Leadership Lessons from the Civil War

Posted: Apr 14, 2011 12:01 AM

The Civil War started 150 years ago this week, threatening to tear our country apart. In the end the Union prevailed. In today's turbulent times, the lessons from the Civil War are still applicable.

In April 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard began the war by firing upon the Union troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.

President Abraham Lincoln had been informed the day after his inauguration in early March that the fort would fall without supplies. He ordered restocking and reinforcements, rather than have his troops flee.

After two days of being bombarded by artillery, the Union troops surrendered on April 14. There were no casualties prior to the surrender, but a Union soldier was killed while firing a salute as the Union troops were leaving.

Lincoln had been elected president under the specter of war the previous fall, when more than 80 percent of eligible voters voted. Lincoln received less than 40 percent of the popular vote, but carried 59 percent of the electoral votes. Between his election and his swearing-in, seven states -- South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas -- seceded from the Union.

But Lincoln was determined to keep the nation united. In his first inaugural address, he stated: "I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

The war came anyway.

Two years later, 170,000 soldiers took part in its largest battle, at Gettysburg. After three days of fighting, nearly 8,000 Americans had died and almost 50,000 were wounded.

It did not end the war, but proved to be a decisive Union victory, after which Lincoln gave thanks to God. "He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude."

Lincoln spoke at a memorial service in Gettysburg four and a half months later, delivering his address in less than two minutes.

In 278 words, Lincoln took his audience from the past to the present to the future of our nation. He noted the role of its citizens in its development without using the term "I" or "me." Instead, he reminded us that, as the beneficiaries of others' sacrifices, our job is to ensure, through our actions, that their sacrifice is remembered. "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

The next year, Lincoln ran for his second term on the slogan "No Peace Without Victory," against the Democratic nominee Gen. George McClellan, who ran on a peace platform.

Lincoln won.

He won because, as Ronald White Jr. wrote in his biography of Lincoln, "A. Lincoln," the people "believe in him."

Late in his presidency, Lincoln wrote the following private note, "The will of God prevails. ... In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are for the best adaptation to effect his purpose."

This sentiment, that he was an instrument in a larger contest to be determined by God, is echoed throughout his second inaugural address.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Lincoln also noted that we, the people, were not to be the judgers, but that that judgment is left to God alone. "Let us judge not, that we be not judged." And finally that "the Almighty has His own purposes."

Lincoln concluded with an offering of peace to the South and a request for charity rather than punishment. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lessons to remember: We are instruments in the hand of God. Act without malice, but with charity, leaving judgment to God. Honor those who have sacrificed for us, by ensuring that "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."