Too Much Caution at Gettysburg: A Lesson in Writing Main Points

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You might want to read the previous post on Outlining and Writing Main Points first….Also thanks to Ricky I actually have this entire lecture on record (uh-oh) and have published it to my Podcast Machine in case it helps. Sorry I’m not going to have the time to edit it down to the necessities for you. I know it is long….

But here are the highlights:

I gave you a central idea and showed you the distinction between a “Wikipedia” or “Kitchen Sink” research question and one of the four research questions we discussed (in this case it’s a theory speech). I also tried to convince you – without actually showing you a speech – of the potential that this research question has to connect a very far away, specialized and simultaneously “overdone” topic (the Civil War) to your audience in a new way, with fresh eyes through the theme of “caution,” which is not only critical to military strategy (Vietnam/Gulf War), but life, love and the pursuit of football. We also discussed how that kind of connection is both so much deeper and more fun than a simple, “hey your Southern so the civil war matters to you…and here I go.”

From there I asked you to look at the Main Points I had offered and try to write your own main points (with considerable room to get creative as you don’t exactly have the nitty gritty to write this speech) according to a coherent organizational pattern and our dominant rule of outlining: MAIN POINTS CUT UP THE THEME not the topic (which is why we don’t use the Topical Organizational Pattern never ever).

Here is what I hoped you would notice about that list:

Main Point 1 is a “background” main point, i.e. a “Wikipedia” main point (which a lot of you said and made me SO happy to hear!). It has potential to contribute to the theme but not as written and it contains details that are not only thematically irrelevant but irrelevant generally (like why does it matter about the dates, that it was in PA, or who was on the other side?)

Main Point 3 (yes we skipped one) is just a restatement of the central idea. That’s a start, because at least the theme is visible, but it doesn’t “cut up” the central idea to keep track of the organizational pattern AND more importantly if you don’t focus the theme onto a specific sub-territory (a particular space, moment in time, effect, etc.) then the speech doesn’t have any momentum. It just because a tautology, “Lee was cautious at Gettysburg because he was cautious….” see? doesn’t get us anywhere.

Main Point 4 is just a lazy rebuttal. So it’s a potential SUPPORTS but SUPPORTS “support” the Main Point, they do not function as Main Points. Main Points are claims, which support the Central Idea, and SUPPORTS “support” the Main Points. (So, in a sense, all speeches have to follow a cause-effect pattern in a way but we’ll talk about that at a different point….)

But Main Point 3 is jjjjuuuussstttt write. It takes the theme, keeps it visible, but develops in a way that could lend itself to a chronological pattern, a spatial (Herr ridge), a cause (he made this decision and then two other decisions followed), a very rare decent topical (Anderson + two other conversations or people), or a narrative if you could keep the timepoints pretty close (like three decisions Lee made in a day). So if I were going to rewrite it I would write it this way (I rewrote my central idea because Hannah said it was putting too much burden on Lee and showing my bias as a Yankee, which is a fair critique):

Organizational Pattern: Pseudo-Cause/Effect, Chronological, Pseudo-Spatial

CIS: Although war is complex, it is certain that Lee’s hyper cautious leadership significantly contributed to the Confederate’s loss at Gettysburg.

Main Point 1: First, Lee invested too much in the “be careful” intelligence of the Harrison spy report that he received several days prior to the report while positioned in Cashtown.

(Transition: As a result of his investment, Lee did not move from Cashtown quickly enough)

Main Point 2: Second, Lee remained in his pre-war position at Cashtown too long, leaving too much ground to cover to gain a battlefield advantage at Gettysburg.

a. Experts often describe this as the “traffic jam” of Gettysburg.

(Transition, though Lee overcame the traffic jam rather quickly his caution soon rose to the surface, as I’ll discuss next).

Main Point 3: Third, once arriving at the battle site Lee took too long deliberating his lines of initiation for the first engagement.

(Like the traffic jam, Lee managed to correct his delay rather quickly but did not maintain his forward movement when it was most crucial)

Main Point 4: Finally, Lee allowed initial losses in the war’s early hours to spook him into holding troops back at the pivitol Herr ridge.

Conclusion: Once Herr ridge was lost, Lee lost all opportunity to make up for his cautious leadership despite his excellent ability to coordinate and move troops as he demonstrated during the “traffic jam”

Now I’m obviously no Civil War expert so this might not be a watertight explanation but in some ways being kind of an “interested novice” works to my advantage because I can see the big picture and keep it simple while still trying to give a sense of organization and cause-effect for each of Lee’s decisions.

Here is a student sample provided by Rebekah and Taylor (thanks so much!) that you can also consider for its strengths and weaknesses (notice, for example, where they could have cut from the Main Points and either eliminated that material or re-purposed it for SUPPORTS or in transitions).

1) While consulting with the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee expressed a desire to stay behind in the city the army was currently resting in, an example of his hesitation and trust in the soldiers he was leading. Ultimately, Davis practically had to force the general to go into battle against the Union.

2) Once Lee had moved in Gettysburg with the troops, as he was devising his battle strategy, his caution prevailed once again, for he decided to hide behind the trees at the edge of the field, while the Union troops ran out and had the advantage in battle, leading to their victory.

3) As any great general, one of the most important roles in leadership is the encouraging speech they give to their soldiers before battle. When it came time, Lee stood on a boulder, and with a weak smile, told the soldiers to, “Pray for their survival and to hope for good luck.”

And we will start with this on Monday while we “transition” into writing transitions, introductions and conclusions or what I call “Finishing Touches.” P.S. You can find an audio lecture from me on this issue at Podcast Machine or on iTunes


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I am a rhetorical scholar, public speaker, and teacher at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I study speech and contemporary U.S. political culture and teach courses in public speaking, interpersonal and visual communication, speech and media, and rhetorical theory and criticism. I have been featured on RabbitBox Storytelling and TEDx.

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