Ulysses S Grant in civilian dress

Ulysses S. Grant and the Pettiness of Small Bosses

Forrest ChristianCareers, Reviews - Books 1 Comment

Military organizational experts point out that the war-fighting armies are almost always organized “requisitely” — that is, according to a natural order of hierarchical needs. But it often takes armies that aren’t continually at war to get to that state. An interesting case is that of Ulysses S. Grant.

From Ulysses S. Grant:: Soldier & President, in regards to Grant’s problems with bosses early in the war, when he was in the Western Department under Gen. Henry Halleck:

Halleck piled on the humiliation with a follow-up telegram: “Your neglect of repeated orders to report the strength of your command has created great dissatisfaction and seriously interfered with military plans.” &#8212 from pp. 180.

Grant’s conflicts with Generals Halleck and Buell in the West at the start of the war looks more than a little like a stratum conflict issue. Even down to quotes like the one above. Yeah, a lot of other issues come into play, including bureaucratic power struggles and Grant’s inexperience. Certainly it would have been to the Union’s advantage to take a high-potential officer like Grant and give him the knowledge he obviously so desperately needed at the start of the war. He knew how to lead a small group of regulars from his experiences in the Mexican-American War but he lacked most of the knowledge he needed to lead a larger group, much less a group of unruly volunteers.

I wonder if Grant ever understood that he was bigger than most of the people he worked for, even at that time. Even dogged by a strong -T from a need for accomplishment (created over years of failure or being cut down by superiors incompetent to lead him and through a tragi-comic series of misfilings), Grant stood out as someone who needed big things to do. His constant complaint “But I was no clerk” is an admission that he needed something to occupy his thoughts. His drinking, while not heavy, was often to excess for a man who got drunk easily, seems to have been mostly out of boredom. And his marrying Julia probably didn’t help. Having a wife the equal to his father’s choice (Hannah was at least Jesse Grant’s equal, which says a lot) would have suited him better and possibly filled out some of the places of stark deficiency he had.

You run up against the risk, however, of giving someone like Grant the party line, of creating another supporter of caution like Halleck. Grant may have become an officer with a vested interest in supporting the status quo rather than innovating. But that’s unlikely. Grant seems to have possessed some of the remarkable abilities for understanding battles even at 22 and his more mature self would have kept that. Adding to it knowledge of the latest tactical and technological advances, along with a dollup of political knowledge, would have created a general even more capable of winning.

He certainly lacked the skills and knowledge to be an effective modern president, something he in many ways invented. He even admitted this failure in his last State of the Union address to Congress. When he rose quickly to prominence in the war, he already had both a West Point education and war experience under Zachary Taylor in Mexico. As president, he had none of the necessary political experience to understand how to accomplish things through savvy compromise and exploitation.

Still, I’m impressed by his list of accomplishments. Even as president, something he may not have excelled at, he stood at the beginning of the modern presidency, standing in both the patronage practices of his predecessor and the more rationalistic appointments of the lifelong public servants.

It;s interesting how the series of setbacks in Grant’s life set him up for creating these new institutions. While he certainly doggedly pursued the admiration of his family through battle — at which he excelled — he did not carry any of the Napoleonic fuss and show that characterized many of his peers. By being beaten down so many times, he stayed in contact with the “common man” and understood how to organize them into a fighting army against a better trained Confederate generalcy. This experience of being brought low seems to galvanize a great deal of great leaders.

And I certainly never knew that Grant was considered the best rider in the Army and possibly the world, having set what might have been a high jump record while showing off for the Dragoons as a cadet.

(Stan Smith’s suggested that I read more broadly (he prefers the great dramas) to help me understand the organizational dynamics I’m investigating. I’ve picked up a couple of new reads, this book on Grant by Perret which I’m enjoying. It’s a bit episodic but lacks the overly fawning or dismissive attitudes of most of his biographies. Perret obviously likes Grant but doesn’t go out of his way to excuse him too often. I’ve also picked up Shakespeare’s histories again, which I’ve not read since high school, I’ll warrant. And I started reading The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which is quite another thing altogether.)

Comments 1

  1. Grant probably wasn’t higher than the people he worked for. But, Grant was a realist. He took the one advantage the North had and exploited it shamelessly till the South cracked. Higher order generals would include Sherman, maybe Sheridan, Stonewall Jackson, Ole can’t-remember-his-name-but-they-called-him-the-Dutchman, and Lee. However, one thing they teach you at West Point is that none of the Civil War generals really got it. Technology had made a quantum change and nobody changed the tactics to adjust for the new reality. Hence the huge quantities of dead and wounded.

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