Custer, Gettysburg, and the Seven Enabling Virtues

Sometimes the Enabling Virtues will save an army, and sometimes they’ll get you killed.

July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Custer’s heroics on the decisive final day of the Battle of Gettysburg teach their own lessons, historical and ethical. Since the East Calvary Field battle has been thoroughly overshadowed by the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge, it is little known and seldom mentioned. Yet the truth is that the battle, the war, and the United States as we know it may well have been saved that day by none other than undisciplined, reckless George Armstrong Custer.

Lee’s plan, along with Pickett’s Charge, was to have J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry attack the Union line from the rear as the Blues were facing the advance by Pickett’s division. Had the Union forces believed themselves surrounded, Lee’s tactic of attacking with a massed, relentless, attacking line might have had its desired psychological effect and broken the North’s resolve.

Stuart’s mounted force met Union artillery as he approached, so the Confederate general ordered a cavalry charge. Custer’s cavalry, the 7th Michigan, by utter luck was on the scene to try to foil the advance. The  smaller Union force met Stuart’s mounted warriors head-on. Shouting “Come on, you Wolverines!” Custer personally led the horsemen in furious close range fighting. Custer’s own horse was shot out from under him, so he commandeered a bugler’s horse and continued the assault.

General Stuart’s Virginians retreated, but not for long. Stuart called up reinforcements, and pushed the Michigan cavalry back. When it appeared that the Confederate cavalry would break through, Custer, whose forces were badly outnumbered, called for a second cavalry attack, this one at a full charge to meet the charging enemy…a tactic that was as rare as it was considered foolhardy. One stunned witness recalled,

“As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.”

 Custer had a second horse shot out from under him, but his courageous and reckless exploits broke Stuart’s advance, and ruined that part of Lee’s strategy.

Would Lee’s grand gamble have paid off with victory if Stuart had reached the rear of the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge? No one will ever know. We do know that Custer’s trademark flamboyance and impetuousness, the same qualities that later would doom him and his men at the Little Big Horn, helped ensure the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.

In many ways, George Armstrong Custer was neither a trustworthy commander nor a good man. After the war, he led soldiers who committed numerous atrocities against Native Americans, and was willing to risk the lives of others to serve his own military reputation and ambition. Custer, however, possessed many of the most useful tools of ethical conduct, which I call “The Seven Enabling Virtues.” While not ethical in themselves, these character traits—courage, valor, fortitude, sacrifice, honor, forgiveness and humility—greatly assist us in behaving ethically, especially under challenging circumstances.

The lingering trap is that these tools can be used in the service of right or wrong, and can lead an individual to do as much harm as good. They are also prone to leading us to behave irresponsibly or unfairly. Courage can become recklessness; valor can curdle into showboating; fortitude can turn to stubbornness; sacrifice may become callousness; honor may beget vanityforgiveness to excess encourages apathy and  passivity, and humility plants the seeds of submissiveness. Custer’s courage, valor, fortitude and sacrifice served his nation and humanity well on July 3, 1863. On June 25, 1876, they helped get him and the 210 soldiers under his command slaughtered.

Without constant vigilance and a strong and evolving sense of ethics, even the enabling virtues can trigger misconduct and disaster. On July 3, I always reflect on Custer’s grand heroism when his country needed it most, and how strange it is that he is best remembered for his worst blunder, when his greatest achievement was so much more important. I also think about how his life is a cautionary tale, reminding us of how easily our strengths can become our weaknesses, if we fail to understand how best to use them, or recognize when they are leading us astray.

6 thoughts on “Custer, Gettysburg, and the Seven Enabling Virtues

  1. This is one of those brilliant commentaries you make that leave the reader unable or unwilling to add a word, a phrase, a criticism, or praise.

    Turning Custer into an ethics lesson is more than erudite. it is something all leaders (and citizens) should consider for a long while.

  2. One of the best ways to understand an historical figure is to read about him from his own words. I’d suggest “My Life On The Plains”; reprinted in paperback form by Leisure Books. In it, Custer gives some truly fascinating insight into the state of affairs on the frontier in the 1870’s, to include the Battle of the Washita and his impressions of Indian leaders with whom he dealt.

  3. it’s unethical to judge people with todays understanding of ethics becuase we are in fact changing them so fast and yet not esscaped the catch 22 of them. people that is a few single one own all the money and the many follow so eeagerlly after power and money. and i say shame one this web site for it’s harsh out look on Custer he knew what war was and what his men were about get into so he thought untill he got up on top of the hill looking down on the large numbers of Brave men he was facing nether side could be fully charged with wrong on what happened at the little big horn and yet nether side could fully claim victory. this web site needs to shut the F*ck up about many of the other issues it talking about as well.

    • Since the post is almost wholly complimentary of Custer and calls attention to the highlight of his life and career, I can’t begin to fathom what you’re talking about, or are trying to say. The fact that you have the writing and communication skills of a brain damaged Springer Spaniel doesn’t help either. “Nether side could be fully charged with wrong on what happened at the little big horn and yet nether side could fully claim victory.” Gibberish. Custer was killing Native Americans in their own territory. I think its fair to say he was wrong. He incompetently led his men into a trap. THAT was rather clearly wrong. The Native Americans were defending themselves. Nothing wrong in that. One side was massacred, and the other wasn’t—-I think its pretty clear which side was the victor.

      There’s got to be an idiot site for people like you. Please find it. Now go away.

      • Jack Marshall, what is your problem. I can’t for the life of me wonder what causes such anger from an opinion commented. You sir are suppose to be highly intelligent enough regarding patients through a thought process from someone else. We do have American citizens that want to believe the best in our country, no matter past or present. Yes, America has made mistakes from time in achieving greatness, but we are a noble nation overall. America has given the world great peace as well. There are many other horrific problems you can focus on regarding countries out side of our exceptional land we call USA. Please try and use your discourse to focus on those realities before bashing the America that has afforded you great wealth and a voice to talk against its very meaning.

        • What the hell are you talking about? Did you read the post, the insane comment, and my response in context? I’m not angry. I just object to people making this site’s readers the victim of their psychological problems. Neither your comment, or the one I was responding to before, bears any relationship to what the post was about. No, sir…I will not cater to intellectually sloppy dim wits who just write gibberish because there’s a forum. Opinion is one thing; idiocy is something else. Go hook up with Brother Jamie; you are made for each other.

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