July 3: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, Ethics And Leadership


[I started to write a new post and while doing my research discovered that I would basically be repeating what I posted last year. Thus I am re-posting that July 3 Gettysburg essay as well as the one I attached to it, but with several substantive additions.]

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 fences. 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. He was astounded that Lee would order such a reckless assault.

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 the essence of 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 been discussed on Ethics Alarms 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. We see the trap in many professions and contexts, and its victims have been among some of America’s greatest. Those who succeed by being bold and seeing possibilities lesser peers cannot perceive often lose respect and regard for anyone’s authority or opinion but their own.

Pickett’s Charge also stands for 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.” Historian Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, says that it was easier for Lee’s men to walk across that field and risk a futile death than to defy the man they respected so much. Yet General Longstreet whose men undertook the charge, claimed he knew that it would fail and that he couldn’t even give the order, eventually just nodding his head. Well, if he knew Lee’s strategy would fail, he had an obligation to do everything he could to stop it. He was in the position of the engineers who knew the Space Shuttle Challenger was going to blow up if launched in freezing weather.

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” is another ethics milestone. In my view, this incident alone justifies the statues and memorials to Lee, a flawed general and human being, but a leader worth studying and remembering. When General Dwight D. Eisenhower, having given the order to proceed with the Normandy invasion despite bad weather conditions, penned a note to be published should the assault fail in which he took full responsibility for decision, he was deliberately emulating Lee. At the same time, Pickett’s Charge 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.”

Pickett’s Charge also shows how, as Bill James explained, nature conspires to make us unethical.

More or less simultaneously with Picket’s Charge, my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War took place, 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 because of the its multiple ironies. Custer succeeded when his nation needed him most because of the 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 for their role in 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. Custer’s life 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, that as many people as possible know about this forgotten event, I’m going to post, once 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 component 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.

10 thoughts on “July 3: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, Ethics And Leadership

  1. Jack, check to see whether your better half’s email has been hacked. I just received a nefarious email purporting to be from you know who.

  2. Jack, thank you for bringing ethics & history to life. What could be a boring narrative of facts becomes a fascinating re-enactment of some of the most important events of our great nation. You really should be writing novels…and biographies of oft forgotten historical figures.
    I read lots of blogs, mostly for politics these days as they are more factual & unbiased than most “news” sites. I believe you have the best blog out there. It’s honest, informative, helpful & extremely interesting. And very, very well written. Thank you for putting it out there, even when it feels like only a handful of people are reading it. I think, very soon, things are going to change dramatically in our country (praying that it changes for the better!), and there will not just be a place for your blog, but a showcase. Have a wonderful Independence Day!

    • Oh, pshaw. I’m blushing red, white and blue. Thanks so much.

      Right around the time I decided to let the blog be more “me” is when it started losing clicks, so obviously EA is an acquired taste that some never acquire. I love writing, always have, and my biggest regret with the blog is that I have to write it so quickly, resulting in less than optimal prose and too many typos.

  3. As I mentioned in comments to earlier posts on this topic at this site, it is entirely possible that Lee planned Pickett’s Charge to work in conjunction with the attack on the rear. This follows from precedents in military history, of which Lee would have been well aware from his experience as an instructor. In particular, Gettysburg was an “encounter battle”, brought about by a less than planned encounter; when that happens, the major risk is that whoever withdraws first suffers a terrible pursuit of the sort Napoleon showed the world – so both try to fight it out, following the logic of game theory’s “prisoner’s dilemma”, “tragedy of the commons”, or “money auction”. (At least Lee was able to fight long and hard enough to thwart that worst possible outcome, and he may well have known that and been trying for that at the time, at least once victory was unlikely.)

    Back to the precedents: Lee may well have modelled his tactics (not strategy) on Oudenarde, which was also an encounter battle; when that started, Marlborough realised his predicament early on and detached a Dutch flying column to march around the fighting to attack the French reinforcements in flank hours later, before those could reach and feed the fight that Marlborough was also feeding all along (in Grant’s phrase), a feeding which Marlborough had to do to keep everything in play until the Dutch blow fell.

    However, to the best of my knowledge Lee never claimed later that he had been trying to do this, even though the similarities to precedents are striking.

    By the way, U.S. culture has so changed its concepts and terminology that “honor” does not mean what honour now means in British English or other European languages, or what it meant in the U.S.A. of that era. I would venture to suggest that U.S.A.ians do not now have access to this concept at all, what with language now steering them to a different concept entirely. Think how you could now access the old meaning of “gay”, if you even wished to. It’s the sort of thing Orwell brought out in “1984”. (Hint: police lying to suspects is not honourable – and anyone who argues otherwise is invoking different concepts, which is the point I am trying to highlight.)

    Also by the way, it is an old precept that “the secret of military discipline is that the soldiers should be more scared of the sergeants than of the enemy”, which may have been at work here. It may be found in the writings of Montaigne and of Frederick the Great, with “officers” substituting for “sergeants” (the term “officers” also covers N.C.O.s in many continental European languages).

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