“The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.” Joshua Chamberlain
Today I was at the Gettysburg battlefield leading a Staff Ride for students from our Staff College. Today’s portion of the Staff Ride encompassed the first two days of the battle. We will continue it tomorrow with the actions of the night of July second 1863 at Culp’s Hill and the climatic event we know as Pickett’s Charge.
The Staff Ride is a optional trip for our students and the get no academic credit for it. However since I have taken it over I have been working to connect it to aspects of what they are learning in our courses, issues of campaigning, mission command and the diplomatic, information, military and economic aspects of war. I am working with our academic course developers and directors to turn this into an actual elective that students can receive academic credit for in addition to the chance to go the the battlefield.
I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on this “hallowed ground” matters for more than the fact that it is interesting history and a fascinating battle.
As someone who has served in the military for most of my life, coming up on 33 years I feel like Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top that “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.” I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.
We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, very few are perfect people.
Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were quite fallible. They made many mistakes and even had great flaws in their character, some even did things in their lives that were not good and in some cases scandalous. Such deeds may tarnish them or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that from a historical as well as pastoral point of view that these flaws are often as important as their successes. They demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect humanity to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. Thus the personal failures of those men and women should not detract from their great accomplishments.
When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. The fact is that neither man who were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. Sherman said: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”
That s one of the enduring facts of being human and being in relationship with others. Neither Grant or Sherman were at Gettysburg, they were at Vicksburg preparing to receive the surrender of that city as the Battle of Gettysburg ended. However, what Sherman said is true and needs to be more a part of our lives today.
That being said, even less tan perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations. That is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle.
Have a great night.