The Minnesota Monument at Gettysburg
We are approaching the 156th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that was fought over the first few days of July 1863. The largest battle ever fought on the North American continent, many argue it served as the turning point in the Civil War. Some historians even refer to Pickett’s charge, which occurred on the final day of the fighting, as the “high watermark of the Confederacy.”
I often conduct leadership workshops at Gettysburg, as I believe it is as a fantastic “classroom” to study good (and bad) leadership examples, as well as other enduring principles and concepts that are critical to effective leadership. Just a few days ago, I revisited the battlefield and decided to closely examine a monument to the 1st Minnesota Regiment. It stands on Cemetery Ridge, not far from where General Pickett’s troops attempted to breach the Union lines on the third day. The story of these soldiers and this regiment is a testimony to loyalty and cohesion — aspects essential to the success of any organization.
At the onset of the Civil War, the governor of Minnesota declared, “…we are a young state, not very numerous or powerful, but we are for the Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is.” The regiment had suffered significant casualties during the war prior to Gettysburg, and it entered the battle with only 330 men.
On the late afternoon of July 2, the decimated remains of General Sickel’s 3rd Corps were streaming across the field near the center of the Union lines, running along Cemetery Ridge. A Confederate brigade from Alabama under the command of Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox was poised to seal a victory by splitting the Union line.
General Winfield Scott Hancock, needed to buy some time, so Hancock rode up to Colonel William Colvill, commander of this Minnesota regiment, pointed to the advancing Confederate battle flags and yelled, “Do you see those flags?” When Colvill nodded, Hancock bellowed, “Well, take them!”
It was a tremendous mismatch as the advancing Confederates outnumbered the Minnesotans five to one. Without hesitation Colvill ordered his men to attack, and they immediately responded.
One member of the regiment would later write, “It seemed as if every step was over some fallen comrade. Yet no man wavers; every gap is closed up – and bringing down their bayonets, the boys press shoulder to shoulder and disdaining the fictitious courage proceeding from noise and excitement, without word or cheer, but with silent, desperate determination, step firmly forward in unbroken line.”
Yet they persisted, preventing the South from achieving what might have been a pivotal victory. But this occurred at tremendous costs. Total losses for the regiment during that afternoon of fighting were 224 to include 50 killed, 173 wounded and 1 missing. That evening General Hancock would say of their efforts, “There is no more gallant deed recorded in history.”
The next day the handful of survivors were thrown again into the fight to repulse Pickett’s charge. Seventeen more Minnesotans would perish.
The Minnesota Monument was erected in 1883 by the state and dedicated by the survivors. As you ponder the bronze statue that shows a soldier advancing at a “double quick” pace you are moved to ask — what does it take to get men to do that?
The answer lies in loyalty to the organization that they are part of its mission, vision, and values. They believed in each other and they believed it what their ultimate goal.
It also underscores the importance of cohesion in any team or organization. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “leadership is the art of convincing people that they can do more than they believe is possible.”
This was a challenge for the commander of this Minnesota regiment, but it is also a challenge for every leader. As you think about motivating your team, particularly during a difficult moment for your organization, consider how can you better articulate what you are working towards (your mission) and how you can build the necessary cohesion and sacrifice within the team that will provide strength during challenging times.