Their friendship mattered. Although distinct in personalities, Gens. Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman treasured their relationship with one another as they led their forces and fought to preserve the Union.
These officers were unique in that they did not fit the prototypical model for generals of the time. They were humble in an era when general officers tended to be preoccupied with self-image and status.
However, as history demonstrates, these two men, through their individual achievements and the strength of their relationship, were integral to the Union’s success in the Civil War. Though they were not perfect, they were officers of character who had a formidable, shared set of values that drew them together and forged a friendship.
What shaped the relationship of Grant and Sherman such that mutual trust became more important than rank, position and success? Through reflective conversations and thoughtful correspondence, these officers demonstrated an unmatched loyalty to the cause and to one another that generated unparalleled resiliency to fight under the most difficult of circumstances.
In their earliest correspondence, following Grant’s success at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862, Sherman extended his assistance in any way possible to Grant, even offering subordination while superior in rank to Grant. This deliberate demonstration of humility undoubtedly signaled to Grant the heart of a man who considered an ideal greater than personal ambition and success.
There is no doubt that Sherman’s initial gestures of offering assistance and subordination initiated a pattern of reliability and trustworthiness between the two. Sherman obviously was drawn to Grant’s poised demeanor and steadfastness. In fact, after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6, 1862, a difficult loss for the Union, it was Grant who impressed upon Sherman the spirit and toughness to fight a second day.
Standing under a tree in the middle of the night, as both officers nursed their wounds, Sherman approached Grant with the intent of recommending retreat. But Sherman was so inspired by Grant’s appearance and defiance that he said only, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up. “Yes,” he replied, “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
This was the affirmation and encouragement that Sherman needed. The following day, the Union forces forced the Confederate army to retreat, opening the Union approach for further operations into the South.
Support in Adversity
The strength of their friendship fostered trust and loyalty, which developed resiliency in both men.
Grant and Sherman supported each other when they faced adversity. Beyond the immense challenge of leading Union forces in the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, both men faced intense scrutiny from the press, peers and superior officers. Sherman also endured the untimely death of his eldest son, Willie, during the war. Through all this, they endured.
Such friendship is just as necessary in modern military operations. Future warfare may be uncertain, but relationships will be critical to future success. Good friends will be honest and listen; they will be truthful and reflective. Friends consider another’s point of view and seek understanding. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession encourages the idea of strategic relationships and the importance of interpersonal skills because such relationships will build resilient teams.
In the end, friendship is simply the practice of putting the good of a friend above one’s own interest. Imagine the possibilities of the Army profession if friendship, not ambition or hostile competition, was practiced in training, meetings and operations.
Grant and Sherman’s relationship shows that having a friend matters. Friends encourage a high level of resiliency that is required to face uncertainty, ambiguity and indecision. Friends make each other better. Find a friend; be a friend.
Lt. Col. Tom Dull, an infantry officer, is the executive officer for the Character Integration Advisory Group, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He also leads a Character Growth Seminar at West Point.
Maj. Marc Meybaum, an armor officer, is the executive officer for the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, West Point, where he also serves as an instructor of officership.