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The General’s Calibrated Filter
“…sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations…”
My wife continues to be frustrated, to the various extremes, by the multitude of often conflicting virus information that is available to her that is either stated with cock-sure confidence or end-of-days hysteria. I continue to (mostly) ignore the noise and read my history…and hopefully learn something. With that I offer a little diversionary reading and hopefully a bit of a lesson.
The following episode comes from late in the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness and is summarized from two paragraphs of Campaigning with Grant by General Horace Porter (1897):
It was now about sundown; the storm of battle which had raged with unabated fury from early dawn had been succeeded by calm. … Just then the stillness was broken by heavy volleys of musketry on our extreme right, which told that Sedgwick had been assaulted, and was actually engaged with the enemy. The attack against which the general-in-chief during the day had ordered every precaution to be taken had now been made.
Knowing with much certainty from which direction the enemy was coming, provisions had been made to prevent that most direct entry into our perimeter…a travel ban, if you will.
… Staff-officers and couriers were soon seen galloping up to Meade’s headquarters, and his chief of staff, General Humphreys, sent word that the attack was directed against our extreme right, and that a part of Sedgwick’s line had been driven back in some confusion. Generals Grand and Meade…walked rapidly over to Meade’s tent, and found that the reports still coming in were bringing news of increasing disaster. I was soon reported that General Shaler and part of his brigade had been captured; then that General Seymour and several hundred of his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy; afterward that our right had been turned, and Ferrero’s division cut off and forced back upon the Rapidan. General Humphreys, on receiving the first reports, had given prompt instructions with a view of strengthening the point of the line attacked. General Grant now took the matter in hand with his accustomed vigor. Darkness had set in, but the firing still continued. Aides came galloping in form the right, laboring under the intense excitement, talking wildly, and giving the most exaggerated reports of the engagement. Some declared that a large force had broken and scattered Sedgwick’s entire corps. Others insisted that the enemy had turned our right completely, and captured the wagon-train. It was asserted at one time that both Sedgwick and Wright had been captured.
News from the front lines came with “intense excitement”…”men’s nerves had been racked by the strain of a two days’ desperate battle.” Surely, extreme measures must be taken immediately, no matter how draconian.
But it was in just such sudden emergencies that General Grant was always at his best. Without the change of a muscle on his face, or the slightest alteration in the tones of his voice, he quietly interrogated the officers who brought the reports; then, sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations, he give directions for relieving the situation with the marvelous rapidity which was always characteristic of him when directing movements in the face of an enemy.
Whether natural ability or due to training and repetition, some leaders are best when in the heat of battle. Some seem to be always in the battle…and, therefore, always at their best (or at least have their head in the game). Similarly, whether natural ability or due to training and repetition, the skills to filter “the truth from the mass of exaggerations” – exaggerations that may be intentional or simply due to the fog of crisis – are critical in a leader. (I would posit, that in some circumstances, it is also important for the leader to signal to the subordinates that he has and will exercise this filter. It makes for a much healthier relationship. But I digress.)
Reinforcements were hurried to the point attacked, and preparations made for Sedgwick’s corps to take up a new line, with the front and right thrown back. General Grant soon walked over to his own camp, seated himself on a stool in front of his tent, lighted a fresh cigar, and there continued to receive further advices from the right.
One wonders how all of this would have been spun with calculated leaks and modern “fake news” from the press corps.
Now the big finish:
A general officer came in from his command at this juncture, and said to the general-in-chief, speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement: “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely form our communications.” The general rose to his feet, took his cigar our of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation which he seldom manifested: “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.” …
It is good to have someone in charge who doesn’t scare easily.
As I said, my wife continues to be frustrated by this Lee-as-ninja-style hysteria. I’m just heartily tired of hearing what excited couriers say the virus is going to do. In the end, I suspect reality may be bad but not nearly what the most excitable reports keep insisting is “a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously” (i.e. no cost is too great).
Now where is my cigar…Published in General
With caveats about my qualifications to comment*, I say this. I really appreciated this article. Grant’s a hero of mine, and you gave a good example of why we admirers admire him. More importantly, you made a fine application of history to today’s crisis.
*I’ve taken up the study of history, military history, leadership, and military leadership over the past couple decades. But not in an intentional, purpose-driven, or thorough way, rather in the same way I have always done whatever it is that I’ve done. I’ve drifted into it driven not by a goal, and not according to a plan, but because I’ve never been able to reign in my intellectual curiosity: the more I know and understand about a fragment of the single system called reality, the less do I know of what I feel must be known, and the less I understand of what I’ve discovered needs to be understood.