On the battlefield discernment is critical. An officer leading his men into battle must be able to make decisions quickly and accurately. Decisiveness can spell the difference between victory and defeat. General Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest military strategists to ever wear an American uniform, knew this well. He was fond of saying that “battles neither turn on a division or a brigade let alone a company or a squad. Rather, battles turn on the will of a man holding a rifle who takes aim or takes to heel.” Battles turn on individual decisions. Such was the case of the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Lee, with a force of several hundred thousand Confederate troops, had marched through Maryland and into the lush Pennsylvania countryside. With surprise and speed on his side, Lee took to the offensive and pushed into the city. He knew that the Union army was to his rear and that by the morrow he would be facing them. Nonetheless, there was high ground just outside of the city, a hill called Culp’s Hill. With the city under occupation and his artillery on that hill, Lee could command the approach of the Union army and put them on the defensive. However, everything hinged on taking that hill.
The hill was on Lee’s left flank directly in the path of General Richard Ewell’s corps. Lee sent a message to General Ewell directing him to “take that hill if feasible.” As Ewell’s corps advance through Gettysburg and over the field leading to Culp’s Hill, the Union Army began to pour into the Gettysburg countryside. Elements that had been routed earlier in the day were streaming eastward toward General Meade’s Union army encampment on Cemetery Ridge just to the east of Culp’s Hill. If Ewell could take that hill, his guns would be trained right down upon them. Ewell paused his forces. What should he do? Should he attack with full force and push them off the hill? Should he take a small detachment and engage the enemy for strength? Should he stop his advance and wait until the next day’s light? Ultimately, Ewell decided to do nothing. Two days later the Confederate Army, defeated, straggled back toward the Potomac River and the safety of Virginia. The moment had been lost. The day had been lost. The battle had been lost. And, ultimately, the war had been lost. For the...
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