From my interview with General (Ret.) David Petraeus, I wanted to share his observations about the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant: “sheer will, indomitable determination, and quiet fortitude.”
JC: Why do you admire Civil War general, later president, Ulysses S. Grant so much?
General David Petraeus: First of all, he was near genius as a tactical leader, an operational leader, and a strategic leader.
He does have as tough time at Shiloh— Sherman comes out of the night. It’s one of these rainy nights. Grant’s sitting out in the open. He’s just waiting for the sun to come up. We’ve all experienced this in the field. Had a very tough day on the battlefield that day. Almost pushed back into the Tennessee River. He’s literally on the bank of the river.
Every available area with cover is being used as a makeshift hospital. You can hear the screams of those who are having limbs amputated. There’re still people out on the battlefield who haven’t been recovered who are calling out. He’s got a slouch hat on, a wet cigar in his mouth. Rain’s dripping off his hat.
Sherman comes out of the dark and says, “Well, Grant, we had the devil’s own day today, didn’t we?” Grant says, “Yep. Lick ’em tomorrow though.”
That kind of determination is inspirational if you’re in a tough fight like we were in the surge in Iraq. It just so happened I was reading Grant Takes Command at that time, and it was just wonderful. Somebody had given that to me. It ends up on this table next to my bunk. I start reading it, and I find I’m just enthralled by what he experienced. Bruce Catton captures this brilliantly.
Then, of course, he has the battle of Vicksburg, one of the great operational battles of all time and so risky that his most trusted lieutenant, Sherman, asks that a letter be put in the official file that he objects to the level of risk. Grant throws loose. First, he runs the guns at Vicksburg in ships. He deploys south of it. He goes way out to the east to meet the forces trying to reinforce Vicksburg, and then he defeats them.
He has no logistics lines, by the way. He’s cut loose of those. Then he comes back and invests Vicksburg in a siege and ultimately takes it down. A huge, huge battle because this gives the North, now, control of the Mississippi River and it splits the Confederacy in two.
Then he comes east, and as he comes east, you have the battles in Chattanooga, and he retrieves a difficult situation there. Then he develops the first real strategy ever for the Union forces, and it’s basically that Sherman’s going to come across. He’s going to take Atlanta, Savannah, and come north. He’s got a couple of different generals coming out of the Tidewater area. They’re all headed — here’s Richmond. He’s got Sheridan coming down the Shenandoah Valley, taking it away from the Confederates for the first time. It used to their granary, their source of stores and so forth.
Then he’s in Meade’s back pocket, going right at Lee, and when he hits Lee the first time, instead of backing up to Washington as every general had done before him, he just sidesteps and hits him again. The troops cheer when they realize they’re not walking back to Washington. He writes to Lincoln, and he says, “I intend to fight it out all summer on this line if that’s what it takes.” It took all summer, all fall, all winter, and into the spring before Appomattox in April 1865, but a brilliant operational plan.
Frankly, people forget that there could’ve been a very different outcome if Sherman had not taken Atlanta and if Sheridan hadn’t won in the valley because that basically sealed the election for Lincoln, which prior to that was very much open. There were those that wanted to sue for peace, and McClellan was a viable alternative candidate in that regard.
He’s really an extraordinary hero in that sense. Just the sheer will, the indomitable determination, the quiet fortitude and so forth that I found very instructive, again, literally during the surge in Iraq.
I told that story about Sherman a couple of times on very, very bad days in Iraq, and guys still write to me and at the bottom and say, “Lick ’em tomorrow.”
Watch the interview with General David Petraeus:
Jeff Cunningham is Professor of Global Leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University.
He studies C suite and board matters and has counseled more than a few in his career.
He is the former publisher of Forbes Magazine and ceo of Zip2 (Elon Musk’s first company), and was a venture capital partner with Schroder Ventures.
He has served on 10 public company boards, four as chairman.
He is the founder of Directorship Magazine, now the official publication of the NACD.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org