U.S. Grant’s overconfidence turned into a positive virtue 4 comments

An article in the current (online) New Yorker, “Why the leadership industry rules,” Joshua Rothman discusses the concept of a leader. He refers, at one point, to the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, in which Grant tells a story of himself as a recently commissioned colonel in the Union’s volunteer army. Approaching the presumed location of an enemy camp, Grant related how, “‘My heart kept getting higher and higher, until it felt to me as though it was in my throat.’ When the camp comes into view, however, it’s deserted—the other commander, Grant surmises, ‘had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him.’” Here, as well in most of his biographies, this anecdote is used to demonstrate one of General Grant’s supposed strengths. As Grant commented about the enemy commander, “I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.”

His ardent defender, Horace Porter, used an episode in the Overland Campaign to basically reiterate this lesson. Late on May 6th—one day after being strategically surprised in the confines of the Wilderness by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia—Grant had his right flank crushed by Jubal Early’s surprise attack, which sent scared Union officers running back to headquarters. Allegedly, the General admonished them (according to the less-than-reliable Porter): “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Rarely, however, do his biographers emphasize how General Grant’s overconfidence led to his being repeatedly surprised by the Confederates. Shortly after the incident described in the Memoirs, surprise counterattacks at Belmont and at Fort Donelson punished his men. But the worst example of all was his almost complete lack of preparations and intelligence at Shiloh, despite the presence of a superior Confederate force at Corinth, one good day’s march away. Grant’s massive blunder is usually minimized as much as possible.

But the anecdote about approaching the enemy’s vacant camp is still repeated as a lesson in the art of war. Somehow, this defect as a leader has been turned into a positive virtue for U.S. Grant.

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4 thoughts on “U.S. Grant’s overconfidence turned into a positive virtue

  • Mike Maxwell


    I was introduced to the ‘Leadership Matrix’ in a management course a few years ago: it is an X-Y graph, with the outward tending x-axis representing ‘concern (and ability) for getting the job done’ and the upward tending y-axis indicates ‘concern for your subordinates.’ The position (0, 10) indicated a leader who loved his people, but didn’t get anything done (Dalai Lama?) and (10, 0) was a leader who got the mission done, people be damned (Ghengis Khan?) I do not believe (10, 10) is achievable; but I would grade Robert E. Lee as (9, 9) and I would grade Andrew Hull Foote as (9, 9). Ulysses S.Grant I would grade as (9, 5).

    Was U.S. Grant ‘lucky?’ Fortune favors the brave; and U.S. Grant was brash, bold, determined, and prone not to sit around. Even when surprised, Grant was able to quickly ‘see the correct path,’ and maneuver towards victory.

    And the lessons from the tale this post begins with? ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’
    Also, ‘waiting around, being overly cautious, leads to other problems’ (think trench warfare during WWI).

    Shiloh? Sorry, there just is not enough space…

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Thanks. There can be a large difference between concern for getting the job done and ability for getting the job done in that Leadership Matrix. I think that George McClellan, for instance, would get a higher score for his “concern” compared to his “ability.” I would agree with you that Grant was not overly concerned for his men or his subordinates (except for his friends). But I would probably assign him a three or four, in that regard. Grant’s being “brash, bold, determined, and prone not to sit around” was certainly to his credit as a general. In many other areas, however, he was not nearly as good as his biographers claim. “Fortune favors the brave” is a nice saying, just like the anecdote about Napoleon and lucky generals, but that shouldn’t cause us to overlook the huge impact that chance plays in war.

  • Gabriel Uriarte

    There’s a line that keeps popping up whenever Grant’s carelessness is brought to attention, which I hereby hope (against hope) to help laugh out of existence by the following paraphrases:

    “General Custer spent more time thinking about what he’d do to the enemy than what they could do to him.”

    “Publius Quinctilius Varus spent more time thinking about what he’d do to the enemy than what they could do to him.”

    [Variations welcome.]

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      That does lend itself to a wide variety of situations:

      Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short at Pearl Harbor (or Admiral Harold Stark and other commanders in Washington, if you’d rather) spent more time thinking about what they would do to the Japanese than what the Japanese could do to them. One might want to include General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, as well.

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