The battle of Gettysburg was won by a dedicated group of teachers. That was the proud claim made by a school principal, George McFarland, who fought there. “The victory at Gettysburg,” he wrote, was “the work of the teacher!” McFarland was in charge of some one hundred educators who made up a quarter of what became known as the “Schoolteachers’ Regiment.” His claim had universal appeal: the attitudes and convictions of the fighting men on both sides were the assumed result of the impact teachers had on their lives, long before they arrived at Gettysburg. “Who that reflects,” he concluded, “upon the costly sacrifices the teachers of our country made both in their own persons and in those of their pupils, can doubt this?”
George Fisher McFarland worked on the family farm as a youth and attended school for several weeks during the winter. After doing occasional work on boats that traveled on Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Canal, he began teaching at the unusually young age of sixteen. At age twenty-one he was elected principal of an academy. An educational entrepreneur of sorts, he bought and principled his own academy three years later. When Lincoln called for more volunteers for the war effort in 1862, McFarland closed his school and recruited his own teachers and students to form a regiment of volunteers.
After doing guard duty in Virginia, these volunteers marched toward Gettysburg with a mission. “We are approaching the state of our birth,” McFarland explained in a letter to his wife, “not to enjoy peace and comfort there, but to drive out the invading foe. But they will pay for their temerity. They will not long pollute the soil of Pennsylvania with impunity.” McFarland could not envision the price he and his men would have to pay for their convictions.
His patriotism was shared with his fellow teachers: “I regret the loss of the many gallant patriots who lost their lives or received honorable scars in its ranks; but I rejoice it was in the battle of Gettysburg and in defense of human freedom and republican institutions.”
Like so many other moments in this battle, McFarland found himself in a position of having to purchase one of war’s most precious commodities – time. Being outnumbered, bravery alone could not stop the Rebel advance.
Instead of ordering his soldiers to concentrate their fire at an approaching enemy mass, he had them aim and shoot at specific individuals. His fire, he later wrote, had an “effectiveness which the enemy himself respected and afterward acknowledged…” [The enemy] “suffered very heavily from our deliberate…fire…” Confirming McFarland’s assessment, a Southern officer later offered the compliment that “the enemy [was] stubbornly resisting.”
His observation about the fate of his beloved schoolteachers and students was sobering: “…my gallant officers and men fell thick and fast.” Witnessing the carnage, McFarland never imagined that another Confederate officer would honor the schoolteachers’ fighting as “the most destructive fire of musketry I have ever been exposed to.”
The battered remnants of his regiment had regrouped behind fences and trees to withstand another Rebel onslaught. McFarland was shot in both legs and would lie in his own blood for two days before receiving medical attention. The wait and crude surgical skills caused the amputation of one leg; the other caused him discomfort for the rest of his life. McFarland’s commander, General Abner Doubleday, had no doubt as to the sacrifice made by the school teachers on this first day: “…they won, under the brave McFarland, an imperishable fame…and enabled me, by their determined resistance, to withdraw…in comparative safety.” With four hundred and sixty-seven men going into the battle, the Schoolteachers Regiment suffered an astounding casualty rate of more than seventy percent in less than seventy-two hours. The enlistment period for McFarland and his men was to expire in less than thirty days.
Teach by example.
Billboard leadership occurs when you do what you advise everyone else to do; you are advertising your leadership ability by walking the talk, and the world is truly influenced by it. Parents are the first teachers and leaders. What they do, suggests McFarland, has such a powerful influence on their children’s actions and moral framework that it determines the outcome of wars. What you say or do, be it positive or negative, is the origin of someone else’s thought or action. Whether you realize it or not, you always have an influence; you are always leading.
Narrow your focus.
As McFarland instructed his men to aim carefully at individual targets, they were more effective in achieving their larger objective. In other words, break down your goal into smaller goals. For example, to lose twenty-five pounds in six months, aim to lose sixteen ounces every week; to read an assigned book of two hundred and eighty pages in two weeks, read only twenty pages a day; to read this book for maximum gain, read only one section at a time.
Teach and lead at any age.
You can be sure that McFarland started teaching earlier than at age sixteen. What he said and did as a child influenced his parents and childhood friends. Young mothers complain about the “terrible twos” because they believe a two-year-old exercises too much influence on the parent who resents having to follow.
Copyright Paul Lloyd Hemphill 2012
The Definition Of Leadership