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Taking The High Ground Leadership Lessons
April 11, 2022

Lt Col George McFarland turned his inexperienced men at Gettysburg into soldiers "with the determined courage of veterans."

Leading, like teaching, is fundamentally an enabling act. Leaders make others strong and capable; they enable others to do more than they think they can do at first. Competence always leads to confidence.

In his official report, McFarland wrote: "I know not, how men could have fought more desperately, exhibited more coolness, or contested the field with more determined courage. Not a man left the ranks, even to carry a wounded comrade to the rear."

We're asking the question: how did George McFarland turn these raw recruits of the 151st PA—who had enlisted for only nine months—into an effective fighting unit?

Last week, we learned that McFarland, a teacher of teachers, taught them to fight for what's right. To fight for a worthy cause.

This week, we learn what McFarland knew:

a volunteer's willingness to fight is never enough when he faces for the first time the elephant. Enthusiasm needs equipping. A volunteer in the infantry becomes a veteran when he knows how to fight "on the ground."

Leading, like teaching, is fundamentally an enabling act. Leaders make others strong and capable; they enable others to do more than they think they can do at first. Competence always leads to confidence.

Move and Fire as a Unit under Good Leadership

To fight as an infantry regiment "on the ground" during the Civil War, soldiers needed to know how to "move and fire" as a unit. They required, above all, daily drill and instruction and constant target practice. They also needed commanders who knew what commands to give and when.

To enable the 151st PA to "move and fire as a unit under good leadership," McFarland did the following:

First of all, McFarland first had to learn himself. He, too, was a nine-month volunteer with no experience in the military arts. As soon as he was appointed Lt Col, McFarland embarked on a rigorous program of study—securing and assimilating every military manual he could find. All great leaders are learners, and McFarland knew how to learn. Without embarrassment, he sought out the mentorship of senior military leaders like Alexander Hays and Abner Doubleday.


Second, McFarland ensured that he and his nine-month volunteers got the basic drill instruction that would prove critical at Gettysburg. He taught them how to move as a unit. One volunteer recalled that on the day they reported to camp, the regiment first "drew rents, blankets and cooking utensils, then they were issued muskets, and by that evening they were soldiering in good style by dark." Most of that winter of 62-63, they drilled and drilled—learning to move as a unit.


Third, McFarland made sure the men knew their weapons well. Every soldier must be able to fire their weapon accurately—almost without thinking. It's their basic skill. Initially, the151st PA were at first issued older smooth-bore muskets. McFarland and the other commanders weren't pleased; they wanted the new Springfield rifles, the ones the veteran regiments had.

By Spring of 63, the151st PA got their new Springfield rifles. But they didn't know how to use them. So McFarland immediately set up the target practice needed. The following paragraph reflects the genius of McFarland's leadership and how leaders enable volunteers to fight like veterans. McFarland wrote (emphasis mine):

 "New Springfield rifles were issued, and almost by accident, I learned that men who could knock the eye out of a squirrel or take off a bird in the woods at home with old smooth-bored rifles were uncertain of hitting a five-foot target with their Springfield rifles. I saw at once they were unfit to meet in deadly battle the well-drilled enemy, until they were entirely familiar with their weapons and confident of their power to use them efficiently. I therefore took every occasion to secure target practice, being once summoned to General Reynolds' headquarters to answer for firing permitted near my picket line out of hours. But the result justified the means, and my men entered the Battle of Gettysburg good marksmen, pleased with their guns and conscious of the power to hold their own with any enemy they might meet."

Well-commanded, well-drilled, and well-trained, the 151st PA entered their first real fight on July 1 and fought as "veterans."  When inexperienced regiments entered a fight, the commander typically ordered "fire as a unit"—in what was called "volley fire." Volley fire "everyone fires simultaneously. 

But when McFarland took his volunteers now fighting as veterans into the fight, he directed each man to fire "on his own hook." "Having previously cautioned the men against excitement and firing at random, and the enemy being partly concealed in the woods, on lower ground than we occupied, I did not order them to fire a regular volley, but each man to fire as he saw an enemy on which to take a steady aim."

To fire as individuals required discipline and training, which only veteran troops could typically handle. But McFarland had enabled his men to be strong and capable; as well-trained marksmen, they held their ground and picked out the enemy one by one "as soldiers do today." Such independent firing was and is a much more effective killing strategy than volley firing.  

Only veterans can maintain the discipline to fire individually and yet move as a unit. Nine-month volunteers couldn't be expected to fight this way. Unless, of course, those volunteers were trained and led by George McFarland.

LtCol George McFarland turned the nine-month volunteers of the 151st PA into men who fought at Gettysburg "with the determined courage of veterans."

Source: Taking The High Ground, Weekly Reflections From a Lazy River, Author/Teacher Jay Lorenzen, emailed 7-7-2021.

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