleased when Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock of the Second Corps arrived carrying orders from Meade that put him in command. But Hancock, rather than waving his papers around and humiliating or angering Howard, noted that this looked like a good place to fight, adding, “What do you think?”
Howard agreed. The men saw their generals agree. Situation diffused. That’s leadership (getting others on board by giving them ownership in the decision), and Hancock’s approach is all the more impressive considering that Parker later noted that Hancock’s use of profanity was masterful: “He could curse like Van Gogh could paint.”
But Hancock held back here, when the situation called for it. That summed up another theme of the day—how the best leaders have the ability to be flexible. Battle demands it. Then Parker called our attention to the monuments of the two generals, which you can see at the top of this page:
Hancock, seated upon his horse, has his right arm extended, a reassuring and confident gesture, and he’s holding his spirited horse with only his left hand. This guy is in control. (Hancock was known for always, even in battle, wearing a clean white shirt … somehow, I’ve now got him equated with Mad Men’s Don Draper. Draper has a desk drawer full of shirts. Hancock had a “manservant.”)
Howard’s horse has all four feet on the ground. And his monument—also a giant one, befitting a major general (and someone who went on to run the Freedman’s Bureau after the war and found Howard University) is facing away from Hancock. None of this, of course, is a coincidence. “What we tell in words,” Parker said, “they tell in bronze.”
Equally eloquent, as far as I’m concerned.
Lori Shontz, senior editor