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

Picketts-Charge--330-to-345-pm-landscape

[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.

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

Charge!

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. Continue reading

July 3: A Day To Honor Custer’s FIRST Stand, At Gettysburg… And Reflect On How Our Greatest Strengths Can Be Our Fatal Flaws

custercharge

I wrote this post two years ago, concerning my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War, when young George Armstrong Custer shocked Confederate 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 Pickett’s Charge. As with the First Minnesota’s suicidal stand on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer’s crucial moment of truth has been largely neglected in the assembly of the battle’s heroes; I don’t think it has ever been depicted in a Civil War film, for example, though there is at least one book about it.

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 Gettysburg history. 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.

Here is the post, slightly lengthened:

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Ethics of Helen Thomas Awards

When does an honor start honoring the wrong values? This tricky ethical problem is now in the spotlight thanks to the sudden self-destruction of Helen Thomas, who blurted anti-Semitic sentiments to a Rabbi, on camera, in an impromptu interview.

There are journalism awards named after Thomas, including The Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement given by the Society for Professional Journalism. Now that Thomas has included among her life time achievements a demand that the Jews “get the hell out of Israel” and go back to Germany and Poland—you know: “where they belong,” what does her name on the award mean to future recipients? Is accepting it a tacit endorsement of her views? Or should individuals be assessed on the totality of their careers, and not solely identified with their inevitable missteps. no matter how reprehensible? The latter was a common theme of eulogizers at President Richard Nixon’s funeral. Continue reading