top of page

A Lesson in Leadership: President Abraham Lincoln

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

It's July 14, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg has been over for days now. President Lincoln is pissed. When I say pissed, I mean he's angrier than a Tasmanian Devil who hasn't eaten in a week.

Why? At the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, which has ended in Union victory, Confederate General Robert E. Lee is being forced to retreat back towards Virginia. His defeated army is being pursued by Union troops led by Union Major General George Gordon Meade. Eventually, General Lee's troops make it to the Potomac River. They need to cross it to keep retreating back to Virginia. Here is when things get interesting.

Pictured left to right: General George Gordon Meade & General Robert E. Lee

It has rained a lot during the week. The river is flooded and impossible to cross. Lee's army is trapped. They are now in a position where the Union can win and end the war right then and there. However, General Meade decides not to attack. Against President Lincoln's direct orders, the decision is made not to attack Lee. Not surprisingly, Lee's army makes it back across the Potomac and Meade's opportunity to end the war is gone.

President Lincoln, fuming, wrote this letter to General Meade:

Executive Mansion,

Washington, July 14, 1863.

Major General Meade

I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine-- I am very -- very -- grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you-- But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it-- I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that your self, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours-- He retreated; and you did not; as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive-- More At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fifty-five miles, if so much. And Couch's movement was very little different--

Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape-- He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with the our other late successes, have ended the war-- As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more then two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it--

I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself-- As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

So what's the lesson in leadership? Here it is: President Lincoln never sent this to General Meade. Why? He understood that he was more upset with the situation (Not ending the war at that moment. The war would last another 2 YEARS!) than he was upset with Meade. He also knew that criticizing General Meade would only cripple Meade's self-esteem and disable his other existing leadership abilities (General Meade didn't become a General bc he was cute). President Lincoln put himself in not only General Meade's shoes, but also in the shoes of his exhausted Union army. They had just finished fighting in one of bloodiest and deadliest battles of all time. He realized it was easier to make the decision to pursue General Lee sitting, behind his desk, in the White House than it would have been after days of harsh battle. Just imagine the sounds and sights of war (I think you get the message). This is one of the characteristics that makes President Abraham Lincoln such a revered leader.

Today, it's easy to go off on someone without giving it a second thought. We are quick to criticize others. We are quick at complaining. We are quick to condemn. Social media hasn't made it any easier. However, it's abilities like this one from Lincoln (Being empathetic enough to understand the situation before criticizing or punishing others) that is critical in excellent leadership. Let's try to be more empathetic and less critical when dealing with others. It's not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Let's put ourselves in other people's shoes and see things from their viewpoint. The best results come when we do so.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page