… it is command that made the difference

My current read is the recently published Lincoln’s Lieutenants, by Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, of Boston and New York. I am by nature a history buff and never tire of reading good material about our nation’s most catastrophic event. I am always interested in the qualities of successful leaders and our own Civil War is a treasury of what is best and worst in those who have command over the fates of others.

The focus of this book is on those very people who guided the Army of the Potomac to its ultimate goal of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. And while I am only fifty pages into a nearly 800 page tome, I need only read Sears’ introductory comments to understand his well-researched perspective on the ill-fortunes and convoluted route the Army took from Washington, DC to that country crossroads in Virginia during a four-year campaign.

He begins by quoting Union General Regis de Trobriand, a survivor of that ordeal, who wrote that “Everybody meddled in its affairs.” The “everybody” of his statement included the President, the cabinet, the Congress, the press and men of affluence and prestige in addition to those who actually held military rank and were directly responsible for the Army’s performance. The subsequent finger pointing, naming, blaming and obstructionism caused the military folks to fear the enemy behind as well as the one equally entrenched before it on the acknowledged battlefields. It also perfectly foreshadowed the political environment we know today as business as usual inside the Washington beltway. Still there is not much comfort in knowing that our capacity for dissolution has not changed in the more than 150 years since Lincoln presided over a troublesome mix of self-serving patriots.

There is some humor, I suppose, in seeing just how often the word “leak” appears in those first fifty pages I’ve managed to read thus far. It gives the appearance that our greatest, most enduring success is the dubious ability to sacrifice our integrity to the power of betrayal on spec that we will personally gain from our clandestine endeavors; statesmen or civil servants turned spy in the hopes of brokering a lucrative book deal.

I am a slow reader at any time and pathetically slower when wading through a book of this type. My delay is bound up in self-analysis, comparing my own misadventures in career advancement to that of others, like the men who comprised Lincoln’s Lieutenants. Though retired, I subscribe to the maxim that you are never too old to learn, the value of which can be found in the corollary thought that you are never too old to consult, especially for a fee.

Absorbing 800 pages is a daunting task and will no doubt provide the context for writing future web log messages. But lesson number one, if this does prove to be a series – even one of irregular posting – can be found in Sear’s assessment, which provides the title for this piece. Even in the midst of the type of divisive chaos Washington seems to thrive on, command makes the difference, and a capable, unyielding commander like lee or Grant makes all the difference. Onward to Appomattox!

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