Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, U.S. Army (ret.)
President Trump proclaimed the week of October 18–24 as “Character Counts Week.” Character is a critical attribute of leadership, and a week to reflect on how character is reflected through our behavior is needed during a time of divisiveness.
As a student of leadership, I’ve seen and reflected on how character makes a difference…especially when the stakes are high and when people are facing a crisis. As a student of history, there is no better place than the battlefield at Gettysburg to learn about how character made a difference.
The details of the first three days of July 1863 are filled with examples of leadership, both good and bad. Most Americans don’t know about the minutiae of what occurred in the various clashes that contributed to the final outcome, but they have at least heard of two things related to Gettysburg…Pickett’s Charge and the Gettysburg address.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863 — the third and final day of the battle — General Robert E. Lee launched the Pickett-Pettigrew assault on the center of the Union Line. More famously known as “Pickett’s charge,” Lee sent his gray-clad men against the reinforced defenses of Union General George Meade, and where those forces met would be the final fight in that battle. More significantly, the place where they met are what historians describe as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” After that engagement, the Confederacy was never the same.
President Lincoln would travel to that small Western Pennsylvania town in November of that year, even as the citizens of that small town continued to bury the battlefield dead in a newly dedicated cemetery. Lincoln would go there to listen to famous speaker of the day Edwin Everett, the primary guest at this important event. When he was introduced, Everett mounted the podium holding the reams of paper of his 2-hour speech, and then provided a masterful presentation from memory, grand oratory of the day, referring to his notes on only a few occasions. It was the kind of show that the citizens expected, and he was heartily cheered.
President Lincoln would follow Everett, as the memorial committee thought it both polite and appropriate to give Lincoln the opportunity for “a few, brief remarks.” In a hushed and somber tone, Lincoln delivered his 272-word speech that most of the crowd could not hear. There are no pictures of Lincoln speaking, because he was done in less than 2 minutes and the photographer did not even have the time to position his camera before the speech was over. The crowd clapped politely, but most had not heard, nor gained insight, into the significance of the words until they were published later.
What was unique in Lincoln’s speech in 1863 was his continuous reliance on and repetition of specific words: “we,” “us,” “dedication,” “devotion,” “noble,” “cause.” His use of specific phrases was also powerful: “conceived in liberty,” “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Of importance was his use of “four score and seven years ago” to start his remarks, unique in that he was referring to our original founding document — the Declaration of Independence — rather than the Constitution. In doing so, the President was reminding his citizens who they were, how they were the benefactors of a statement of shared human rights, and how he would continue the fight for a functioning and viable government that derives its power from the consent of the governed.
Interestingly, former Vice-President Joe Biden traveled to Adams County Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, also to give a speech. Biden’s remarks followed the previous weekend’s media reporting of President Trump’s COVID19 treatment and the President’s attempt during his treatment — and the overall handling of the pandemic crisis — to further divide the country.
The sign on the VP Biden’s podium reflected his theme: “A battle for the soul of the nation.” The tone of Biden’s speech at Gettysburg was significant for its simplicity, its message, its link to our history and values, and his vision for our nation’s future. It was also very different from what we have come to see during the “battles” of our last four years, which Biden described as “neither good nor normal.”
While VP Biden’s key words were different from those of Lincoln, they echoed the sentiment of what was said 157 years ago. “We must seek not to have our fist clenched, but our arms open,” the former Vice President said, “we have to seek not to tear each other apart, we have to seek to come together.” We can be so much better, Biden said…words similar to Lincoln’s request that his nation find a “new birth of freedom” after the devastation of the civil war.
Being very familiar with the terrain of Gettysburg, it appeared to me that Biden gave his speech from the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, on the northeastern part of the battlefield. It’s significant that this ground saw fighting on the first day of the battle — July 1, 1863 — but more importantly, the memorial there was dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 3, 1938, on the battle’s seventy-fifth anniversary. On that day, old veterans of the fight from both north and south came together for the first time since the end of the war, certainly telling stories like old soldiers do, but also rededicating themselves to a unified nation that had been through the economic disaster of the depression and many years of hardship.
Yes, character counts. What also counts is rededicating ourselves to a united and strong nation, remembering the implications of “we the people,” battling for the soul of our nation. We have just a few days to choose the right path that will return us to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Let’s choose wisely.
Lieutenant General Mark Hertling served in Armor and Cavalry units throughout a 38 year Army career, and he commanded every organization from Platoon to Field Army. He commanded the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division and Task Force Iron/Multinational Division-North in Iraq during the surge of 2007 to 2008 and he commanded US Army, Europe from 2011 to 2013.