In the early hours of June 28th 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade received an order from the General-in-Chief of all Union Armies Major General Henry Halleck elevating Meade to the command of the Army of the Potomac. After relieving his former superior Major General Joseph Hooker, Meade penned and issued General Order No. 67.
By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac. As a soldier, in obeying this order - an order totally unexpected and unsolicited - I have no promises or pledges to make. The country looks to this Army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a hostile invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view, constantly, the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest. It is with just diffidence that I relieve in command of this Army, an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely on the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.
George G. Meade,
Major General Commanding
While this message may appear to be just a formal letter of introduction from a new commander to the troops, a message the troops were sadly getting use to since Meade was the fourth commander of the Army of the Potomac in eight months. It is, however, significant for a number of reasons. First, it was the last such message the troops would receive because Meade would not relinquish the command until the war was over. Second, the message provides us with insights into Meade's leadership qualities just three days before he would face off against Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. And lastly, the message provides us today with lessons on leadership and team building.
When in charge, take charge.
"By direction of the President...I hereby assume command..." With these words Meade not only took command, he illustrated by what authority he had command. Commanders are only in charge because they have some form of authority over others. This authority is granted to them by appointment to a position, by election or through a warrant. New commanders / leaders must immediately inform everyone that they are in charge or run the risk of having orders contradicted or worse yet of being ignored. By stating this up front Meade establishes his credentials so every soldier will know that he is in charge and that his orders are to be followed above all others. The importance of this point became evident over the following days when some soldiers thought their former commander Union Major General George McClellan had returned to take command and others hesitated to obey orders because they couldn't identify who their commander was. There can be no question over who is in charge during critical moments.
Good leaders build a team.
At the time of Meade's appointment he was not the senior officer in the Army and he was junior to two other Corps commanders. Knowing that some would question his appointment as some sort of political chicanery, Meade stated the appointment was "totally unexpected and unsolicited." He humbly asked his peers for support saying, "I rely on the hearty support of my companions." He appealed to his troops by stating he would share the "fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo." By building trust with his peers and subordinates and establishing that he would lead by example with his troops, Meade begins to build the team that will follow him through the hardest fighting of the war.
Good leaders set tough, realistic goals.
While Confederate General Robert E. Lee, bolstered by a string of victories, confidently marched in to Pennsylvania, Meade struggled with the decision to find a defensive position and protect Washington, D.C. or attempt to find the Confederates and give battle. Meade did, however, make one decision immediately. Instead of over-promising to a less than confident force that he would lead them "On to Richmond", Meade established a tough, realistic goal to "relieve it [the country] from the devastation and disgrace of a hostile invasion." If the Army could accomplish this goal then the Union Army's confidence would increase and they would be ready for the next, more difficult goal of defeating the Confederates during a campaign that would lead to victory. To this end, Meade doesn't ask for super human effort. He simply asks "let each man determine to do his duty." Meade calls on their belief in "an all-controlling Providence" to motivate them to achieve the goal.
Good leaders take responsibility.
"I relieve in command of this Army, an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements." Anyone reading these words would assume that George Meade was the biggest supporter of Major General Joseph Hooker. When in fact, in the days leading up to June 28th, Meade was very outspoken against Hooker and his actions following the battle of Chancellorsville. On the morning of the 28th, when Meade received the messenger from the General-in-Chief, Meade thought he was being relieved of command or placed under arrest. Later that morning when Hooker briefed Meade on the disposition of the Army, Meade was shocked at how scattered the army was. So why praise the former commander? Why not use him as an excuse? The answer is in the word leadership. Meade is to lead the Army forward. Meade is now responsible for anything and everything the Army does from that point forward. If the Army is broke, it doesn't matter who broke it. It is Meade's responsibility to fix it. Good leaders take responsibility for failures and determine to do their duty to never let that organization fail again.
There are many lessons to be learned from good leaders who take charge in good times and bad; leaders who build teams and motivate them to achieve tough, realistic goals; and leaders who take responsibility for their team's failures and lead them to new heights. The lessons of Major General George Gordon Meade are still valid for today's leaders.
Copyright 2014 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
Gettysburg Lessons in the Digital Age