“If he is a man, he will learn.” As those of you on my e-mail list know, I’m taking a break from writing about the masculine archetypes to examine a different book: Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara. The book focuses on the leaders at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Lee, Longstreet, Armistead, Pickett, and, by his absence, Stuart for the Confederates. Buford, Reynolds, Hancock, Chamberlain, and, by his absence, Meade for the Union. The movie Gettysburg was based on the book and tracks it very closely. The book gives you more insight into the thoughts of the leaders during the three days of the battle.
While the entire book is fascinating, I only want to focus on one scene. Confederate cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart was missing during the days leading up to the battle. He did not report or appear until after the second day of fighting. That left General Lee and most of the other Confederate officers angry, as they had no idea what they were walking into. They had invaded the North. They worried that they were engaging the entire Union army. They worried that they’d be cut off from Richmond. One wrong move and the entire army could be demolished.
After two days of intense fighting, Stuart was still nowhere to be found. No report. No appearance. Nothing. Several officers, including General Longstreet, wanted Stuart to be court-martialed. But General Lee liked Stuart. He appreciated his youthful vigor. He knew Stuart had much to learn. But he believed that his spirit and skills were valuable to the cause. He needed to be instructed, not crushed and cut loose.
At the end of the second day of fighting. Stuart appeared. He was all smiles. He’d been out doing his thing and living his best life. He had no idea what awaited him. General Lee summoned him for a private meeting.
He informed Stuart that some wanted him court-martialed. Stuart was stung, angered and embarrassed. He wanted names. He wanted to approach those who had criticized him. Lee responded with rare intensity, letting Stuart know there was no time for that. He then broke down the situation for the young officer.
“You were my eyes. Your mission was to screen this army from the enemy . . . and to report any movement by the enemy’s main body. That mission was not fulfilled. You left this army without word of your movements or of the enemy’s for several days. We were forced into battle without adequate knowledge of the enemy’s position or strength, without knowledge of the ground. It is only by God’s grace that we have escaped disaster.”
Stuart was cut to the core. Lee continued.
“It is possible that you misunderstood my orders. It is possible I did not make myself clear. Yet this must be clear: you with your cavalry are the eyes of the army. Without your cavalry we are blind, and that has happened once but must not happen again.”
Lee was fatherly. He wanted to take away the sting, but knew he must not do so. This was a painful lesson that needed to be learned. And it would not be learned without the sting.
Stuart was embarrassed. He offered his sword to Lee in resignation of his position. Lee instructed him sternly: “There is no time for that.”
“There is a fight tomorrow, and we need you. I know your quality. You are a good soldier. I have learned to rely on your information. But no report is useful if it does not reach us. And that is what I wanted you to know. Now, let us speak no more of this matter.“
“If he is a man, he will learn.”
Lee dismissed Stuart. He watched as Stuart walked away. He thought to himself: “He’s a good boy. If he is a man, he will learn.“
Lessons from Lee and Stuart
I see several strong lessons here:
- Fatherly instruction is painful, but it must be done. Our children will never reach their potential unless we have the hard conversations about their mistakes. Have the courage to speak painful truths to your children.
- We must use good judgment, unclouded by emotion. Lee was angry that Stuart had left his army in a bad position. Others called for Stuart to be court-martialed. But Lee knew the young officer had simply made a mistake. He needed to be reprimanded. He needed to be instructed. He needed to feel the pain and embarrassment of letting the army down. He did not need his career ruined. Lee refused to let anger result in poor judgment. We should do the same.
- Stuart reacted out of pride. Instead of apologizing and promising to learn from his mistake, he wanted to quit. He responded with drama. His immaturity shone through. His brothers needed him. He’d let them down. But it was only a mistake. This is was no time to quit on them. He needed to man up and get back to work with renewed energy and focus.
- Men learn from their mistakes. Stuart left Lee’s presence with a choice. He could be mad at the others for calling out his mistake. Or he could learn from it and become a better officer. “If he is a man, he will learn.”
The man’s life is difficult. We need regular reminders of how to be a good man. If we’re lucky, we’ll have older men around us who can speak those words of truth to us. And we can do the same for those in our care. This is the man’s life. Godspeed.