In a struggle where more than 650,000 men perished over a period of a mere four years, on a fascinating stage where the last vestiges of feudalism clashed with the industrial revolution and modern respresentative democracy, there are bound to be lessons. Latest estimates put the tally at around 800,000 deaths caused by the war. A staggering figure given that the US at the time -1860- had only around 31 million inhabitants all together. Percentage wise this is more than France or Germany lost during the First World War. If so many people were willing to risk their lives in the most destructive of circumstances, for reasons that are not always clear to us today, this war must have seen some fierce characters, some rose to the occasion and others faltered miserably. What are are some lessons we can derive from these examples?
- A true leader takes the blame
One of the most inspirational leaders of the American Civil War was no doubt Robert E. Lee. He won a string of victories against opponents that often outnumbered him by two to one and had superior weaponry and logistics. He was not the most brilliant strategist however and his victories were costly. His management of the war’s biggest and most famous battle, Gettysburg, was very poor and based on deep feelings of contempt for the fighting qualities of his enemy. When his last attempt to win the battle -a grand charge over an open field where his men would be exposed to enfilade fire from well-positioned, long-range Union artillery- was bloodily repulsed, he immediately took all the blame. From the approximately 15,000 men that were assigned to make the charge, about half were lost. He did not make the most sound decisions during this battle, but it’s equally true that several of his key subordinates made vital mistakes as well. Instead of putting all the blame on them, he took full responsibility for the bloody defeat. This act held the army together, it had the paradoxical effect of maintaining the confidence of the soldiers had in him, and it inspired the army to fight an other day.
So remember, if you go around blaming other people for what went wrong, they will subconsciously realize that you are not really in charge and your authority will suffer. If you want to be a leader, take full responsibility for whatever happens to your cause, army, company, business, community…
- Big egos, big faillures
If you are scared out of your wits to make a mistake and lose face, guess what… You will fail and lose face.We jump from the one extreme to the other extreme. If the war produced one man who could never admit to any mistake and heaped all the responsibility for setbacks on others, it has to be George B. McClellan. What makes his case extra sad, is that the man actually had a very bright head on his shoulders. He was a superb organizer of men and can in some ways be seen as the father of the Army of The Potomac, one of the most important Union armies. He was extremely meticulous, his men adored him, and he did come up with a very good plan to defeat his opponent. Fairly early in the war he devised an original plan to transport his massive host over sea and drop it on the flank of his enemy, where it was poised to take out the enemy’s capital at Richmond, Virginia. Unfortunately he had taken a hell of a lot of time to put the plan in motion, because he was always afraid he didn’t have enough men. Somehow he was struggling to achieve the impossible: he wanted to have 100 percent certainty that his army would prevail. Of course, in war nothing is certain, and it’s common knowledge that ‘no plan survives contact’, meaning that as soon as armies clash there’s the inevitable factor we tend to call ‘luck’ or ‘chance’ that is out of our control. McCellan’s huge ego could not allow for faillure, so he moved at a snail’s pace. Although he vastly outnumbered his oppponent he insisted on dragging cumbersome siege guns to the front lines to blast his way through. His opponent was smart enough to wait till the last minute and retreat before the siege guns were finally ready to open fire. In this way they deftly stalled for time, which allowed them to assemble more forces. McCellan meanwhile kept clamoring for more reinforcements, almost pestering his superiors with requests and accusations, telling everyone who wanted to listen that the authorities were doing everything they could to thwart him. Going so far as to say that he was the only one who could save the army, in spite of the foolish decisions of all the other idiots in charge. He had this to say about Abraham Lincoln: ‘The President is no more than a well-meaning baboon. I went to the White House directly after tea, where I found “The Original Gorilla”, about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now.’
His fear of faillure also led him to believe that his opponent vastly outnumbered him, whereas the complete opposite was true. In the end he did manage to come very close to the outskirts of his enemy’s capital. There his opponent, Robert E. Lee, deciced to attack. McClellan got scared and retreated, even though the damage was rather minimal and he had far more reserves than his enemy. His self-fulling prophecy dictated his actions and ultimately he retreated all the way back and abandoned his campaign.
On a later occasion he even had the impossible stroke of luck that his enemy’s precise marching orders fell into his hands. He knew everything his outnumbered and outgunned opponent was going to do and he still failed to destroy his enemy. To his wife he wrote: ‘Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.’
Big egos, big embarassing faillures…
- You decide when you are defeated
Early in the war general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men were being -sort of- besieged in Fort Donelson, together with about 14,000 other soldiers. His commanders quickly lost all hope, ignoring opportunities to break out and defeat their enemy. Instead they started bickering over who should take care of the details of their surrender.
Nathan Bedford Forrest understood the situation better than his superiors and took matters into his own hands. He deciced to at least keep his own little command out of the enemy’s prisons. He told his men: ‘Boys, these people are talking about surrendering, and I am going out of this place before they do or bust hell wide open.’ He took 700 men and somehow managed to slip them past the enemy’s lines, something his demoralized superiors weren’t even willing to consider.
The lesson: you’re not defeated until you give up looking for opportunties to turn the tide.
- Is the elite in your society doing your thinking for you?
The Confederacy -the eleven states that tried to break away from the United States to form their own nation- was dominated in thoughts and actions by its slave owning elite. Though only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves, the vast majority of Southern politicians owned slaves. Their political actions were of course influenced by their stake in the perpetuation and expansion into new territories of slavery. The white population heard and read a lot of rhetoric often obscuring this fact, and went to war for many different reasons. During the war, however, they quickly came to the realization that they were mainly fighting for the interests of their rich neighbours. The cry ‘A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’ became common. Especially after the new slave holding nation passed a law saying you didn’t have to fight if you happened to have 20 slaves back home. It turned out the elite moved their poorer neighbours into the abyss and wasn’t willing to pay the price to get them back out of it. In the end, around 258,000 people died for the perpetuation of a system that benefited only a tiny, fabulously wealthy elite. So always ask yourself when something major happens: Cui Bono? Who benefits? A variant of this is: Follow the Money. Why does the American political system spew forth pathologically lying demagogues such as Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Cui bono? Who benefits? Chances are it won’t be the unemployed, the working poor or the debt ridden students…
- Keep your eyes on the prize, be flexible about your approach
According to some, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery because he hated the inhumane institution, according to others he only abolished the war because it undermined his enemy’s war effort. The truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a very shrewd politician and a very complicated man who went through lots of evolutions throughout his life. He’s often painted as a racist and just a man of his times based on quotes where he says he does not think the black race equal to the white race. Imagine him saying the opposite, his political career would have ended then and there… He also said he was waging the war not to abolish slavery, but to keep the country together. If the nation fell apart by the actions of a minority he thought the country was headed for anarchy and chaos. It’s clear however that he did abhor slavery and that he did slowly move towards its abolition.
He was shrewd enough to bide his time though. When early in the war one of his generals tried to abolish slavery in his district, Lincoln immediately prevented him from doing so and cancelled this attempt. He drew a storm of criticism for this from anti-slavery factions in the country. The truth is that at the time it was the best thing he could have done. Quite a few slaveholders were still loyal to the United States and if he had moved against slavery too early, they would have gone over to the other side, therefore bolstering the survival chances of slavery. When he did abolish slavery his timing was excellent. He did it right after a battle that ranks as a Union victory. Why? Because if he had done it when the war was going against him, his action would have been perceived as the action of a desperate man. The way in which he abolished slavery was also shrewd. His emancipation proclamation freed slaves only in the areas still under control of the Confederacy. He did not touch slavery in states still loyal to the Union or in areas that were under Union occupation, again to secure the support of loyal slaveholders. The proclamation made slaves run off. One in four left their masters. Slaves also realized they should support the Union -even though their was plenty of racism in non-slaveholding states as well- and 180,000 black soldiers ended up serving in Union ranks. Later in the war he made sure that slavery was eventually abolished throughout the entire country, even setting the stage to allow freed slaves to vote.
The lesson: decide on your outcome, but be flexible about your approach.