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Dare to Fail
Don't confuse victory with avoiding a loss
The willingness to fail breeds success.
Decisive victories require risking a loss. A leader who fails to risk will fail to win. Of course one must consider the risks involved and avoid risk for risk's sake. But successful leaders are the leaders willing to embrace risk.
Union General George B. McClellan's fear of loss was so great that it prevented him from winning even though he commanded the most powerful force ever assembled. His Confederate adversary, Robert E. Lee, although short of troops and supplies, won his major engagements with McClellan precisely because of his willingness to risk failure.
Lee focused on the victory he could achieve, while McClellan focused on the loss he must avoid. The results demonstrated graphically that the fear of failure is too often self-fulfilling.
In a time of strategic imperative, if you don't take risks . . . you lose.
The Campaigns of 1862
Following the disastrous Union defeat at First Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861--the first real battle of the Civil War--President Lincoln turned for leadership in the Eastern Theater to thirty-four-year-old George Brinton McClellan. Fresh from victories against Robert E. Lee in western Virginia, General McClellan was one of the few victorious officers from whom Lincoln could choose. Full of pomp, the diminutive McClellan was soon dubbed "Young Napoleon" by a press in search of heroes.
When it came to rebuilding the shattered Union army and restoring its self-respect, George McClellan was the man for the job. During the fall and winter that followed the Manassasdebacle (see Lesson Four) the Union army was reorganized, and resupplied, its men drilled until they began to actually behave like competent soldiers.
McClellan seemed content to stay in camp around Washington, enjoying what he had built. "On to Richmond," however, was the cry among the media and politicians. By the spring of 1862, under intense prodding by Lincoln to go on the offensive, McClellan had devised a plan to take the Confederate capital of Richmond by striking the soft underbelly of Rebel defenses.
Most Confederate troops were concentrated between Washington and Richmond in anticipation of an overland attack. Cleverly, McClellan planned to use the Chesapeake Bay to circle around by boat, drive up the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers, and take the Confederate capital from behind.
Fear of Failure Stops an Army
SPOOKED AT WILLIAMSBURG
Having rebuilt a shattered Union army and conceptualized an effective plan, McClellan proceeded to squander his chance for victory.
Richmond was only a few days' march up the peninsula from where 67,000 Union troops landed on April 4, 1862. Between McClellan and the capital were only 13,000 Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General John Magruder.
Rarely has an individual's personal traits and the military necessities coincided so well as they did with Magruder. Dubbed "Prince John," the West Point and Mexican War veteran loved high society, lived beyond his means, and reveled in pomp and circumstance. Magruder's life was an exercise in playacting--exactly the skills required by his outnumbered army. In George McClellan, the actor found the perfect audience.
Arming himself only with theatrics, Magruder took a position athwart the path of the powerful foe. Destruction of his small force seemed assured.
At the historic site of Yorktown, where George Washington received the surrender of British General Cornwallis to ensure the Revolution's success, "Prince John" Magruder made his stand. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, Magruder recast the landscape to maximize his defensive posture. One flank was anchored on a river that was dammed at key points to produce impassable artificial ponds. On his other flank, Magruder expanded the British and American trenches of 1781. With only fifteen pieces of artillery available to defend the entire thirteen-mile line, Magruder built a stage set of black-painted logs cut to look like guns.
Having recast the earth and redesigned the set to his maximum advantage, Magruder next recast his men as actors in a drama designed to convince George McClellan he was facing a formidable foe. All day long Confederate units would march among the fortifications, then circle around out of sight and march the same path again. With much whistle blowing and commotion empty trains would roll into place behind the lines, officers would shout commands at the "new troops," and buglers would blow commands. Then the engines would back up a distance, and come forward again for another noisy--and completely phony--arrival on stage.
It worked. McClellan was spooked.
Despite the reports of Rebel deserters that Magruder's army was only a skeleton force; despite reports from some brigade commanders that the line in front of them was thin; despite the fact that one probe of the Confederate line broke through (only to be ordered back); the "Young Napoleon" fell for Magruder's deception. Demonstrating his utter inability to accept risk, McClellan reasoned that a professional soldier like Magruder would never even think of holding a thirteen-mile line with only a handful of troops. Since McClellan was facing a "superior" force, he chose what seemed the most risk-free option, a siege. McClellan wrote his wife to send his books on the Crimean War siege at Sebastopol.
While McClellan hesitated, the trains on the Confederate side of the line started delivering real, not phantom, troops. By the end of April, the Confederates had almost 57,000 men on the field, augmented by thirty-six artillery batteries--real ones now, not painted logs. Magruder's goal was accomplished; McClellan had been stopped long enough for troops north of Richmond to be shifted to confront the advance.
The "Young Napoleon" wasted what the real Napoleon described as a general's greatest asset--time. It took McClellan a month to get past Yorktown, then he accomplished it only because the still outnumbered Confederate defense force, having accomplished its goal of buying time, slipped away one night and joined the now much more formidable Rebel army farther up the peninsula.
McClellan had defined his goal as not putting his army at risk rather than as defeating his opponent.
However, that did not stop McClellan from declaring victory.
"Yorktown is in our possession," his dispatch crowed the morning after the Rebels slipped away.
"Our success is brilliant," claimed a subsequent message.
McClellan's opponent, once divided and out of position, had been given time to reposition and consolidate to confront the Union force. Now numbering 80,000, the Southern troops dug into defensive positions blocking the path to the Confederate capital. Because of his inability to risk an attack at Yorktown, McClellan now faced a larger and much better prepared opponent.