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.