Effective Leadership Qualities Illustrated by a Unique Story From the Civil War

Mike Schoultz
5 min readApr 19, 2020

I am a fan of Civil War history. I also like to study leadership and effective leadership qualities. This article tells the story of Joshua Chamberlain, a highly decorated Union officer. The objective of the article … highlight a great gesture of effective leadership.

Another story: Surprising Story Lessons on Making a Difference

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an American college professor from the State of Maine, who volunteered during the American Civil War to join the Union Army. Although having no earlier education in military strategies, he became a highly respected and decorated Union officer, reaching the rank of brigadier general.

Chamberlain achieved fame at the Battle of Gettysburg, where his valiant defense of a hill named Little Round Top became the focus of many publications and stories, including the novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg. On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces were recovering from initial defeats and hastily regrouping into defensive positions on a line of hills south of the town. Sensing the momentary vulnerability of the Union forces, the Confederates began an attack against the Union left flank.

Sent to defend the southern slope of Little Round Top, Chamberlain found himself and the 20th Maine at the far left end of the entire Union line. He quickly understood the strategic significance of the small hill, and the need for the 20th Maine to hold the Union left at all costs.

Another great story: A Story About Living as Told by a Six-Year-Old BoyTime and time again the Confederates struck until the 20th Maine was almost doubled back upon itself. With many casualties and ammunition running low, Col. Chamberlain recognized the dire circumstances and ordered his left wing to initiate a bayonet charge.

From his report of the day, battlefield conditions make it unlikely that many men heard Chamberlain’s order; most historians believe he initiated the charge. The 20th Maine charged down the hill, with the left-wing wheeling continually to make the charging line swing like a hinge, capturing 101 of the Confederate soldiers and successfully saving the flank.

For his “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top”, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor.

But those heroic events were not the best leadership qualities that Gen Chamberlain had to offer.

On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain learned of the desire by Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. The next day, Chamberlain was summoned to Union headquarters where he was informed that he had been selected to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12.

Thus Chamberlain was responsible for one of the most poignant scenes of the Civil War. Chamberlain described what happened next in his memoirs (Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies, (Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), pp260–261.): The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms.

Well aware of the responsibility assumed and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness.

Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; — was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry” — the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, — honor answering honor.

Another story for you: A Story About Living as Told by a Six-Year-Old Boy On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead! And that, at the start of the day and at the end of the day, is the true meaning of effective leadership. It represented the most effective leadership quality Gen Chamberlain could have initiated.The moral of this story:Leadership is not about you; it’s not about anything in a leadership position, — except the mission and purpose of the organization.Another great story: The Story of Tank the Dog or Is It, Reggie?



Mike Schoultz

Mike Schoultz writes about improving the performance of business. Bookmark his blog for stories and articles. www.digitalsparkmarketing.com