Leadership Lessons from Civil War Blunders©

I love history and I love traditions. Labor Day Weekend is a perfect blend of both for me. For the past several years, my Dad and I have taken road trips over Labor Day Weekend to Civil War battlefields in various parts of the country. We’re both avid Civil War buffs, and these trips are great for quality time, story sharing and experiencing history together. Our past trips have included Gettysburg (PA), Shiloh and Chickamauga (TN), Antietam (MD) and Chancellorsville (VA). This most recent Labor Day Weekend, we ventured into southern Virginia, which was the focal point of the final nine months of the Civil War in the East. We visited Richmond (the Confederate Capital) and Petersburg, the scene of several battles and the nine-month siege that led to Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April of 1865. If you’re interested in history, I highly encourage you to experience all of these areas. However, I realized on this last trip that there are several great leadership lessons to be learned from the Civil War—in fact, from several blunders that occurred in southern Virginia in the last months of the war.

Lesson One – Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow

In June of 1864, the Confederate Army (specifically, the Army of Northern Virginia) under Lee was struggling to survive and was facing a much larger Union army led by Ulysses S. Grant. On June 15, 1864, Union Brigadier General Baldy Smith was commanding 16,000 men who attacked the Confederate line, which consisted of less than 2,500 men. However, General Smith delayed his attack until 7:00 p.m. After early success that evening and the prospect of a virtually undefended city in front of him, Smith decided to wait until dawn to resume his attack. P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate Commander, said Petersburg “at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.” General Smith was on the verge of complete victory, but he chose to wait until the next morning to resume the attack.

The Union troops repeatedly attacked on June 16, 17 and 18, but were unable to overcome the entrenched Confederate troops. As a result, the Union army began to dig in for what became a nine-month siege of Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia. What was the cost of those four days of fighting? Union casualties of 11,386 men (1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, 1,185 missing or captured) and Confederate casualties of 4,000 (200 killed, 2,900 wounded, 900 missing or captured) for these four days—mostly due to General Smith’s decision to delay when he had the clear advantage and opportunity.

Perhaps General Smith was waiting for better (or even the perfect) conditions. Perhaps he was waiting for more support in order to reduce his risk. Perhaps he was uncertain of what was ahead of him due to lack of scouting and communication. Whatever the case, General Smith’s delay in June of 1864 highlights a great leadership lesson for each of us. While some opportunities have staying power, opportunities are often lost when we delay in taking action to take advantage of the opportunity. In addition, the nature of opportunities is that they shift and change so that the opportunity before you today may not be the same opportunity tomorrow. The upside may have changed, the risks may have changed and the obstacles may have changed.  Yes, there are many times when the opportunity will be just as good tomorrow or when delaying to better prepare has merit, but remember the old saying that it is best to strike while the iron is hot. This “iron” may be your own or it may be the opportunity in front of you. In general, the best advice is to act swiftly to take advantage of opportunities before you, knowing that delay (especially unsupported delay) will often cost you more money, more time, more resources or even the loss of the opportunities.

Lesson Two – When in Doubt, Adjust and Keep Going

In April of 1865, the siege of Petersburg was coming to a close, but the Confederate forces were not giving up easily.  On April 1st, the Union forces launched an attack in an area outside of Petersburg known as Five Forks. This was a turning point in the war, and Confederate General Lee ordered General George Pickett (commanding the Confederate troops at Five Forks) to “hold Five Forks at all hazards.” As usual, the Confederate forces (10,600) were vastly outnumbered by the Union troops (22,000), but that was often not the determining factor in the Civil War.

The Union’s far right division in the attack was led by Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, who was not highly regarded as a leader. Due to poor intelligence, General Crawford’s men completely missed the left end of the Confederate line. Basically, the Union forces attacked and no one was in front of them. This blunder initially resulted in confusion for the Union forces; however, the result was that Crawford’s division ended up behind the Confederate lines. At this point, General Crawford had three choices: 1. Go back; 2. Turn left and attack the end of the Confederate line; and 3. Keep going. Whether by design or mistake (it is not clear), Crawford’s division kept going. As a result, Crawford’s division ended up behind the middle of the Confederate line, where it cut off the Confederate retreat and attacked from the rear. This all contributed to a devastating Confederate loss, the loss of Petersburg and the abandonment of Richmond, all leading to Lee’s surrender a week later in Appomattox Court House.

While General Crawford was usually no great leader, he made a great decision that day. For whatever reason, things had not worked out for his division as planned. Unlike many Union commanders during the Civil War (who liked to stop, think and delay), Crawford kept going and as a result turned a blunder into a triumph. Yes, it could have turned out badly for Crawford’s division, but he had no evidence to support stopping or delaying. Similarly, in business we often find ourselves in uncharted territory—either by design or by accident—and our natural reaction is to stop, delay, consider and assess. Like General Crawford, however, our best course of action is often to keep going. Yes, we must keep our eyes and ears open as we move forward, but leaders must also be ready and able to adjust to new and unexpected circumstances. The lesson: sometimes we don’t end up where we aimed, but we can still end up where we were meant to be.

Lesson Three – Communication and Delegation are Always Good Strategies

Confederate General George Pickett was heralded as a hero after his courageous charge on day 3 at Gettysburg (now famous as Pickett’s Charge), but it was a complete and total loss that day. General Pickett suffered yet another humiliating loss at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. At the time of the Union attack, Pickett was two miles away enjoying a fish bake down by the river. General Pickett had failed to inform his men of his absence and had also failed to leave someone else in charge. As a result, while the individual units had leaders, there was no overall leader of the Confederate forces that day. In addition, atmospheric conditions muffled the sounds of battle sufficiently that Pickett was unaware of the fighting. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late. As noted above, the loss of Five Forks led to the fall of Petersburg, the abandonment of Richmond and Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.

We don’t have to look hard to see where General Pickett failed as a leader that day. First, he decided to take a break for a fish fry in the midst of leading men who were defending an important position. There are also rumors (likely accurate) that Pickett was also drinking whiskey that day with his fish. Second, he failed to delegate command (leadership) so that there would at least be someone in charge when or if an attack came that day. Third, Pickett failed to provide for a predictable source of information and communication that day, resulting in him not having the information he needed when he needed it. This resulted in not only the loss of an opportunity, but the loss of the battle, of many lives and effectively the final loss of the war.

While some leadership concepts are more complex, General Pickett’s failures on April 1, 1865, highlight three leadership basics. First, be there. As long as you are the leader, it’s your responsibility to be present when your team needs you. Second, if you are not there for any reason, then it’s critical that you build up others to lead and empower them with the skills and authority to take swift and effective action in your absence. Third, establishing predictable and effective communication channels is critical, and assuming that you’ll know (General Pickett may have assumed that he would hear a battle if it started) is never a substitute for effective communication.

Admittedly, there was much more at stake in 1864 and 1865 during the Civil War. There were lives and whole ways of life at stake—in fact, the very United States of America was at stake! However, the leadership lessons are the same and equally as valuable and viable today as they were 150 years ago. 1. Don’t delay—take action; 2. When in doubt, keep going; and 3. Leaders must be present, empowering and effective at communication. While the risks for you in your business are much less than those involved during the Civil War, your leadership will still have a significant impact on whether your opportunities turn into positive outcomes or instead become memorable blunders.

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