Leadership: Why you should be General George Meade
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by Rich Williams
Director of Training & Development at Charles Aris Inc.
President Abraham Lincoln, the most troubled man in the Western Hemisphere, has just received a telegram from General “Fighting Joe” Hooker, the commander of Lincoln’s Army of the Potomac, tendering his resignation amid the American Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. General Hooker had done this before; in fact, feigning his resignation had become Hooker’s preferred way of getting attention from his superiors. And it had always worked.
The problem this time was that Lincoln was out of patience. Hooker had just commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac in one of its worst losses of the war, getting routed by a much smaller force led by General Robert E. Lee in a little Virginia town called Chancellorsville. And, worse yet, Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was at this very moment undertaking an audacious invasion of Federal soil, rapidly approaching the farmlands of Pennsylvania. It was crunch time for Lincoln, the Union and the Army of the Potomac, and Hooker was attempting to quibble with Lincoln over a minor dispute he had had with Army headquarters.
The issue? Lincoln struggled to recognize the traits of an effective leader. He wasn’t as upset by Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville as he was with how it happened. Hooker was an able enough general, but he was often reluctant to delegate leadership in his command. Early in the battle at Chancellorsville – when a stray Confederate cannonball exploded nearby, temporarily knocking Hooker out of the fight for a day – he flatly refused to let his second-in-command take control of the battle. The resulting confusion and lack of leadership allowed Lee to send General “Stonewall” Jackson’s cavalry corps on a brilliant flanking movement that won the day for the Army of Northern Virginia.
This wasn’t the first time Lincoln had been let down by the person he had chosen as commander of his most important and most powerful army. It was actually the fifth. In addition to Hooker, with his refusal or inability to delegate, Lincoln had previously appointed each of these commanders to lead the Army of the Potomac:
- General Irvin McDowell, who disastrously lost the First Battle of Bull Run because he was overconfident and failed to plan;
- General George B. McLellan, an outstanding tactician and soldier who just couldn’t seem to get his troops into action, famously employing just two-thirds of his troops at the bloody Battle of Antietam, which ended in a stalemate that resulted in 12,500 casualties for the Union;
- John Pope, a lighthouse-keeper-turned-general whose “insolence, superciliousness, ignorance, and pretentiousness” reportedly earned him the hatred of those he commanded, and helped him lose the Second Battle of Bull Run; and
- General Ambrose Burnside, whose failure to react quickly and decisively to changing events led to a humiliating loss at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Over the past two and a half years, Lincoln had been learning a valuable and costly lesson: Be careful whom you select as your leader. Each of his commanders had previously exhibited traits which, in retrospect, could have helped Lincoln determine the unsuitability of each to be the head of the Army of the Potomac had he looked carefully enough:
- Inability to delegate
- Overconfidence and bravado
- Lack of commitment
- Poor adaptability
Enter Major General George Gordon Meade. Luckily, in Meade, Lincoln had at his disposal a general who, as a division commander, had been one of the few Union generals to achieve success at both Antietam and Fredericksburg. Meade had also never displayed any of those negative traits during his entire career with the United States Army.
So Lincoln immediately accepted Hooker’s resignation, and on June 28, 1863, appointed Meade as his new commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Exactly three days later, Meade’s troops soundly defeated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee never threatened Federal soil again, the Union won the war, and George Meade remained the commander of the Army of the Potomac until long after the Civil War was over.
Everyone knows that the traits exhibited by Meade’s predecessors were indicative of poor leadership. My point is that even Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest leaders in world history, failed to catch these flaws until many lives had been lost – perhaps unnecessarily. He missed them because he wasn’t looking carefully.
So if you are choosing a leader, be sure to look carefully. And if you want to be a leader, be George Meade.