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Devil’s Own Day

In business we all have good days and bad days, victories and defeats. We’ve written about the manic/depressive nature of CEO’s of startups and I hear probably once a month from someone with the exact same experience. How gracious we are during the good times is important. Being humble and showing respect for all the team member’s contributions is important. Even more important than how we behave during victories is how we react during the bad times, after being defeated.

The Battle of Shiloh fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee, was by the bloodiest battle in US history up to that time.  Below is a summary of the battle’s first day from HistoryNet:

On the western bank of the river, at Pittsburg Landing, an angry, confused and terrified mob of Union skulkers sought shelter alongside the bluffs that overlooked the river. That morning, many of these same troops had been routed from their campgrounds near the primitive Methodist meeting house called Shiloh, 2 1/2 miles southwest of the landing, by onrushing Confederate troops led by General Albert Sidney Johnston’s onrushing Confederate troops, who were seeking to drive the Union invaders from their stronghold in southwestern Tennessee.

The ensuing battle, the bloodiest single day of fighting yet experienced on the North American continent, had settled by nightfall into an exhausted stalemate, with troops on both sides hunkering down for the night in the vine-choked gullies and brambles that gutted the battlefield. By then, Johnston himself was dead, having bled to death from a bullet wound to the knee, and the badly rattled Confederate high command was unsure what to do next. Some argued for an immediate retreat before the enemy could be reinforced; others wanted to renew the battle at dawn.

The Union Commander, Major General Ulysses S. Grant tried to catch a few hours’ sleep in the shelter of an oak tree but was unable to because of the rain and an injured ankle. He relocated to a log cabin on the bluff above the river but surgeons had taken over the cabin and the screams of the wounded were too much. “The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire,” Grant recalled in his memoirs, “and I returned to my tree in the rain.” It was there that his second-in-command, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, found him chewing on a cigar. “Well, Grant,” said Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

How did Grant reply? Did he blame his lieutenants for not leading properly or question the bravery of his soldiers? How would you have reacted? It’s tempting when suffering from a major defeat to give into your own sorrow and think about yourself. No doubt as business leaders we still have families and obligations outside of the business that we have to think about. These pull on us to not remain stoic for our troops, not to be the inspiration most needed at this time.

To Sherman’s “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”, “Yes,” Grant replied “lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

Comments RSS TrackBack 4 comments

  • Violet Clark

    in April 21st, 2010 @ 12:42

    Thank you for using my photograph for your blog posting!

    Violet Clark
    LaFollette, TN

  • Fish

    in April 21st, 2010 @ 16:02

    Hi Violet,

    Thanks for the great photo and letting people use it from Flickr! Tagaroo is the WordPress plugin that we use to recommend photos.

  • Doug Boone

    in May 28th, 2010 @ 05:06

    For Pete’s sake use better men for your illustrations. Grant was a drunk who had no regard for his men’s lives and Sherman was a war criminal who inflicted unneccessary casulities on civilians. To use them as management examples is like using Enron or Fanny Mae as a business model.

  • Fish

    in May 29th, 2010 @ 21:42


    There is no doubt that Grant struggled with alcoholism his entire life and his detractors often made accusations of this affecting his command. However, most historians agree that Grant’s drinking had nothing to do with the casualty rate at battles such as Shilo. In fact historian James McPHerson states that this struggle for self-discipline made Grant a better general and able to act with more boldness than other commanders. You can disparage Grant for his addiction to alcohol but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was the leader who won victories starting at Cairo, through Vicksburg and eventually ended the Civil War. While President he led reconstruction by signing and enforcing civil rights laws and was the first President in almost half a century to be elected to two terms. No doubt he was not a perfect individual but that does not prevent us from learning from his example of how to lead during the worst of times that most of us can’t even imagine.

    As an anecdote, one of Grants detractors made a statement to President Lincoln that he had proof of Grant’s drinking. “Well,” returned Lincoln, “you needn’t waste your time getting proof; you just find out, to oblige me, what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals.”

    While Sherman is really only a supporting actor in the story his reputation should be defended somewhat as well. As you point out, it is still popular to this day to accuse him of war crimes but he was never charged of any such thing and historians such as Mark Grimsley make the case that civilian casualties were very minor during the March to the Sea. One of the most oft cited examples of Sherman’s excessive force is burning Columbia but the historic facts show strong evidence that Confederate General Wade Hampton was responsible for burning bales of cotton in the street as he departed which caused the conflagration. In fact, Sherman and his men worked through the night attempting to put out the fires.

    While you may not appreciate Sherman’s tactics of total warfare, they have been studied and copied by many of the most famous tacticians of the 20th century including Rommel and Patton. I think one could make a good case that the rationale for the United States use of nuclear weapons during WWII was the same as Sherman’s total warfare. Major Henry Hitchcock, who served in Sherman’s staff, declared that “it is a terrible thing to consume and destroy the sustenance of thousands of people”, but if the scorched earth strategy served “to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting … it is mercy in the end.”