The Story of George McFarland and the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers
When Lincoln called for volunteers in 1862, the government allowed Northern states to fill their quotas with nine-month regiments—regiments whose volunteers only served for nine months.
The northern press called these nine-month regiments "beauties who enlisted for the bounties, and took into the service neither health, patriotism, nor honesty." The veterans, serving 3-year enlistments, questioned their commitment and scorned them as "poor stuff, government robbers, nine monthlings hatched from $200 bounty eggs."
"They might have been good material, ready and willing," said one corps commander, "but the officers and the men didn’t know anything." And in nine months, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Nine months was not long enough to build what was needed to fight well. Citizen soldiers needed time to drill, time to experience the rigors of camp, time to strengthen the sinews of war. Such short-term volunteers would never—could never—fight like veterans.
But one nine-month regiment at Gettysburg proved them all wrong—the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The Fight of July 1, 1863
At 3:00 pm on Wednesday, July 1, 1863, Corps Commander Abner Doubleday sent the 467 officers and men of the 151st PA into their first real action. The 151st PA was Doubleday's only remaining reserve as the Union line west of Gettysburg began to give way. The Iron Brigade (the best brigade in the Union Army) had held McPherson's Ridge since 10 am that morning, suffering extensive losses. They could hold no longer. Overwhelming numbers of Confederate forces had arrived on the field and were flanking these veterans of the 1st Corps.
To enable the Iron Brigade to withdraw, Doubleday ordered the 151st PA forward to McPherson's Ridge. Nine-month volunteers rescuing the remnants of the best brigade in the army? During the next 60 minutes, the volunteers of the 151st covered the withdrawal of veteran troops from McPherson's Ridge, eventually falling back to Seminary Ridge and holding it long enough for most of the Union artillery to escape capture. In the fight, the 151st lost 337 men, killed, wounded, or captured—a regimental loss of 72%—second only to the losses that day of the veteran 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade.
Major Gen Abner Doubleday, commander of the Union 1st Corps at Gettysburg, later wrote:
"At Gettysburg [the 151st PA Regiment] won, under the brave McFarland, an imperishable fame. They defended the left front of the First Corps against vastly superior numbers; covered its retreat … and enabled me, by their determined resistance, to withdraw the corps in comparative safety … I can never forget the services rendered me by this regiment, directed by the gallantry and genius of McFarland. I believe they saved the First Corps and were among the chief instruments to save the Army of the Potomac and the country from unimaginable disaster."
What made these nine-month men stand and fight the way they did?
What enabled these volunteers to fight like veterans?
The answer is simple yet profound.
They were well-led—by Lt Col George McFarland, a teacher of teachers, an educator turned warrior whose "gallantry and genius” turned volunteers into veterans.
Over the next three weeks, I'd like to unpack McFarland's leadership and learn from him how to lead volunteers.
But first, I wonder.
Could it be that McFarland led well because he was first and foremost a teacher?
George Fisher McFarland had been an educator since the tender age of sixteen. When the Civil War erupted, he was 28 years old, the principal and proprietor of the McAlisterville Academy in Juniata County, PA. So many other teachers joined him that the 151st became known as "The School-Teachers Regiment."
As a teacher of teachers, McFarland understood that leadership—like teaching—is an enabling act. Leaders and teachers enable; they help others become strong and capable. Leading is teaching; teaching is leading.
The Leader as Teacher
In the Scriptures, the one skill required of leaders in the church is their "ability to teach."
The Apostle Paul reminds Timothy that the Lord's servants should be "able to teach." In 1st Timothy, Paul lists the qualities needed in the shepherd leaders of the church—all are character qualities, except one: the ability to teach. In 2nd Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that he best serves the Lord in kindness & gentleness and by his ability to teach. And in turn, Timothy, strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, should entrust the things he has learned to faithful men and women, who will be "able to teach" others also.
Teaching is the most fundamental enabling act. We turn volunteers into veterans by learning to teach.
As we explore McFarland's leadership of the 151st PA, we'll find his natural leadership emerged out of his ability to teach these three things:
First, McFarland modeled and taught them to fight for what's right. To fight for a Worthy Cause.
Second, McFarland taught them how to fight. He instilled Confidence and Competence.
Third, McFarland led them with Courage by modeling and teaching them to fight with everything they had.
The best leaders turn volunteers into veterans by teaching them.
Source: Life & Leadership, Weekly Reflections from a Lazy River, Author/Teacher Jay Lorenzen article printed March 9th, 2022. www.thehighgroundatgettysburg.org.