…albeit the hard way.
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 representative 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 which 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 some lessons we can derive from these examples?
First, we’ve learned 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; either that or there was some unified agreed upon collusion with the enemy.
When Lee’s last attempt to win the battle -a grand charge over an open field where his men would be exposed to unlimited fire from well-positioned, long-range Union artillery- was bloodily repulsed, he immediately took all the blame; and justly so.
From the approximately 15,000 men that were assigned to make the charge, about half were lost.
He did not make the best decisions during this battle, but it’s equally true 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; again, justly so.
This act held the army together for whatever reason, it had a paradoxical effect of maintaining the confidence of the soldiers had in him, and it inspired the army to fight another day.
Anyway, remember, if you go around blaming other people for what went wrong, they will subconsciously realize 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…
Another lesson we can draw is that 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 decided 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. Live today, fight tomorrow scenario.
The lesson: you’re not defeated until you give up looking for opportunities to turn the tide.
Credit mostly: Frank M.
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