In this installment, you will be introduced to the 12 different stages a mythical hero archetype goes through in his hero’s journey. Then we will map Meade’s heroic journey using these 12 stages.
The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
ONE. Ordinary World
The reader meets the hero and learns about his ambitions and limitations. Meade’s ordinary world is commanding Fifth Corps. He has no illusions of being appointed the army commander because he is uncharismatic and has a short temper and dislikes politicians and reporters equally. Meade accepts he would never be chosen to be the army commander because he believes only a charismatic leader can beat the charismatic General Lee. Meade, however, has a strong leadership character.
TWO. Call to Adventure
The hero is challenged to undertake a great challenge or quest. Meade is ordered by President Lincoln’s messenger at 3:00 a.m. to take command of the Army of the Potomac.
THREE. Refusal of the Call
The hero hesitates or refuses the challenge. Meade is furious that he is ordered to take command. He feels it’s too late to change commanders, he is not a charismatic leader, and General Reynolds is much more qualified.
FOUR. Meeting the Mentor
The hero meets with his mentor and receives reassurance. Meade verbally assumes command from General Hooker at 7:00 a.m. June 28, 1863, and Reynolds arrives a few hours later in full dress uniform to encourage Meade that he is the right person to command the army.
FIVE. Crossing the First Threshold
The hero commits to the adventure and enters the special world. Meade spends his first day in command devising a plan to fight Lee. He decides to concentrate his spread-out army and march rapidly northward for three days, hoping to catch Lee’s army before it concentrates. General-in-Chief of the Army Henry Halleck gives Meade special powers. Meade can relieve commanders and promote juniors over seniors. As Meade marches northward toward Gettysburg, his special world is that his logistics supply centers can resupply him. Lee, however, is depending on foraging logistics resupplies, and Lee’s logistics wagons must travel from Virginia to Pennsylvania. Meade’s special world is that he can choose to be offensive or defensive. Lee can only be offensive and attack Meade or retreat across the Potomac into Virginia.
SIX. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Situations and people who help or challenge the hero and help him discover what is special about the special world. From Meade’s perspective, Generals Dan Sickles and Dan Butterfield are poisonous vipers who remain loyal to the former commander, General Joseph Hooker. Meade’s close allies are Generals Reynolds, Hancock, Warren, and Gibbon. His enemy is General Robert E. Lee. Both Sickles and Butterfield test Meade by not executing orders in a timely manner and by disobeying orders.
SEVEN. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The phase when the hero prepares for a central battle with a great enemy. Meade arrives at the edge of a dangerous place where the hero’s greatest enemy is close by. Vogler writes, “In mythology the inmost cave may represent the land of the dead.” On the evening of July 1, 1863, Meade departs Taneytown and rides to Gettysburg. He arrives at the edge of the dangerous Gettysburg Battlefield and enters it by riding through the Evergreen Cemetery – the land of the dead – to meet three of his corps commanders who are waiting at the cemetery gatehouse.
EIGHT. The Ordeal
The central crises of the story in which the hero faces his greatest challenge and tastes death. He faces the possibility of death and is brought to the brink in battle. On July 2, 1863, Sickles disobeys Meade’s orders and moves Third Infantry Corp one-half mile from Little Round Top. Lee launches an echelon attack and Meade’s army is nearly defeated as Meade moves 16,000 reserves to his left flank to shore up Sickles’s corps’ destruction. In doing so, Meade removes all but a brigade from Culp’s Hill, his right flank, and the Confederates nearly take Culp’s Hill.
The hero is reborn in some way and enjoys the benefits of having confronted fear and death. Meade successfully repulses all of Lee’s attacks on July 2, 1863. He meets with all his corps commanders for the first time in the evening. Meade congratulates them on repulsing the enemy.
TEN: The Road Back
The hero commits to finishing the adventure and leaves the special world. On the evening of July 2, Meade tells them that he is staying in place for July 3 and predicts Lee will attack his middle defenses defended by Hancock’s Second Corps and Gibbon’s Second Division.
ELEVEN: The Resurrection
The climatic test that transforms the hero. This is the hero’s second life-and-death moment, almost a replay of the near death of the ordeal. “Death and darkness get one last, desperate shot before being finally defeated.” Meade successfully repulses Pickett’s Charge by moving several reserve troops to the middle of his defensive line. Meade has cause to celebrate his repulse of Pickett’s Charge. Meade is cheered by his troopers as he rides along Cemetery Ridge toward Little Round Top. Meade is surprised that an uncharismatic leader can defeat the charismatic Robert E. Lee.
TWELVE: Return with the Elixir
When the hero comes home and shares what he has learned. Generals Hancock and Pleasonton urge Meade to counterattack after the repulse of Pickett’s charge. Meade declines to attack the middle of Lee’s army that is defended by 115 artillery guns. Meade has learned from Pickett’s charge that infantry assaulting 110 Union cannons is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s uncanny how Meade’s journey as a reluctant hero at Gettysburg from June 27, 1863, to July 3, 1863, maps nearly perfectly to the 12 stages of the hero’s journey. This supports Christopher Vogler’s assertion that the hero’s journey is “…a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.”
One of the interesting things to emerge from mapping the hero’s journey with Meade’s victory at Gettysburg is the contrast between the ordinary world and the special world. Before Meade fell asleep on the evening of June 27, 1863, he was in the safe haven of his ordinary world. This West Point world was dominated by the iron chains of seniority. Promotions were based upon who was the next most senior person. A junior in rank could not be promoted over a senior in rank. Also, subordinates had to be invited to visit the commanding general of the army.
When President Lincoln’s messenger, Colonel James Hardie, visited Meade at 3:00 a.m. June 28, he delivered two orders. One was from Lincoln, promoting Meade to be commander of the Army of the Potomac. The second order was that General-in-Chief Halleck had given Meade special powers. Meade was given permission to fire commanders and promote juniors over seniors.
These magical powers proved to be the game changer for Meade’s victory. Meade immediately promoted three cavalry captains to brevet brigadier generals: George Armstrong Custer, Elon Farnsworth, and Wesley Merritt. Custer’s two famous Napoleonic cavalry attacks on July 3 on East Cavalry Field proved to be decisive in preventing Jeb Stuart’s cavalry division from penetrating Meade’s right flank and subsequently attacking the rear of Meade’s army. Meade used these special powers again on the afternoon of July 1, when he promoted General Hancock over the senior General Howard to command all forces at Gettysburg. Hancock arrived and saved the day.
Meade’s special world at Gettysburg was also unique because, for the first time in the war, the Union army could choose to stay on the defense and fight. Lee either had to attack Meade’s army or retreat to Virginia. Meade chose to remain on the defense. This would never happen again. After Gettysburg, Meade was forced to always be on the offense pursuing Lee’s army.
The reason Meade could choose to be on the offense or defense at Gettysburg was Lee’s logistics challenges. Until Meade pushed his army rapidly toward Pennsylvania, Lee’s army was also scavenging off the land. When Meade’s army arrived at Gettysburg, Lee had to depend on long logistics lines that stretched back to Virginia. Meade’s logistics hub was at Winchester, ten miles from Gettysburg.
A key theme of the hero’s journey is that one person can make a difference. Without question, General Meade made a big difference and led the Union army to victory. Amazingly, Meade’s mythical transformation as a reluctant hero followed Hollywood’s hero’s journey.
 The sources for these 12 steps are Stuart Voytilla, Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, and Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Edition, Michael Wise Productions, Studio City, California, 2007.
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