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Lessons we can learn if we look back to July 4, 1863

Lessons we can learn if we look back to July 4, 1863
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This year’s July 4th celebrations will be different than years past as our country continues to battle through the COVID-19 pandemic. There are some lessons we can learn if we look back to July 4, 1863, to the Vicksburg victory and Abraham Lincoln’s letters on July 13, 1863, after Grant’s victory and on July 14 to General Meade, the victorious general of the Battle of Gettysburg. These two letters have much to teach us about character and leadership which can and should be applied today. 

On July 4th, 1863, the Union forces were victorious in the Battle of Vicksburg, a crucial turning point in the Civil War. Control of Vicksburg, Miss., meant control of the Mississippi River, which would allow for the transportation of men and supplies. 

Additionally, Union control of Vicksburg divided the Confederacy in half. Commenting on the importance of Vicksburg for victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had said that “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” After several unsuccessful attempts to capture Vicksburg, General Grant commenced a siege of Vicksburg on May 25, 1863, which lasted for six weeks until the Confederate forces, led by General John Pemberton, surrendered on July 4. 

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During the time that Grant was waging war on Vicksburg, the historic Battle of Gettysburg was taking place. Fought for three days, from July 1 to July 3, General George Meade, who had taken control of the Army of the Potomac just three days earlier, defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces. 

The victory in Gettysburg, while hugely significant militarily and politically, nevertheless remained incomplete. Lincoln wrote, “if Gen. Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion will be over.” However, Meade failed to pursue Lee, and Lee’s army crossed the Potomac, out of harm’s way, on the night of July 13. Lincoln was distraught at Meade’s failure to follow up on his victory at Gettysburg by obliterating Lee’s army. The continuation of the war after Gettysburg saw more casualties than there had been until that point. 

After Grant’s victory, Lincoln wrote to Grant on July 13 that although he previously had reservations about some of Grant’s military maneuvers, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.” On the very next day, July 14, Lincoln wrote to Meade to express his disappointment that Meade allowed Lee’s forces to escape: “Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely...Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.” 

But, remarkably, Lincoln never signed or sent the letter to Meade. Instead, he put it away in his drawer. Lincoln recognized that Meade had taken control of the army only three days before Gettysburg and that he was expecting too much of his new general. 

We can learn a lot about character and leadership. Lincoln’s letter to Grant demonstrates clearly how Lincoln was not afraid to concede a mistake and was magnanimous in complimenting the successes of others. He did not feel compelled to take credit for all victories that took place under his command. On the contrary, he willingly admitted that his preferred strategy was wrong. 

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Lincoln’s letter to Meade, on the other hand, shows Lincoln’s ability to restrain himself even when he was so profoundly disappointed by someone under his command. Lincoln recognized that not every criticism, though valid, need be delivered, even directly to the party who had aggrieved him, let alone conveyed to the entire world. 

These lessons are universal ones but apply acutely to those in high office currently. True leadership is demonstrated by the humility to admit your own mistakes, the graciousness to thank those with whom you disagree when they turn out to be right, and the compassion to refrain from criticizing subordinates when their errors, even though serious, were the result of mitigating circumstances. Would that our leaders take Lincoln’s example to heart and mold their method of governing in the image of his noble stewardship.   

Rabbi Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher, the world’s largest Kosher certification agency. OU Kosher certifies more than 1 million ingredients in 10,000 plants in more than 100 countries around the world. Rabbi Genack is the author of “Letter to President Clinton” and is writing a book about President Lincoln.