Third Of July Ethics Concert, 2020, Part 1: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, And More


The anthemic music is the finale to the 1993 film Gettysburg, which has one of my all-time favorite scores, by Randy Edelman. I have worn out three CDs, and this particular selection, “Reunion and Finale,” almost lost me my drivers license once when I was playing it loudly in my car and blew past the speed limit by 25 mph or so.

I will be interested to see if any channel shows Ted Turner’s epic this weekend. I’m sure it is now regarded as politically incorrect because the film does not portray the Southern generals and soldiers as vicious racists, and the balance that the film was praised for when it was released is now regarded as “pro-Confederacy propaganda.” That is a fatuous take on the film, which is about human beings, not politics, and arguably the most historically accurate historical drama ever made, based on what may be the best historical novel ever written, “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, just a wonderful book. Read it. You can thank me later.

Unlike July 2, one of the most significant dates in U.S. history with multiple major events, July 3 stands out for one momentous event. Even in the sequence of events leading to American independence, July 3 was relatively boring:  it was devoted to the debate over Jefferson’s Declaration, resulting in more than eighty additions and redactions.

July 3  was the final day of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, reaching its bloody climax in General Robert E. Lee’s desperate  gamble on a massed assault on the Union center. In history it has come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, after the leader of the Division that was slaughtered during it.

At about 2:00 pm this day in 1863, near the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg,  Lee launched his audacious stratagem to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the pivotal battle of the American Civil War.  The Napoleonic assault on the entrenched Union position on Cemetery Ridge, with a “copse of trees” at its center, was the only such attack in the entire war, a march into artillery and rifle fire across an open field and over fence. When my father, the old soldier, saw the battlefield  for the first time in his eighties, he became visibly upset because, he said, he could visualize the killing field.

The battle lasted less than an hour. Union forces suffered 1,500 casualties,, while at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and nearly 4000 Rebel soldiers were captured. Pickett’s Charge would go down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time.

At Ethics Alarms, it stands for several ethics-related  concepts. One is moral luck: although Pickett’s Charge has long been regarded by historians and scholars as a disastrous mistake by Lee, and in retrospect seems like a rash decision, it could have succeeded if the vicissitudes of chance had broken the Confederacy’s way.  Then the maneuver would be cited today as another example of Lee’s brilliance, in whatever remained of the United States of America, if indeed it did remain. This is moral luck; unpredictable factors completely beyond the control of an individual or other agency determine whether a decision or action are wise or foolish, ethical or unethical.

Pickett’s Charge has also been discussed here as a vivid example, perhaps the best, of how successful leaders and others become so used to discounting the opinions and criticism of others that they lose the ability to accept the possibility that they can be wrong. This delusion is related to #14 on the Rationalizations list,  Self-validating Virtue.

As I wrote on Ethics Alarms on this date two years ago, there is much more. “There is the matter of the duty to prevent a disaster that you know is going to occur, the whistleblower’s duty, and the theme of Barbara Tuchman’s work, “The March of Folly.” There was Robert E. Lee’s noble and unequivocal acceptance of accountability for the disaster, telling the returning and defeated warriors that “It is all my fault.”   …Pickett’s Charge shows how, as Bill James explained, nature conspires to make us unethical. Pickett’s Charge also teaches that leadership requires pro-active decision-making, and the willingness to fail, to be excoriated, to be blamed, is an essential element of succeeding.”

July 3, also at Gettysburg and more or less simultaneously with Picket’s Charge,  featured my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War, when young George Armstrong Custer shocked Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart with his unexpected and furious resistance to Stuart’s attempt at disrupting the Union flank while Gen. Meade’s army defended itself against Lee’s bold attack.  The incident is especially fascinating to me because of the its multiple ironies. Custer succeeded when his nation needed him most because of the exact same qualities that led him to doom at the Little Big Horn years later. Moreover, this man who for decades was wrongly celebrated in popular culture as an American hero for a shameful botched command that was the culmination of a series of genocidal atrocities actually was an American hero in an earlier, pivotal moment in our history, and almost nobody knows about it.

Thus it is that among the brave soldiers of the Blue and Gray who should be remembered on this 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on this continent is a figure whose reputation has sunk to the depths, a figure of derision and ridicule, a symbol of America’s mistreatment of its native population. Had George Armstrong Custer perished on July 3, 1863, he might well have become an iconic figure in Civil War lore. The ethics verdict on a lifetime, however, is never settled until the final heartbeat. His story also commands us to realize this disturbing truth: whether we engage in admirable conduct or wrongful deeds is often less a consequence of our character than of the context in which that character is tested.

Because I have vowed to make sure, in my own modest and limited way, to inform as many people as possible about this forgotten event, I’m going to post, again, the essay from 2011 titled “Custer, Gettysburg, and the Seven Enabling Virtues,” lightly revised.

July 3, 1863 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, by some luck and the alertness of cavalry commander Gen.David M. Gregg,  was on the scene to try to foil the advance. The  smaller Union force met Stuart’s mounted warriors head-on in furious hand-to-hand combat, with Custer personally leading the 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 Union cavalry back. When it appeared that the Confederate cavalry would break through, Custer, whose forces were badly outnumbered, called for a second  attack by his Michigan Calvary Brigade. Shouting “Come on, you Wolverines!”, Custer commanded another 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 componant 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, but here is the opinion of one participant, Lt. Brooke-Rawle, who later became the principal historian of the East Cavalry Field fight. He wrote:

“We cavalrymen have always that we saved the day at the most critical moment of the battle of Gettysburg-the greatest battle and the turning point of the War of the Rebellion. Had Stuart succeeded in his well-laid plan, and, with his large force of cavalry, struck the Army of the Potomac in the rear of its line of battle, simultaneously with Pickett’s magnificent and furious assault on its front, when our infantry had all if could do to hold on to the line of Cemetery Ridge, and but little more was needed to make the assault a success, the merest tyro in the art of war can readily tell us; fortunately for the Army of the Potomac, fortunately for our country, and the cause of human liberty, he failed. Thank God that he did fail, and that, with His divine assistance, the good fight fought here brought victory to our arms!”

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.


13 thoughts on “Third Of July Ethics Concert, 2020, Part 1: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, And More

  1. Interesting, and here I thought all the important cavalry business at Gettysburg was done by Brigadier General John Buford on the first day. BTW, Custer did NOT cut a dashing figure on his final day – he was wearing buckskins instead of his self-designed Civil War uniform of black velvet, and his famous hair was both prematurely balding and cut short. I think he knew Little Big Horn might not go well, and didn’t want to make himself a target for scalping.

  2. As one who basically thinks the paranormal is so much hokum, I still find Gettysburg to be eerie – as if one can almost hear the last whispers of those who died there. It’s a solemn place.

    Standing on Little Round Top is staggering; that small prominence, facing that massive field, could only have made the Union and Confederate soldiers alike feel extremely vulnerable – the Union due to small numbers, the Confederates due to exposure. There was an awful lot of nothing between that hill and the treeline.

    Every time I think about that place, I am awestruck at the courage from all. Both, I believe, probably thought they were sitting ducks. And yet they all did what they believed they must – for loyalty, for honor, for their brothers in arms, for their homes.

    This is a hugely important thing that we risk losing in our haste to tear down any memory of that terrible war. One can certainly argue that the Confederacy’s cause was unjust. But how can one argue that its soldiers weren’t, despite that, heroic?

    • Most haunted place in America, if you believe in that stuff. My wife and I were going to spend a night in the Gettysburg Hotel, which has several “haunted rooms.” In exactly the opposite of what I expected, the hotel quoted lower prices for those rooms than the non-haunted variety. When I asked why, the desk said, “Well, nobody spend the whole night in those rooms.”

      We stayed at another hotel….

      • But who gets haunted and tormented? Northern zealots? Or Lost Cause Neo-Confederates?

        I’ll have to call up the hotel and find out who runs screaming naked out into the night . . .

    • This is a hugely important thing that we risk losing in our haste to tear down any memory of that terrible war. One can certainly argue that the Confederacy’s cause was unjust. But how can one argue that its soldiers weren’t, despite that, heroic?

      You can also argue that it was just. I think there is an interesting parallel that could be drawn:

      The Northern cause, when you examine it closely, was in fact significantly unjust. The just reaction would have been to let the southern states secede. To work out their own fate. (I do not see what is so vital in ‘holding a union together’ necessarily).

      Now, advanced to our present, one could say that the cause of the Resistance and the maniacs that are loose within the Republic, is similar in kind to the cause of the Union. They say it is an imposition of the good and of justice and they say those who oppose them are ‘evil’.

      And now, oddly enough, you have to face a similar zealousness which you cannot converse with nor argue against. In a sense *they* are invading you . . . and they are going to remake you. You are even in a process of being replaced!

      You are certainly going to be reconstructed!

      Well? What do you think of my didactic historical parallel? 🙂

  3. One of your best essays.
    Side note: I really wanted to write ‘essaies’. English orthography is wild.

  4. More than timely: timeless lessons well beyond the particular subject at hand. Absolutely brilliant.

    Worth reading multiple times.

  5. Well, how about that? THIS article Facebook let me post! I have these theories:
    1. Facebook’s no longer blocking me. Nah.
    2. Facebook’s algorithm is so brilliant that it was programed to let patriotic posts from banned blogs slip through on 4th of July weekend…I don’t think so.
    3. They finally checked, and realized their ban was crap. Possible, but I doubt it.
    4. Facebook is gaslighting me. I wouldn’t put it past them.
    5. It was just a glitch.

  6. I just read this piece this morning…I should have it yesterday. It was fantastic. I knew nothing of Custer’s role at Gettysburg nor his heroics.

    Years ago, I listened to a local public radio show called “The Book Club” and Doug Brown read Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenant”. I’m ashamed to write that it’s been about my only exposure to the Civil War. If anyone has reading recommendations to help get me caught up a bit…

    Thanks again, Jack…and happy Independence Day to you and all who visit.

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