Defeat from Victory or Victory from Defeat?

Mar 20, 2015

The Battle of Shiloh by Henry Alexander Ogden

The Battle of Shiloh by Henry Alexander Ogden

Several years ago, I toured the Shiloh Battlefield in Tennessee. It is a beautiful national park and a well preserved Civil War Battlefield. This battle, at the time, marked the bloodiest single day and the bloodiest two days in American History. It was important for many reasons, but one of the main keys to this battle, hinged on leadership.

General Albert Sidney Johnston was in overall command of the Southern forces. He was considered one of the brightest and most capable of all the Southern generals. He achieved almost complete and total tactical surprise when his troops attacked the Federal forces, commanded by General U. S. Grant, on April 6, 1862. The Southern forces dominated the fighting and pushed the Union troops back throughout the day. The Union forces were pushed back several miles to, where by the end of the day, their backs were up against the Tennessee River.

Around 2:00 in the afternoon, General Johnston was shot and died shortly thereafter. Command of the Southern forces was passed to General Beauregard, a much more cautious leader. Throughout the day, Southern troops thinking that victory was won, stopped fighting and took the time to loot the Federal camps that they had over run. Discipline broke down and officers lost control of their men. Instead of the Southern army continuing to press the beaten and broken Federals, they allowed them to catch their breath.

As the day ended, one of General Grant’s subordinate generals approached him. This general had seen the defeat that their army had suffered that day. He asked Grant, “General, should I start boarding the men on the steamships for retreat?”

Grant answered, “Retreat? Hell, no! I plan on attacking them in the morning and defeating them!” Grant had seen the same defeat that his subordinate had seen, yet he saw the possibility of still gaining victory from this apparent defeat. On the morning of April 7, Grant ordered his forces to counter-attack the Southern forces. The surprised Confederates fought hard but they were clearly losing this fight. By late in the afternoon, Grant’s army had pushed Beauregard’s army back and regained most of the ground that was lost the previous day. Beauregard, seeing the inevitable, ordered the his forces to retreat.

Whether it is on the battlefield or in the boardroom, there is just no substitute for good leadership. People are looking to be led. Are we going to lead them to defeat or to victory?

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