Grant, the Wilderness, and the Loneliness of Command

Emerging Civil War

On the evening of May 6, 1864, Lieutenant General U.S. Grant considered the day’s events. The Battle of the Wilderness had just ended its second day, and Grant’s forces had been  beaten and battered in a way he’d never seen. Both his flanks had been driven in, and panic had set in among some of the Army of the Potomac’s officers. The fate of the 1864 Overland Campaign hung on what Grant decided to do next.

One of the most enduring images of Grant. Taken while on the battlefield of Cold Harbor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

That evening, Grant retired to his tent for what Bruce Catton called “an unpleasant ten or fifteen minutes.” Some of his staff heard him thrashing around. He was wrestling with the lonely weight of command, and staring into the abyss of failure.

It is almost a cliche to say “it is lonely at the top.” But there are times when a person is leading an organization or an enterprise (military or civilian) that everything…

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