A Leader’s Foolish Mistake

Unexpected spiritual lessons from the Civil War.

  • by Jay Lorenzen with Rich Atkinson
photo courtesy Jay Lorenzen

Jay Lorenzen serves with Faculty Commons, a ministry of Cru. He conducts leadership conferences called “If Properly Led” at the Gettysburg Civil War battle site. These are some lessons he has learned from studying history.



Leaders must act and willingly risk the things they love. Unfortunately, many leaders are frozen by indecision. They fail to move. They fail because they make what I call “The McClellan Mistake:”

They overestimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate their own strength.

When General McClellan took command of Washington and the Army of the Potomac on 26th July 1861, everyone had great expectations of him. He was a hero. He was academically very bright, personally brave, and a good organizer. He was a good unit commander and popular with the men under his command.

But McClellan would never send them into the fight.

Early in his commanding role, McClellan wrote to his wife that, “[Confederate General] Beauregard probably has 150,000 men – I cannot count more than 55,000. . .the enemy have 3 to 4 times my force.”

The reality was that Confederate Generals had to abandon plans for any offensive because they couldn’t muster 60,000 men between them. Yet McClellan had lost the initiative, and instead settled in to strengthen the Washington defenses.

Later, in September 1862, McClellan was back in Washington. Confederate General Lee marched his army from Harper’s Ferry to Sharpsburg, knowing that his Southern army was half the size of the Army of the Potomac. Enroute to Sharpsburg, a Confederate officer had lost Lee’s entire battle movement plans, which were found and given to McClellan.

With all the odds on his side, McClellan should have won a tremendous victory: He had superior numbers, knew exactly where Lee would position his troops, but still produced a series of uncoordinated attacks that were very often late. McClellan’s delays allowed Lee to obtain reinforcements and knowledge that his battle plans had become known by the enemy.

McClellan came out of The Battle of Antietam with only a draw.

Afterward, with Lee in a disadvantaged position, McClellan did nothing. Rather than a rigorous pursuit, McClellan stopped and waited for more men and supplies.

McClellan often explained his sluggishness to doing anything definite as “I’m waiting for the right time.” Lincoln eventually fired him because he was unwilling to risk.

Building spiritual movements depends upon our willingness to walk in faith and to take Kingdom-sized risks. Faith engenders hope which counteracts fear. Despite the challenges we face, the Scriptures are clear – the forces with us are stronger than the forces opposing us. Jesus is becoming King in every place. Any movements we attempt to build will die from an unwillingness to risk.

In the immediate fight, victory is never certain. But we’ll always fail to act if we make the McClellan Mistake of “overestimating the strength of the enemy and underestimating our own strength.”