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Leadership/Tactical Decision Making Lessons

I have spent the last few days in Gettysburg Pa. touring the Gettysburg battlefield. I have always been pretty interested in Civil War history, especially being from Virginia were a lot of it happened. The house I live at actually backs up to the Cold Harbor Battlefield, and I am right across the street from the Gathright House, and just up the road from the Battle of Gaines Mill.

While a lot of the things you learn when studying the Civil War are interesting, the leadership, and tactical decision-making are in my opinion the most fascinating. Like with most anything I translate things like this to the fire service (just ask my wife I can’t turn it off). Here are a few things that I have taken to from this weekends trip.

1. Size up: When Lee finally arrived to Gettysburg he had made several comments to his Generals that he was “blind” due to General Stuarts Calvary not reporting back the movements of the Union army. He had been given poor information from Generals Heth, and Hill that local militia occupied the town. With little information, little knowledge of the ground, and little knowledge of the true Union army force he chose to attack anyway. We see this a lot in the fire service, to often company officers, and fire ground commanders make hasty decisions based on incomplete information. This information is either not attempted to be obtained or ignored. Either way its a recipe for disaster.

2. Logistics: Bravery and Courage will only take you so far in any battle. General Lee knew that he was outnumbered, and out supplied, this prompted him to invoke a particularly bold strategy of invading the North, knowing that his armies could not sustain a long drawn out campaign. However the break neck pace in which his army moved placed an even greater strain on supplies. Confederate soldiers are quoted as saying “the most important part about killing a Yankee is taking his shoes”. In fact the only reason General Heth’s Division was even heading toward Gettysburg was in search of supplies. Had the Confederate army been better supplied the battle would have never taken place there. Again we see a lot of this in the fire service. We are fighting a life and death battle and need the proper supplies, equipment, and fireman to get the job done. We get far on courage and bravery, but often times those attributes run out.

3. Communication/Ego: This is kind of piggy backing off of number 1 but still warrants pointing out. We already know Lee wasn’t receiving the best information within the first few hours to first day of the battle. however once he was established and was able to send scouts, and probes of the enemy lines he received valuable information on how entrenched and defensible the Union position actually was. He then received several pieces of advice on alternative strategies on how to proceed. Lee chose to ignore this information, and suggestions and ordered the attack anyway leading to massive defeats on Day 2, and 3 of the battle (Little Round Top, Devils Den, and Pickett’s Charge). How many fire ground commanders or officers do you know that ignore information, and do it their way anyway? How many times has this lead to failure? I will admit that sometimes you have to turn on the “filter” to be able to figure out what is good and bad information, but you also have to be able to put your ego aside and listen to your subordinates at times.

4. Always have a way out: After Pickett’s Charge the Confederate army was devastated. Had the Union army charged they would have destroyed what was left and possibly marched on to Richmond. Only the cautious nature of General Meade who was new to command prevented this from occurring. Often times on the fireground we think we are going to succeed. A lot of the times we are right, we are right so often that we do not build contingency, or failure provisions into out action plans. Placing plan B in an action position in case plan A fails should always be happening no matter how succesful you are. There is nothing wrong with plan B being a defensive posture especially if your offensive posture has failed. Additionally on a smaller scale, incident commanders and officers often try to minimize damage by reducing the number of windows or doors broken. While I am all for property conservation we can not perform this duty at the risk of interior firefighters. It is your duty to provide interior crews with multiple ways out of the fire building in case something goes wrong. Failure to do so is failure to do your duty, and a disservice to firefighters risking there lives at your orders.

5. Know a loser when you see one: We all know about Pickett’s Charge, how a massive Confederate force tried to charge a Union position over 1 mile of open field, under heavy artillery and union rifle fire toward a fortified position (a stone wall). This charge decimated the Confederate army and ended the campaign in the North. Having stood at the step off point and the objective of the charge I can honestly say I do not know how anyone could have though this attack would or could work. Especially when a few years before in Fredericksburg when the positions were reversed and the Union was so unsuccessful at a very (and almost eerily) similar charge. Even an inexperienced person could have predicted the slaughter yet to come. When commanding fireground operations we often are faced with these “go or no go” situations. While I am an advocate of aggressive interior fire attack we have to recognize when all is lost and we can do no good-by mounting an offensive attack. Especially in the age of lightweight construction, and low mass synthetics that cause fires to burn faster, hotter, and cause buildings to fall sooner.

I have visited many battlefields, and read a lot of various battles and I learn something from each of them. There are lessons to be learned everywhere that can be applied to what we do. What sources do you look toward for your guidance? Please share all comments and experiences in the comments section and as usual spread the word about the blog.

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