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Leadership Lessons from a General’s Memoirs

By Sgt. Maj. Tyson Crosby

Enlisted Initiatives Group, Training and Doctrine Command

March 8, 2024

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A man and a woman watch film footage of the Tet Offensive

Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs are a must-read for any military leader. They reward study regardless of one’s opinion of Grant as an officer or president. Instead of examining the work as a comprehensive exploration of American history, we can use his account as a springboard for dialogue and learning. Specific passages and their context yield lessons relevant to today’s leadership at all levels.

Fighting Fair

I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him.” (Carr, 1999, p. 26)


The incident inspiring this reflection occurred in New Orleans, where Grant learned that a rifle shot he heard was part of a resolution between two parties – performed at 20 paces. His words don’t simply weigh the merits of duels; they illuminate our nation’s approach to fighting wars.

Employed as an instrument of war, our military should not attempt to fight fairly or ensure battlefield equality for our enemy. The Law of Armed Conflict guides our actions. We should not violate it, but we cannot reduce our military might to level the combat zone for fairness’ sake. As a military, we should use every advantage to exploit every weakness in accomplishing our mission. When ordered to war, our professional military must use all available technology, every resource, and every feasible advantage to achieve victory. Our purpose is to win wars, not to ensure fairness.

The Biblical battle between David and Goliath further illustrates the point: Two warring armies decide to fight fairly, with the Philistine nation relying on a single warrior, Goliath, to win them victory. A boy, David, dashes their hopes with a single rock. Imagine what David’s chances would have been – armed with only six smooth stones and a sling – against an entire brigade combat team.

Leader Presence

In thus moving along the line, however, I never deemed it important to stay long with [Brig. Gen. William T.] Sherman. Although his troops were then under fire for the first time, their commander, by his constant presence with them, inspired a confidence in officers and men that enabled them to render services on that bloody battlefield worthy of the best of veterans.” (Carr, 1999, p. 181)


In this instance, Grant references the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee during the Civil War. In that U.S. Army victory, he had about 20,000 more troops than the Confederate forces. However, his overall losses were greater.

The leadership lesson to glean here comes not from a study of tactics nor strategy, but from a leader’s presence. Doctrine tells us presence means not simply being somewhere but using actions and words to convey competence and confidence (Department of the Army, 2019, 3-1).

Sherman did so. His troops were not seasoned combat veterans, but they faced some of the fiercest fighting of this battle. Although shot twice that day, Sherman remained on the battlefield and continued to lead his formation. Both leaders understood the power of presence; Sherman modeled it, and Grant recognized it. Never underestimate the gap leaders fill by simply being present and sharing troop hardships.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent


[Sherman’s] untiring energy and great efficiency during the campaign entitle him to a full share of all the credit due for its success. He could not have done more if the plan had been his own.” (Carr, 1999, p. 289)


Grant referenced Sherman as they prepared the siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi. Sherman disagreed with Grant’s tactical decision, and the lesson here is how Sherman approached it. Sherman received the order through courier mail, as was common during the Civil War.

First, he rode to Grant’s headquarters and spoke to Grant in front of his staff, expressing his disagreement. He attempted to convince Grant through his staff that his course of action was not in the campaign or the Army's best interest.

Grant was unpersuaded. Sherman then spoke to him alone. In trying to prove his point, Sherman used military theory and tactics, terrain, and operational understanding to make his case, none of which worked in the end.

Ultimately, Grant proceeded with his plan. When Sherman realized he could not convince his superior, he executed the plan without hesitation, as Grant said, as if the plan was his own. This is a classic and critical example of arguing a point with a superior but fully supporting the plan when your argument is lost.

Sherman used expert knowledge and experience to illustrate his disagreement. He used his staff in discourse with Grant’s staff to present his ideas. He did not publicly disagree, he did not run to the media, and he did not half-heartedly execute his portion of the plan. A disagreement in tactics should not doom a professional or command relationship. And finally, when Grant's plan worked, Sherman gave him full credit, even advertising his opposition.

Sherman’s example here is a model for leaders to follow. Disagreement with superiors is not an issue; one must simply understand how to approach that disagreement. Pride foils many. In this case, Sherman put his pride aside and supported his commander.

Completing the Mission

I received the following dispatch dated October 3d: ‘It is the wish of the Secretary of War that as soon as General Grant is able he will come to Cairo and report by Telegraph.’ I was still very lame, but started without delay.” (Carr, 1999, p. 311)


After the victory at Vicksburg, Grant was seriously injured while riding a horse. Severely hurt, he could not turn over in bed while being treated. He described the pain as almost beyond endurance. While convalescing, he received this order and immediately moved to comply.

The lesson here is an easy one – mission accomplishment comes first. Regardless of personal discomfort, safety, or convenience, leaders must follow orders to the best of their ability.

Doctrine and Risk

[Gen. William Rosecrans] had replied in effect that it was a military maxim ‘not to fight two decisive battles at the same time.’ If true, the maxim was not applicable in this case. It would be bad to be defeated in two decisive battles fought the same day, but it would not be bad to win them.” (Carr, 1999, p. 316)


We now turn to doctrine and risk. Military operations are inherently risky, and risk assessment and acceptance are daily duties for military leaders; also, we use doctrine to guide our decisions and leverage common understanding.

Professional photo of General Ulysses S. Grant

In this instance, Grant references a comment by Rosecrans, a U.S. Army commander in the Western theater. In this case, Rosecrans uses battlefield theory to justify why they should not fight two decisive battles at the same time. Grant describes, using facts and understanding, why Rosecrans is wrong. Grant explains how doctrine was not applicable in this situation and how the risk was worth the reward.

Often, leaders become limited by doctrine and do not think out of the box, missing opportunities. Doctrine provides a common language and a baseline for warfighting, and understanding our principles is critical for leaders. But it is not meant to be the only option for success. Leaders must go beyond doctrine if the situation calls for it. They should be bold in accepting risk, especially if the reward is high. As military leaders, we should execute to win, not execute, not to lose, but consider everything when doing so.


[Gen. William Farrar Smith] explained the situation of the two armies and the topography of the country so plainly that I could see it without an inspection.” (Carr, 1999, p. 321)


Grant described an interaction with Smith, the Army of the Cumberland’s chief engineer in the Western theater. Grant, who just arrived at Chattanooga, noted Smith’s acumen as he provided a rundown of the area.

Smith’s sharing of his expertise illustrates how to inform a superior. Our leaders must see what we see. Whether discussions happen over the radio, by email, or in person, we should all strive to achieve the level Smith did when describing the country to Grant.

Military Purpose

The war has made us a nation of great power and intelligence. We have but little to do to preserve peace, happiness and prosperity at home, and the respect of other nations. Our experience ought to teach us the necessity of the first; our power secures the latter.” (Carr, 1999, p. 616)


Here, it is essential to understand the importance of military disposition in relations with the rest of the world. Our military should breed confidence in our relationships with other countries. Not in the sense that if another nation does not obey, they will have to answer to our armed forces, but that our honorable and competent military is always prepared to support our national objectives.

We serve as a model for our partner nations and a deterrent for our enemies. Every leader's responsibility is that the integrity of our armed forces remains intact and that we always stand ready to defend our country and our allies.


Grant's memoirs spark dialogue and facilitates learning. Relevant insights emerge when focusing on specific passages, understanding their context, and drawing connections to contemporary leadership.

Leaders of all levels should read Grant’s work and use its lessons to strengthen their leadership style and develop junior leaders. Grant was not perfect and certainly not oblivious to criticism. Still, the honesty and transparency in his writing provide a fantastic opportunity for all of us to learn and grow.


Carr, C. ed. (1999). Ulysses S. Grant: Personal memoirs. The Modern Library.

Department of the Army. (2019) ADP 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession.


Sgt. Maj. Tyson Crosby is the Training and Doctrine Command sergeant major's Enlisted Initiatives Group leader at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. He served most of his career in the 75th Ranger Regiment, with senior enlisted leader assignments in the 25th Infantry and 82nd Airborne Divisions. Crosby has deployed to combat 19 times since 2001. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior University and a master’s degree in education from Pennsylvania State University.

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