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‘Superb’ logistics and the battle of Gettysburg

lo-gis-tics: noun- the detailed coordination of a complex operation involving many people, facilities, or supplies.

Military and business strategists have studied the battle of Gettysburg for decades. The complexities of the pivotal battle of the American Civil War provide story lines of courage, creative thinking, risk taking and strategy. I have been conducting tours of the battlefield for years, and the narrative has never been exactly the same from one to the next.


The most satisfying part of this experience for me is the reaction to the human stories associated with officers and common soldiers alike. If the human factor is eliminated, the battle becomes little more than a huge deadly brawl between two ideological armies whose causes continue to be debated even today.


The stories include examples of effective communication, adapting to change and leading by example. But beyond the emotional aspects of the battle, there are numerous examples of leaders who gained valuable skills and training away from the battlefield.


There are engineers, educators, attorneys and even politicians that make up the leadership of the armies present at Gettysburg. There was even a regiment known as ‘the schoolteachers’ regiment’ due to the number of men who listed ‘teacher’ as their occupation.


One of the central figures in the battle was Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. A WestPoint graduate, Hancock honed his skills as the Quartermaster General for the Union Army early in his career. The position allowed him to perfect the skill of Logistics Management, defined today as:

  • Asset Management

  • Fulfillment

  • Reliability

  • Responsiveness

  • Relationship

Hancock was a master of discipline, prioritization and effective management of assets. And as those assets changed from materials to troops in the field, he showed extraordinary skill in the deployment and expediting of those troops as evidenced during all three days at Gettysburg.


On the first day at Gettysburg, Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill where defeated Union troops were forced to retreat from north and west of town. On his arrival, a young officer proclaimed that his very presence on the field was like the reinforcement of an entire Division. Hancock organized the demoralized troops and established Cemetery Hill as the point of conversion for all of the troops present and those still arriving in Gettysburg.


On day two, Hancock ‘was everywhere’ as described by witnesses. He commanded the center of the union line placing troops as necessary to fend off a coordinated confederate attack against the union left flank. The most dramatic example was Hancock’s ordering of the 1st Minnesota regiment to charge into a much larger southern force ‘just in time’ to stall the confederates from exploiting a gap in the Union line. The unit was nearly wiped out in only five minutes, but they provided Hancock with just enough time to properly reinforce the position.


On day three, Hancock was once again deploying artillery and infantry troops during Pickett’s Charge. During the confederate artillery barrage preceding the massive assault, Hancock defiantly rode atop his horse in front of the crouching union soldiers to calm their nerves. When asked to take cover from the exploding shells around him, he proclaimed: “There are times when a Corps commander’s life does not count.”

Winfield Scott Hancock was a natural leader. Decisive, organized and disciplined. He also understood the price of his actions. He valued the lives of his men, and saved countless men through his decisive action. But he also was willing to pay a price (The 1st Minnesota regiment) when an outcome depended on it.


In the course of his 44 years in uniform, Hancock’s leadership competencies were often recognized, earning the nickname “the superb” early in his career. As Quartermaster and Commissary, his biographer, Frank Norton described his duties to be “chiefly laborious with continuous attention to the business details of military life, yet unconsciously trained for the important skills of accurate, precise and scholarly preparation of reports of military operations, orders and correspondence.”


So while the cornerstone of Hancock’s legacy was his leadership and teaching of those he commanded, he paid strict attention to the small yet critical details of supplying and administering forces on the battlefield where and when they were needed most.

During what is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in our history, the core tenets of leadership were on full display - courage, decision-making, crisis management and communication. And nowhere were they on fuller display than with the logistically trained Winfield Scott Hancock.



To comment on this or learn more about inspiring examples of leadership at Gettysburg, contact BattleReady Leadership.


Jack Carroll is Founder and lead presenter at BattleReady Leadership – a firm dedicated to leadership training, strategic planning and brand development for organizations of all sizes with a focus on inspirational storytelling on the Gettysburg battlefield.