Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“Ex. insufficient”: The Leadership of Midshipman Edward Lea

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 13, 2017

Some of you will be familiar with the story of Lieutenant Commander Edward Lea, Executive Officer of USS Harriet Lane, who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863. Lea was famously reunited with his father Albert, a Confederate staff officer, after the battle. After Major Lea went to obtain an ambulance to have his son transported to a hospital, the naval officer’s shipmates asked what they could do for him. Nothing, he replied, “my father is here.” Those words are now chiseled into Edward Lea’s tombstone (above, in 2011).

Recently I happened on Lea’s disciplinary record from his time at the the U.S. Naval Academy. Lea got himself written up pretty regularly, generally for minor infractions — “talking at battery exercise,” “out of room in study hours,” “absent from parade,” and the like — but one of the more serious incidents happened in January 1854, during his Second Class (junior) year, for “allowing a hissing noise in his crew on leaving the Mess Hall on the 24th and not reporting the same.” In the last column of the entry is the notation, “Ex[cuse] insufficient.” And they threw the book at him — ten demerits.

At the risk of over-interpreting this entry, it sure reads as though one of Lea’s squad members made a vulgar or disrespectful noise directed at someone or something and, when one of his superiors demanded an answer, Lea declined to name the offender or assist in his discovery. And so Edward Lea himself took the demerits, quite likely more than the original offender would’ve received.

If that’s what happened, that’s leadership. There’s no way to know what or who prompted this incident in the first place, but Lea took responsibility for it, and refused to point the finger at the actual culprit. It’s also the kind of move that — no matter what they might say — earns the respect of both his superiors and the lower class midshipmen he led. It suggests a great deal about his character and style of leadership, and explains why, after he died in action nine years later, his comrades saw to his proper and respectful burial.

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