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Masters of Leadership and Command: Three Lessons to Learn From Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower


George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower helped lead the United States to victory in three of the most significant conflicts in American history. War was the ultimate test for these three generals and future presidents. By owning the hour of adversity, never turning back or stopping until the mission was accomplished, and inspiring confidence and courage in other people, each of them mastered the art of leadership and command. By studying the special qualities that allowed Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower to succeed on the battlefield, three lessons emerge that every American can learn from and apply to their own lives.

George Washington: Own the Hour of Adversity

General George Washington’s defeated and dispirited Continental Army was the picture of desperation in December 1776. Conditions in the army were simply miserable. The Commander-in-Chief reported that some of his troops were “so thinly clad as to be unfit for service,” and another officer described his starving comrades as resembling “animated scarecrows.” To make matters worse, the British Crown appeared to be on the brink of victory in the Revolutionary War, causing many to lose hope in the fight for American Independence.

During this dark time, the famous writer and Patriot Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.” With the fate of America’s destiny hanging in the balance, General Washington proceeded to conduct one of the greatest campaigns in military history.

George Washington and the Daring Campaign That Saved the American Revolution.

On Christmas night 1776, the Commander-in-Chief and his troops left their frigid Pennsylvania encampments and crossed the ice-chocked Delaware River in the middle of a severe winter storm. After making it over to New Jersey, Washington and his band of 2,400 soldiers marched ten difficult miles to reach the town of Trenton, where they routed a garrison of 1,500 Hessian mercenaries on the morning of December 26.

The victorious Americans quickly returned to Pennsylvania, but rather than retiring to winter quarters to rest up until the next fighting season, Washington decided to strike the enemy again. Another hazardous crossing of the Delaware was made and Washington’s troops engaged a British force under General Charles Cornwallis at the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777. Cornwallis hoped to finish off the Americans the following day, but Washington and his army deceptively slipped away from the field that night and boldly marched to Princeton, New Jersey. With their commander leading from the front, the soldiers of the Continental Army struck Cornwallis’s rear guard at the Battle of Princeton on January 3 and won another stunning victory. After Princeton, Washington and his troops made their way to Morristown, New Jersey and finally settled into winter quarters.

General Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Under Washington’s leadership, the soldiers of the Continental Army faced every hardship imaginable and went on to achieve two major battlefield victories in the span of ten days that saved the Revolution from ruin and inspired the public to renew their faith in the fight for liberty. Because of the Commander-in-Chief and his faithful warriors, America had survived “as dark a time as any in the history of the country,” as noted by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough.

When it truly mattered most, George Washington was at his best. Although there would be many more despairing moments in the war, he continued to own the hour of adversity year after year until American Independence was finally secured in 1783.

All of us will face moments of crisis in our own lives. When those situations arise, we must be at our very best. Like Washington, we must own the hour of adversity.

Ulysses S. Grant: Never Turn Back or Stop Until the Mission is Accomplished

One of Ulysses S. Grant’s superstitions was that when he “started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” Grant’s philosophy served him well when he faced one of the greatest crises of his military career.

On Sunday, April 6, 1862, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s 44,000-man-strong Army of the Mississippi launched an all-out onslaught against Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s roughly 42,000 soldiers encamped around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Determined to crush Grant’s army before it could combine forces with Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Johnston’s attack caught Grant’s forces off guard and threatened to inflict a catastrophic blow.

General Johnston mounted on his horse, Fire-eater, and raising a small tin cup taken from an abandoned Union encampment to rally his troops on April 6, 1862. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo: Scanned from Don Troiani's Civil War)

Grant was waiting for Buell at his headquarters nine miles downriver when the Confederate attack began. After hearing the unmistakable sounds of battle, the Union commander boarded the Tigress and steamed up to Pittsburg Landing. Upon reaching the battlefield, General Grant was confronted with scenes of chaos and carnage, but he remained calm, showing no “evidence of excitement or trepidation,” and immediately went to work. Grant met with his division commanders, organized a defense, and rallied his men, never doubting that his troops would stand firm and eagerly waiting for his chance to strike back.

At this point of the Civil War, April 6, 1862 featured the most severe combat that either side had seen, pitting “Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” as Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs. Among the thousands of dead and wounded that day was Albert Sidney Johnston, who bled to death after a bullet struck his leg and severed an artery. Following Johnston’s death, General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command. After trying to maintain the momentum of the Confederate onslaught, Beauregard recognized that his troops were exhausted and disorganized, leading him to halt the Southern advance at nightfall. He sent a victory telegram to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia and expected to finish off the Bluecoats in the morning. Grant and his army, however, were far from beaten.

The Battle of Shiloh, also know as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, by Thure de Thulstrup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Grant's army had been hit hard during the day of unprecedented savagery. With his forces in danger of being driven into the Tennessee River, some of Grant’s subordinates thought it best to retreat before the enemy could resume the offensive in the morning, but their commander had other ideas: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” It was not in Ulysses S. Grant’s DNA to turn back or stop until the mission was accomplished. He was going to press on and fight until he had defeated the enemy. Sometime after midnight, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had valiantly led his troops on April 6, suffering two slight wounds and having three horses shot from under him, found his commander standing by an oak tree in the pouring rain. Sherman remarked, “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” answered a steely-eyed Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

Reinforced by Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Grant took the initiative on the morning of April 7, launching a counteroffensive along the entire line of battle. After another savage day of fighting, Union forces had recovered the ground that had been lost the day before and General Beauregard ordered a withdrawal back to Corinth, Mississippi. The bloody Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was over. Few would ever forget the two-day struggle that resulted in some 24,000 dead and wounded across both sides, a slaughter that was hard to fathom at the time, eclipsing the total casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined.

The final resting place for some of the fallen of the battle at Shiloh National Cemetery. (Photo: Shiloh National Military Park)

As Grant understood, a Confederate victory at Pittsburg Landing would not only have set the “war back six months,” but also “would have caused the necessity of raising . . . a new Army.” Although the Confederates had taken his army by surprise and pushed his troops to the limit on April 6, Grant had not been “beaten yet by a damn sight,” and went on to “Lick ‘em tomorrow.” His own subordinates had considered retreat the army’s best option after the brutal first day of fighting, but Grant never lost faith and refused to turn back or stop until the mission was accomplished. In time, he would be named general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States. Guided by his philosophy and his other skills as a commander, Grant would lead the Union to ultimate victory in the Civil War.

Anytime we face a setback or an unexpected crisis strikes, it is important to never lose faith. By believing in ourselves and by trusting the people in our corner, we too can “lick ‘em tomorrow.” Like Grant, we must never turn back or stop until the mission is accomplished.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Inspire Confidence and Courage in Other People

As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was responsible for overseeing and directing the largest amphibious invasion in military history. Codenamed Operation Overlord, nearly two million men from over 12 countries, 7,000 naval vessels, 11,500 aircraft, and millions of tons of supplies were assembled for the invasion of Normandy, France. After months of intense preparation and planning, the campaign to liberate the peoples of Europe from German occupation was finally set to begin on Monday, June 5, 1944. Unfavorable weather in the English Channel, however, forced Eisenhower to make the difficult decision of postponing the attack to Tuesday, June 6. On that momentous day, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force would have to work together to overcome formidable German defenses along the French coastline and secure a foothold to spearhead the drive into France. To be successful, everyone on the Allied side would have to be at their best.

The significance of this operation was not lost on anyone, and on the eve of D-Day, no man carried more weight on his shoulders than General Eisenhower. Although every effort had been made to put the invasion force in a position to succeed, the Allies still faced a daunting challenge. As an avid student of history, Eisenhower understood that nothing in war is ever certain. If the invasion of Normandy failed, the supreme commander was prepared to release a message he had written assuming full responsibility for the tragic outcome. While he prepared for that worst-case scenario, Eisenhower’s top priority was to make sure his men were primed for victory. With everyone looking to the supreme commander for direction, Eisenhower knew that he had to inspire confidence and courage in the warriors who were about to launch the greatest operation of World War II.

On the evening of June 5, to the delight of the paratroopers at Greenham Common Airfield in England, the supreme commander had decided to pay them a visit. The men of the 101st Airborne Division and other airborne units were preparing to board their planes when the word spread, “Eisenhower’s in the area,” as one soldier shouted. Shortly after midnight, these paratroopers and many others would be dropped into the invasion area. It was up to them to seize vital roads and bridges to support the infantry that would later land and assault the beaches of Normandy. Eisenhower understood the dangers that these airborne troops were heading into and his presence had a tremendous effect on the men. “They went crazy,” reported Eisenhower’s driver, Kay Summersby, “yelling and cheering because ‘Ike’ had come to see them off.” The troops made it clear that they were ready to go. “Hell, we ain’t worried, General,” said one sergeant, “It’s the Krauts that ought to be worrying now.” While Eisenhower certainly helped inspire confidence and courage in these warriors, their confidence and spirit also strengthened him. As First Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel observed, the supreme commander’s morale was “improved by being with such a remarkably ‘high’ group of troops.”

Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division at Greenham Common Airfield on the evening of June 5, 1944. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In his Order of the Day for Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Eisenhower used the power of his words to inspire confidence and courage in everyone who had a role to play in the invasion of Normandy:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

The broadcast of Eisenhower's D-Day message. (YouTube: U.S. Army Website Videos)

After what must have felt like the longest day and the most intense struggle of their lives, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force had done their duty. By the end of June 6, the five assault beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword had been secured and around 156,000 Allied troops were on the ground. The Allies suffered approximately 9,000 casualties on D-Day, 4,572 of whom were killed. Although the war was still far from over, the Allies had gained a vital foothold to begin the drive into France.

General Eisenhower had inspired the courage and confidence in his men that they needed to win. Their success provided long-awaited hope to the peoples of Europe living under German occupation. With Eisenhower guiding the way forward for the Allies across many more fierce battles, deliverance finally came when victory in Europe was achieved in May 1945.

Like Eisenhower, we must also inspire confidence and courage in the people closest to us. By priming our family and friends for success, we too can accomplish extraordinary feats together.

Sources on Washington

1776 By David McCullough.

Sources on Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow.

Sources on Eisenhower

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