When The Best Course of Action is “Nothing”

By NAS     Jan 4, 2019

What's the best course of action in a moment of crisis? Sometimes the answer is actually "nothing." You're more likely to make errors when tensions run high and removing yourself from the situation to calm down is often the best course of action.

Harvard historian Nancy Koehn shared a particularly impactful moment of inaction at the 2018 NAS Summit involving Abraham Lincoln. Following the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, victorious Union General George Meade declined to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee's retreating army. Lincoln, furious at Meade's lost chance to bring the war to a close, wrote the general a letter explaining his dissatisfaction. But he never sent it. Instead, Lincoln filed the letter away in his drawer, recognizing his need to calm down. Although Meade's failure to attack the retreating Confederate army would prolong the war, the commander had won a major engagement and Lincoln needed Meade due to a dearth of effective generals.

What if all Lincoln had to do was hit "Send"? How might history have changed if he'd brashly sent his first reaction to the disappointing news?

Below is Lincoln's unsent letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, July 14, 1863.

Major General Meade

I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very – very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not; as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive. At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fifty-five miles, if so much. And Couch's movement was very little different.

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. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more then two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.