Because of similar social backgrounds, Heth was the only Confederate officer Lee addressed by first name. He also had something in common with George Pickett: both graduated last in their classes at West Point. Previous accomplishments that were more reflective of attitude than academic performance made it easy for one of his commanders to recommend his promotion: “I consider him a most excellent officer, and gallant soldier…there is no man I had rather see promoted than he.”
At Gettysburg he was spoiling for a fight. He wanted his ragtag Confederates to go into the small town with the excuse of confiscating supplies, even as reliable information from a less experienced officer warned him not to commit to such an action. Both he and his superior ignored the warning, and the battle of Gettysburg began. He wrote later that his intent was to “feel the enemy,” and when his army was torn to pieces along the way, he concluded with an almost obligatory but laughable understatement, “the enemy had now been felt.” It was a sterile admission perhaps meant to anesthetize his wounds of failure, or to cover up his disobedience of Lee’s orders not to engage the enemy until the moment was right. It became evident that Heth’s moment was wrong.
To deflect from a miscalculation of his competitor’s strengths and a rash decision not to employ a cavalry escort or forward detachment, he engaged in two lies by declaring that his encounter was against “overwhelming forces,” and that his soldiers “accidentally stumbled into this fight” in pursuit of shoes. Then he manufactured an accusation that he knew would have Lee’s agreement: “Had our cavalry been in position, chances are that the battle would never have been fought at Gettysburg.” What Heth misjudged in his arrival at Gettysburg was the clear thinking of an outnumbered and stubborn opponent in Union General John Buford – Heth’s exact opposite in terms of anticipating and planning.
Later in the battle wearing a new and oversized hat stuffed with paper for a good fit, he was struck in the head by a bullet. He was knocked unconscious for a time and prevented from participating in the rest of the fight. Heth seemed predestined to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was later asserted by a fellow officer that Heth’s real intent was to capture some Yankees and present them to General Lee as a trophy, which would be tantamount to a sophomoric demonstration of his new division command abilities. In terms of job performance “Harry” Heth was impulsive and reckless. Years later he was candid enough to suggest that the battle at Gettysburg “was the result purely of an accident, for which I am probably, more than anyone else, accountable.”
Impulsiveness clouds judgment.
Heth is a fine example of what not to do. Before you attempt to ride half-cocked into the sunrise of success, have a map of your future and understand over what roads of life you want to travel. Read the roadside warning signs for scams. Watch for potholes of self-deception. Obey the speed limits of progress. Observe the guardrails of discipline. Attend to the curves of competitors. Stop by the scenic areas of opportunity. Sing of your ride over the hilltops of success. Learn well as you look into the rearview mirror of your mistakes. Most importantly, keep your focus completely on your destination – your goal. Success comes from being led by all sorts of influences.
Copyright Paul Lloyd Hemphill 2012
The Definition Of Leadership
Why history? Because it’s life’s only playback recording that inspires us to create our own success. Why Gettysburg? Because its recording provides us with the richest quantity of real-life, flesh-and-blood examples of who you are and of what you are capable.