Humility is strength
In the context of warfare, humility may elicit images of weakness, submissiveness, and fear. I suggest that this is a false idea of humility. Real humility is a sign of strength, authentic confidence, and courage. It is the mark of a virtuous person. Benjamin Franklin pursued the goal of living a virtuous life and he sought to attain it through living 13 virtues. One of these virtues is humility- having the quiet confidence to allow your actions to speak for themselves.
The actions by Ulysses S. Grant demonstrates a lifetime of humility through quiet action. Lincoln appointed him to command the Armies of the U.S. on March 10, 1864, late in the American Civil War. Grant is considered a hero of the war due to his many successful battles and campaigns. It is through Grant’s leadership that Union forces captured Richmond, Virginia, which served as the capital of the Confederacy. The win forced Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surrender, effectively ending the war, preserving the Union and ending slavery. In Grant’s memoirs, his humble tone in describing actions taken throughout his life sets him apart from his contemporaries. Grant points out military actions which didn’t prove to be successful, and he freely admits his mistakes. One event that illustrates this point is the Battle at Cold Harbor.
The Union Army launched an attack at Cold Harbor in June 1864 resulting in a tremendous military disaster. The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864, with the most significant fighting occurring on June 3. It was one of the final battles of Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War. It is remembered as one of American history’s bloodiest, uneven battles. Over 12,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured versus while the Confederates suffered almost 4,000 casualties. This was as result of a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified positions of Lee’s army with Grant not achieving the campaign objectives.
Grant concedes that his decision was disappointing, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22nd of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor, no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of the relative loses, were on the Confederate side.” Even though he could have finger-pointed his subordinates, he chose not to. He takes the full blame for the debacle and freely admits his poor decision, “If I’d known then what I knew later, I would have done this differently.” Grant was willing to admit an error, regain composure and set about winning the war. And win the war he did with an attitude without hubris.
Grant was humble regarding his successes just as much as with his losses. Most notable is his low-key and unassuming demeanor at moments of triumph. Almost a year later when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, VA he showed consideration for Lee’s perspective. Grant writes that upon learning Lee’s surrender, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there is the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Grant did not gloat, but acknowledged Lee’s views while opposed to his cause- underscoring the virtue of humility.
The humblest soldier
A compelling episode in Grant’s later life as President of the United States that speaks to his humility took place on the 4th of July in 1878. One year into his post-presidential world tour, Grant found himself in Hamburg, Germany. United States Consul, John M. Wilson, toasted Grant as the man who saved the nation. Grant, usually not one to quickly take the stage, uncharacteristically responded strongly, “I must dissent from one remark of our Consul, to the effect that I saved the country during the recent war. If our country could be saved or ruined by the efforts of any one man we should not have a country, and we should not be now celebrating the Fourth of July.”
Grant explained, “What saved the Union was the coming forward of the young men of the nation. They came from their homes and fields…giving everything to the country. To their devotion, we owe the salvation of the Union. The humblest soldier who carried a musket is entitled to as much credit for the results of the war as those who were in command.” It is leaders like Grant that we must recognize their leadership and aim to emulate it.
A Lesson on Hubris
A classic Greek lesson on the importance of humility is the story of Achilles as described in Homer’s The Iliad. A reoccurring theme in Greek literature is the shameful, often fatal effects of arrogance. For the Greeks, hubris meant thinking you were wise when you were not.