“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on”.
Ulysses S. Grant was an uncomplicated, plain-speaking man who had an exceptional career. The most acclaimed Union general of the American Civil War who went on to win election twice as the President of the United States, Grant’s early career was one characterized by failure that could have led to a lifetime of historical obscurity had it happened to someone else.
Following time as an officer in the U.S. Army during the American-Mexican War, Grant’s military career was cut short by a forced resignation due to drunkenness. This was followed by years of failure in a string of civilian ventures, from farming to work as a bill collector and a trader. These years of struggle are important to understand because they provide the context for his subsequent approach to military strategy.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 inspired him to volunteer, but his entreaties for field command were rebuffed by Major General McClellan, who remembered his previous reputation for intemperance. Dogged lobbying finally landed him with a field command, which proved to be the turning point for Grant.
The early engagements of the Civil War were characterized by deep frustration for the Union cause. While Confederate leaders such as General Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest burnished their reputations against numerically and materially superior armies at engagements such as the Battle of Seven Pines, The Second Battle of Bull Run and the Seven Days Battles, the Union generals allowed advantage after advantage to slip through their fingers through an over-abundance of caution.
Understanding what drove this caution helps us understand why Grant was successful where his predecessors were not. Union Generals such as McClellan, Burnside, Fremont and Hooker were men with well established reputations and ambitions. McClellan in particular, as a Democrat fighting under a Republican President in a deeply contentious environment openly questioned his commander in chief, driven in part with an eye to achieving the presidency for himself. These were men with a great deal to lose and sometimes not a full commitment to the overarching strategy laid out by Lincoln.
Grant was different. His earlier failures and foibles had ruined his career. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Early successes in the Western Theatre of the War led to his elevation as commander of the Army of The Tennessee. He gained a reputation as a dogged, focused and determined leader at the battles at Fort Henry and Donelson. This drive and tenacity helped him weather the fallout of the near disaster at Shiloh when his army was taken by surprise and almost routed. In fact, this character trait was what led Lincoln to resist calls for removing him from command because, as he put it, “I can’t spare this man; he fights”. Lincoln’s faith in Grant was rewarded when he led the capture of Vicksburg, the ‘Gibraltar of the South’, and in doing so split the Confederacy in half.
In 1864, Grant was promoted by Lincoln to the command of all Union armies, answerable only to him.
Grant’s subsequent strategy for the remainder of the war, focused on the Eastern Theatre was based on an understanding that the Confederate forces were too degraded and depleted to win a war of attrition. The engagements directed by him were costly, bloody and brutal, and perfectly in line with this strategy. The Overland Campaign was an encapsulation of this strategy, with Union forces continuously pressing their advantage where under previous commanders they would pause after a tactical victory and allow the enemy to retreat and regroup. The relentless nature of this campaign, can be summed up by Grant’s order to Sherman to “follow the enemy to their death”, and directly contributed to the final surrender of Robert E. Lee and the victory of Union forces.
It is this dogged determination, the drive to execute against a clearly defined strategy, and the courage to keep going regardless of setbacks that I believe are the key lessons we as strategists can draw from Grant’s example.
As strategists we are often accused of not getting our hands dirty, of hedging our recommendations and of being too cautious. There is a virtue and a necessity to making a clear eyed decision and taking on the responsibility to see it through, regardless of impact on our personal reputations and careers. But this takes faith. It takes belief in the strategy, belief in yourself and unwavering focus on achieving the outcome. Unlike his military superiors and peers, Grant entered the war as a man with nothing to lose and acted as such. That single minded focus and determination is what carried him to victory and is what we strategists need to understand is often the characteristic that determines success or failure. As Ulysses S. Grant said, “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins”.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.