SWINDLE COLUMN: Owning our mistakes

Published 9:30 am Saturday, December 31, 2022

July 1, 1863, – Southern Pennsylvania – The greatest general in history awakes well before dawn, reads his Bible, and prays for his family, the soldiers who serve under his command, and their families.

The national level of respect for him is hard to believe. Most of the enemy’s soldiers would prefer to serve under this man rather than their own commanders.

But, the next three days will challenge him to the core. Although his army has marched 10 miles into enemy territory, possible defeat is on the horizon. General Robert E. Lee ponders this as the hot summer sun begins to rise to the east of a small village known as Gettysburg. For two days, both armies suffer heavy casualties. But, this will pale in comparison to the third day.

July 2, 1863 – Late Evening – Union Council of War – General George Meade, who studied the history of General Robert. E. Lee predicts that Lee will take a risk by attacking the center of his lines the following morning. He reinforces that area with additional soldiers and artillery.

July 3, 1863, – Gettysburg – Lee Headquarters – Lee wakes as he normally does and follows his routine of prayer. Much is weighing on the aging general. He knows that today, a risky move, will likely decide the outcome of the American Civil War. It will be known as Pickett’s Charge after Major General George Pickett who led the charge.

Lee believes that, after Confederate attacks on both the left and right flanks of the Union lines on July 2, Meade will concentrate his defenses there to the detriment of his center. The infantry assault would be preceded by a massive artillery bombardment in order to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery. A risky, but clever plan.

But, Lee is unaware of critical information from the cavalry, problems with logistics on the supply line, and the number of Union troop amassed at the center and behind the high ground.

It is a mystery how Meade knows Lee will launch a massive assault at the center from the lower ground; basically running uphill toward the Union infantry, artillery barrages, and bayonets. Lee’s primary strength is defeating larger armies by employing tactics that take advantage of the terrain. No one, except Meade, believes that this massive assault from below will take place.

It does.

Despite Lee’s hope for an early start, it takes all morning to arrange the infantry assault force that Lee hopes will be a powerful and effective force. But, a combination of inept artillery leadership and defective equipment dooms the barrage from the start.

Mid-day – Confederate troops make their frontal assault towards the center of Union lines. The entire force that steps off toward the Union positions at about 2 p.m. comprises of about 12,500 men. The nine brigades of men stretch over a mile-long front. They advance over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. They are overwhelmed and repelled with over 50 percent casualties.

 Thankfully, my great great grandfather, Nathan Fowler, survives the charge. He knows the end is near.

The three day battle is the most costly in US history. Because of the surrender of Vicksburg, the Confederacy is cut in half facing a war on two fronts. This means certain defeat.

The humble Lee takes the failure at Gettysburg very personally. He does not blame his generals, soldiers, supply lines, heat, humidity, or anything else. 

He is far too noble for that. Instead, he rides toward his bloody and wounded troops and “owns it” by taking personal responsibility for the military disaster.

Soon after the battle, Lee writes to President Jefferson Davis, “I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose the propriety of selecting another commander for this army… No one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position…”

Davis refuses by telling Lee that, “To ask me to substitute you by someone… more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army… is to demand an impossibility.” Davis knows that no one can take Lee’s place.

Lee could have found many excuses for the defeat at Gettysburg. But, he did not do so. Few people, particularly wartime generals, take responsibility when something goes wrong. It is human nature for us to look around and place the blame as far away as possible.

But, if we humbly own our mistakes, people are usually pleasantly surprised.

Dale Carnegie simplified what we should do when we make a mistake. “Let’s focus on admitting our mistakes without the excuses when we are wrong. It is the most honorable and respectable thing to do.”