The inability to do nothing

I love history, especially learning about the Civil War and WWII.

One of my favorite stories comes from the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. It was the second day of the battle and the Union army stretched across the two hills, Big and Little Round Top, with their soldiers stretching all the way back to Gettysburg. On their far left flank was the 20th Maine under the direction of Col. Joshua Chamberlain. He and his men were placed at the end of the line by Colonel Vincent with these words,

Whatever you do, you can’t let them come through here.

Joshua Chamberlain Brady-Handy Collection - writetojoncook Jon CookIt was literally do or die for Chamberlain and his 385 men. If the Confederates flanked the 20th Maine, they would have the high ground and quick access to Big Round Top. Fighting began that day at the middle of the Union Army, but the rocky sides of Big Round Top were too steep for the Confederates.

The 15th and 47th Alabama Infantry regiment, numbering over 4,000 under the direction of General Hood, repositioned to the far end of the Union line, directly in front of the 386 men from the 20th Maine. The 15th and 47th Alabama charged up the hill towards the 20th Maine who began firing from behind a thigh-high makeshift rock wall. Chamberlain and his men repelled the first charge… and a second… and a third… and a fourth.

In the fourth charge the Confederates almost made it to the rock wall, only to be repelled again by the 20th Maine. Chamberlain and his men were reduced from 386 down to 80 with one, maybe two shots of ammunition left per man. They had already spread out their line to double its length at a 45-degree angle to counter the Confederates repositioning further down the hill.

The 15th and 47th Alabama were now reinforced by the 4th Alabama, 4th Texas, and 5th Texas regiments, regrouped again for a fifth charge.The 20th Maine looked to their right, to the 83rd Pennsylvania: no help. No reinforcements, virtually no ammunition, no chance. The Confederates slowly started making their way up the hill.

Col. Chamberlain stepped to the top of the rock wall, crossed his arms, and looked down at the charging Confederates. Listen to what he said about that moment,

We can’t retreat. We can’t stay here. When I am faced with the choice of doing nothing or doing something, I will always choose to act. Fix bayonets!

Chamberlain Little Round Top - writetojoncook Jon CookChamberlain later said it was his inability to do nothing that moved him to action. He ordered a right wheel and bayonet charge. The extended line of the 20th Maine and 83rd Pennsylvania fixed bayonets to their empty guns and charged down the hill. Chamberlain and his eighty men captured over 400 Confederate soldiers, many while holding empty guns.

Many historians believe that because of Chamberlain’s inability to do nothing, it saved the Union Army and the United States. His charge preserved the Union. His inability to do nothing moved him to do something extraordinary.

Inaction is still action. You have a choice for your future; choosing to do nothing is a conscious choice for mediocrity or worse. When it comes to your dreams, where is your inability to do nothing? Are you unable to be indifferent towards creating a better future? Are you unable to stand by while evil and negativity invade our world? What’s your inability to do nothing when it comes to leading your team?

May you have a great inability to do nothing. May you be moved to act when uncertainty and even surrender would be easier. May you have the courage to do something extraordinary when faced with overwhelming uncertainty.

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