A general who learned from early defeats

Study charts Grant’s rise from obscurity to supreme Union commander during the American civil war

Gen Ulysses S Grant. Photograph: Getty Images

Gen Ulysses S Grant. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant


Harry S Laver

The University Press of Kentucky

Guideline Price:

In April 1862 President Abraham Lincoln was beset by political problems in Washington DC and the war against the Confederate states seemed to be lurching from one crisis to the next.

His military concerns frequently focused on the leadership of Union generals, many of whom had performed poorly so far in the war. The senior Union commander, Gen George McClellan, had lately shown a marked reluctance to engage the Confederate army of North Virginia under Gen Robert E Lee. Other generals seemed determined to destroy the Union army itself by launching futile and costly assaults.

There were some exceptions. Gen Ulysses S Grant had recently achieved success at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6th and 7th, 1862), but Lincoln was being pressured to replace him after rumours of excessive drinking. Lincoln decided that Grant would remain with his army, declaring, “I cannot spare this man! He fights!” It proved to be one of the wisest decisions Lincoln made during the war.

This new study by Prof Harry Laver of South Eastern Louisiana University charts Grant’s rise from obscurity to supreme Union commander during the American Civil War. It is not a straight biography, and those looking for more details of Grant’s life should read biographers such as HW Brands, William S McFeely and Joan Waugh. Grant’s Personal Memoirs , published in 1885 and still in print, also offer a comprehensive and frank account.

Leadership style
Laver explores the development of Grant’s leadership style and goes some way in explaining how an officer whose career had ended in relative failure in 1854 had rehabilitated his reputation and risen to senior command.

At the start of the war Grant was effectively washed up. He had served with some distinction during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 but had left the army in 1854, frustrated with peace-time garrison life. In the years that followed he failed in business but, with the outbreak of the war, had a chance at a second military career.

He was appointed colonel of the 21st Regiment of (Illinois) Volunteers and quickly showed he had the potential to hold senior command. A good organiser and leader, he learned valuable lessons during his first engagements against the Confederate army. Laver dispels the idea that great leaders are “born but not made” and outlines Grant’s early missteps, such as at the battle of Belmont, in 1861. Grant showed a capacity to adapt and learn from his experiences.

At several points Laver focuses on Grant’s capacity for “analytical determination”. Grant seemed to have an almost instinctual capacity to analyse a developing military situation, while also showing a mulish determination in adverse circumstances. Laver argues that he also had the analytical skills to avoid becoming overcommitted in futile situations.

Management methods
Laver’s account of Grant’s leadership will become required reading in many military academies. Some commentators have said that Grant’s style has lessons for business and politics. This is dubious, given Grant’s lack of success in one if not both.

It could also be suggested that Laver is presenting nothing new here and has discovered no major previously untapped archive or source. But he does chart the development of the leadership skills of one of the most influential commanders in modern warfare.

Above all, Laver demonstrates that this was a process of evolution and shows that it was often informed by failure and Grant’s self-doubt. There was no single moment of epiphany.

Faced with seemingly overwhelming military problems, Grant dug into his reservoir of determination and made the hard decisions necessary to bring the war to an end, steering the Union army through a series of hard campaigns before hostilities ended at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

In politics Grant showed a less firm touch, and his presidencies of 1869-77 were troubled. In his final years he was beset by financial difficulties and ill health. Dying of throat cancer, he summoned up the will to complete his Personal Memoirs before death, in July 1885. These memoirs provided security for his family. Laver refers to Carl von Clausewitz’s statement that “the commander must have a great force of will”. This study shows that Grant had such a force.