Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The best leader at Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain

In one sense, selecting Joshua Chamberlain as the best leader at Gettysburg is the safe choice. He was awarded the nation’s highest medal, The Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round
Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great
Round Top.”
In another sense, I identify with Joshua Chamberlain because I would aspire to his leadership and heroism but also our backgrounds are similar and have some connections.
In 1848 about 100 years before my parents were married at Bowdoin College, Joshua Chamberlain entered the university after teaching himself Ancient Greek in order to pass the entrance examination. It was about 125 years later that I began my own course in Ancient Greek.
So the interesting thing is that Joshua Chamberlain did not have the military training that those at West Point had or the engineering technical background. But what Joshua Chamberlain and I shared was an understanding of history and the psychology of personnel who must be inspired on the battle field. Chamberlain taught rhetoric so he also understood how important the nuances of words are and how throughout history messages have been communicated effectively.
Chamberlain knew that he must drill his soldiers before battle. He also understood that they would have to know him and he must know them to build trust and confidence.
Before Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain had about 2 minutes to give a speech to about 100 men from Maine who wanted to go home since they felt their agreed enlistment time had expired. He rejected out of hand the option to shoot them, and instead spoke of why soldiers go to war and having sifted the reasons throughout recorded history, came upon these thoughts
“But it's not the land. There's always more land. It's the idea that we all have
value -- you and me. What we're fighting for, in the end, we're fighting for
each other.”
On the fateful day at Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain no longer had ammunition so he could have given up, but maybe he remembered the power of the phalanx formation from the Greeks and he used the power of terrain (he held the high ground) and he traded height for attack. Also, the trust and training allowed his men to make an innovative swinging door movement, something that they had not practiced in particular, but were able to execute.
His study of history also allowed him to understand that some pieces of ground are not only tactically important but they spill over into the operational and strategic realm because of the emotional and psychological impact that can change the center of gravity. He knew about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC (preceeded by the battle of Marathon) which required 300 Spartans and 1100 others as a rearguard against the invading Persians. Leonidas gave his life but the result of Thermopylae was the escape of thousands of Greeks who ultimately won the day at the Battle of Salamis which like Gettysburg was fought on their home turf.
Maybe if Joshua Chamberlain had failed, the War between the States would have been lost.

1 comment:

Richard Allen Hyde said...

Nice comment, Captain Kirk! I write about similar themes on In Search of a Sense of Place, also on blogspot.