He refused to conform to Harvard’s strict rules of demeanor and academic performance. Prior to graduation his father received a letter from Harvard’s president suggesting that his son would not be awarded his degree until he showed more maturity. “His work [is] imperfectly performed,” complained school officials, “and he has persisted in disregarding the rules of order in the college.” In other words, he is a frat-boy nuisance, and Harvard’s patience has run out.
When the war began, “Charley” Mudge wrote to his father that he wanted “to fight, and when I say fight I mean win or die.” With apparent resignation to a son’s fate, the father wrote back to Harvard’s president asking that his son’s degree be conferred, explaining “…my son may never return…the reasons will doubtless be sufficiently apparent to the Faculty.” Young Mudge received his degree just days before he left Boston for Virginia.
He did what he could to prepare for the hardships ahead. He would sleep on bare ground when it was not necessary. It was a self-imposed basic training exercise. During his enlistment he carried a prayer book, and every Sunday morning he would lead his men in a prayer service. “You have no idea,” he wrote his father, “what comfort I have had from perfect faith in God…” On the morning of July 3, history was contriving to force Mudge into a futile attack on a very secure enemy position. An eager and overly aggressive superior thought there was no other way to gain ground than to charge the enemy, hoping they would be frightened enough to abandon their location. Intuitively, Mudge knew it was a death sentence. Wanting to be certain he was hearing the correct orders, he asked, “Are you sure that is the order?” A simple “yes” was the reply. Mudge was faced with a soldier’s unimaginable choice: he could obey a military order that meant certain death, or disobey it and face certain court-martial and personal disgrace. Soon after uttering the words, “Well, it is murder, but it is the order,” this twenty-four-year-old officer was killed.
We will never know what he was thinking during his last moments. We can only assume that Mudge, though questioning the correctness of the order, felt some greater good would come from such a fruitless and wasteful attack. Having been slightly wounded in two previous battles, he knew the moment had come when he would have to give his life for his country. He could not have imagined under what circumstances.
Question what you hear.
Mudge knew instinctually that a superior’s decision would kill him. Perhaps other than in a military situation, if you believe a superior’s decision will influence you adversely, you have the right and the responsibility to question the reasons behind the decision. If the decision remains unchanged, you can decide not to implement it and accept the consequences. Rarely does a anyone earn blind obedience.
Encourage input from subordinates.
As a superior you have a leader’s responsibility to enforce your expectations fairly and without undue hardship. You also have an incentive to encourage positive input. This is where Mudge’s superiors failed. Soliciting feedback from your subordinates – allowing yourself to be influenced – will keep you moving toward your goals and avoiding pitfalls. It is more profitable to listen than to speak, to be a leader who is willing to follow good advice. The same can be said about feedback from family and friends: it promotes understanding and harmony.
Copyright 2013 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
Gettysburg Lessons & Gettysburg Leadership