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Taking The High Ground Leadership Lessons
April 6, 2022

Grant at Shiloh: The Will of a Commander

Lincoln never wavered. “I can’t spare this man,” he reportedly said of Grant. “He fights.”

160 years ago today, April 6, 1862, at the end of the first day of fighting at the Battle of Shiloh, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had lost his will to fight. The other subordinate commanders were organizing for retreat. 

Sherman found Grant near Pittsburg Landing, huddled there, his sodden collar turned up in a futile attempt to ward off the rain, his saturated slouch hat pulled down over his head. Grant took a drag on a cigar, the glowing orange end a tiny beacon of light in the gloom.

Grant also had had a lantern in his other hand. Sherman assumed the Union army would soon withdraw, cross the river, regroup and live to fight again.

Taking off his kepi, wiping the sweat and grime from his battle-weary face, Sherman turned to his old friend. “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

“Yes,” Grant sighed, held the lantern up, and then looked Sherman in the eye. ”But, we’ll lick ‘em tomorrow though.

”In those words and that stance—in the face of defeat, we see in Grant a characteristic true of every great leader what Clausewitz called the commander’s great force of will.

Clausewitz described it as follows:

Leadership on the battlefield is seldom required, argued Clausewitz, when men full of good courage fight with zeal and spirit. The energy of purpose is already present. The army moves like a well-oiled machine.

But as soon as difficulties arise, with friction like sand replaces the oil in that machine of war, and it grinds to a halt, it’s then that leadership matters. 

We see it in Sherman’s assumption that the Army of Tennessee had paid the butcher’s bill on April 6th, been surprised and bloodily pushed back to its final defensive line, and must withdraw across the river that night or suffer ignominious defeat.

We know Sherman himself, a hardened warrior, was shocked at the sacrifice the army had paid that day. When he rode up to Grant, he’d lost his own will to fight.

As Clausewitz described it, the heart-rending sight of bloody sacrifice dissolved even in Sherman all physical and moral power. All his forces became prostrated and could no longer be excited by the effort of his own will.

It is then that leadership matters when “the whole inertia of the mass gradually rests its weight on the Will of the Commander.

”It is then that the leader by the spark in his breast, by the light of his spirit, by the spark of purpose, by the light of hope, will kindle afresh the will to fight in others.

“Yes,” Grant sighed, then looked Sherman in the eye. ”But, we’ll lick ‘em tomorrow though.

”On April 7th, instead of withdrawing, Grant attacked Confederate forces and won the field. Grant recalled the day in his memoirs: “We had now become the attacking party. The enemy was driven back all day, as we had been the day before until finally, he beat a precipitate retreat.

”It is the will of the commander—that spark and light of purpose and hope—that kindles purpose and hope in others. By that will, such leaders stand above the masses and continue to be their masters.

Without a spirit strong enough to revive the spirit of others, the leader is pulled down by the masses and sinks with them (in Clausewitz’s hyperbole) “into the lower region of animal nature, which shrinks from danger and knows not shame.

”This force of will, this determination, this ability to endure, set Grant apart from most Union commanders in the Civil War.

After this brutal Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where 100,000 men fought, and24,000 were killed or wounded—more causalities than in all of the wars in the nation’s history combined to that date—there were many calls for Grant’s removal.

Lincoln never wavered. “I can’t spare this man,” he reportedly said of Grant. “He fights.”

Source: Jay Lorenzen, Author, Teacher of Taking The High Ground series in Gettysburg, PA. Taken from Life and Leadership, Weekly Reflections from a Lazy River series, April 6th, 2022.

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