Editor’s note: This essay is a shortened version of a chapter appearing in the author’s forthcoming book on American strategic civil-military relationships, tentatively titled A Necessary Measure.
Loyalty and fidelity are among the more dignified, hallowed traits society cherishes among its soldiers. They are nurtured and encouraged because they fuel other primary martial goods like courage and self-sacrifice. Loyalty to one’s unit, to one’s brothers-in-arms, is a paramount expectation threading through military indoctrination and training. Shakespeare wrote of it: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother. Attributed by the Bard to 27-year-old English King Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, his call to glory and forging of strong, insufferable bonds between his soldiers would indeed have been appropriate, for the outnumbered English infantry would need courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brothers-in-arms as they faced down French cavalry, and whereby the end of the battle, as John Keegan writes, the “dead undoubtedly lay thick” on the field in mounds “big and hideous.”
Journalist Sebastian Junger, studying up close the infantrymen atop a lonely but battle-scarred mountain outpost in Afghanistan, that these “men form friendships that . . . contain much of the devotion and intensity of a romance . . . [it is a] world in which human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.” Psychologist (and Army Ranger) Dave Grossman highlighted these bonds as primary causes for stress, anxiety, and guilt among soldiers—“[t]his bonding is so intense that it is fear of failing these comrades that preoccupies most combatants . . .[t]he guilt and trauma associated with failing to fully support men who are bonded with friendship and camaraderie on this magnitude is profoundly intense.”
On a larger scale, fidelity to one’s mission, to one’s nation, and to its Constitution is embedded in the oaths of office that new Lieutenants swear upon receiving their commission as officers. It is toward “good faith and allegiance” to the Constitution—and its elevation of civilian authority over military expertise—that uniformed service members ultimately devote their professional activities. It is a loyalty and fidelity MacArthur famously extolled in his “farewell speech” to West Point’s Corps of Cadets in 1962:
The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice. In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him. However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country, is the noblest development of mankind.
Less studied and even less appreciated are the episodes in which good civil-military relationships handle the stress of conflicting fidelity and frankness.
Candor, or frankness, is also extolled by senior civilian strategic leaders. But fidelity and frankness are often thought to be mutually exclusive and therefore can cause extreme distress when they collide. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in his memoirs, described this competition between duties well: the President must give his senior military advisors a reception for their opinions, even if contrary to his preference; senior officers must provide their “best and most candid advice” to the President; but, the senior officer must “obey loyally, especially when they are overruled;” senior officers should not make, even if asked, public statements to third parties like the media or directly to a pubic audience that actually, or appear to a reasonable observer to, impose limits on the President’s freedom of choice, or freedom of action; finally, senior officers should never “speak out” on “politically sensitive issues” or “matters beyond their area of responsibility” or “expertise.” A general who disputes his political leader’s strategic goals may be speaking truth to power, but it often comes at a cost as that officer’s loyalty to civilian governance becomes questionable. The competition between duties devolves into a conflict of duties.
So how does one “test” a generals’ loyalty to the mission? This dual duty of loyalty and candor often makes fateful appearances in fractious civilian-military relations, as it did between George McClellan’s undisguised contempt for President Lincoln, or the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals” in the wake of the Second World War. But less studied and even less appreciated are the episodes in which good civil-military relationships handle the stress of conflicting fidelity and frankness. One useful vignette and example of testing this competition—that could easily be translated to any modern battlefield—is the story of Mr. Charles Dana.
General U.S. Grant was never expected to make much of himself. Unlike George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, and a host of other Civil War luminaries, Grant lacked the presumed pedigree and personality of a man destined to command large field armies and sway the course of history. Unlike McClellan, he was not a “natural patronizer,” and did not consider himself superior to anybody, let alone everybody. Grant was probably an alcoholic, introverted, and—outside of the Army—lacked any semblance of professional success. As a young man, he was educated enough (but just barely) to be appointed to a vacancy at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a position his father applied for on his behalf, having been long-time friends with the Congressman from Ohio and from whom the appointment was sought. While a cadet, he admitted that he “did not take hold of my studies with avidity, in fact I rarely ever read over a lesson the second time during my entire cadetship.” He did not seem to enjoy his time at the Academy, where five long years seemed to pass for every year on the calendar, and even hoped that a bill, then working its way through Congress, intended to abolish the school, would lead to a soft landing and immediate discharge before he graduated.
As the bill did not pass, of course, Grant began to see himself as perhaps—at most—returning to the Academy to teach mathematics, the one subject he enjoyed. The Mexican War, though, intervened after he graduated, and he served there as an infantry officer, earning a fair reputation for gallantry, and getting to know personally or through reputation many of the officers of the Regular Army, most of whom would later serve in command on both sides during the Civil War. After the war and short assignments in New York and Detroit, and several more years on the frontier—serving in California and the Oregon Territory—he began to fear he could not afford to support his growing family (married, with two children), so he resigned his commission. His resignation, prompted primarily by lousy pay and low chance of promotion, was also—many scholars suggest—hastened by a reputation for drinking to excess, which evidently led to a reprimand from his commanding officer (a point he fails, understandably, to mention in his own memoirs).
Grant still carried himself as a simple and modest soldier, favoring plain unadorned uniforms without the accoutrements attending to his rank and station. Yet, he was remarkably and undeniably competent.
Taking off his uniform, Grant returned to his wife and children outside St. Louis in 1854, seven years before the outbreak of the Rebellion in the South. His agricultural venture was not a success, and he would often find himself resorting to side jobs, as he would with “cord of wood on a wagon and tak[ing] it to the city for sale.” He would later come down with “fever and ague” (probably malaria)—laying him low and underemployed for a year. In 1858, he gave in, selling off his property after four years of toil. He then bought into a partnership in a real estate business with his wife’s cousin, but this too proved slow-going and unprosperous. He would move onto one other venture, moving back to Illinois, and serving as a clerk in a brothers’ leather store in Galena. It was there, at the beginning of the Civil War, that he found (again) his true calling and returned to the Army, first in charge of mustering new volunteer units into state service on behalf of the governor, and later as a commander of the 21st Illinois Infantry regiment, a rag-tag, undisciplined unit which needed some backbone of experience with the old Regular Army, which Grant of course had in abundance. The unit refused to take the field with the colonel they had elected, but soon found themselves willfully subordinated to the discipline Grant began to impose and expect. This would be the first of his commands, arching their way up to eventually, within four years, to the command of the all Union armies as General-in-Chief, and later taking the surrender of the Robert E. Lee in Virginia, and, eventually, the White House for two terms.
A West Pointer with wartime practice south of the border, and therefore credentialed as any at the time to command men in combat, Grant was also known as a “silent and inarticulate man; a man who normally did not confide his thoughts to others, yet a man who seldom if ever hurried towards a conclusion . . . he seems to have been typically non-academic; thinking in facts and not in theories; totally oblivious to his own genius; always willing to listen to others, to trust in others when he believed in them, but seldom if ever to be led by them.” He still carried himself as a simple and modest soldier, favoring plain unadorned uniforms without the accoutrements attending to his rank and station. Yet, he was remarkably and undeniably competent. And his competence—despite taking and accepting painfully huge numbers of casualties—fueled the esteem with which most troops and commanders held him. It also fueled the confidence of those politicians, President Lincoln first among them, from whom he received a wide leash and which distinguished him from so many other senior, more experienced, Union generals. But it was his competence and growing fame that would lead to political concern, and the famous introduction of an Administration “spy” into General Grant’s headquarters.
In early 1863, along the wet Mississippi River valley, Grant’s forces were slowly thumping themselves against Confederate strongholds, including the city garrison and railroads of Vicksburg—a lynchpin to the Union’s need to open the mighty river, constricting the South’s economic lifeline, and tightening a noose around the Confederacy’s eastern half. His 45,000 men, however, were weakened by typhoid and dysentery, and the mud flats and numerous bayous along the river impeded the flanking marches he needed to make. He began to make plans that would rely on a joint Navy-Army task force to scurry artillery and other war materiel past the Vicksburg defenses of batteries along the river to points south of the city, then have his army move south along the curvy west bank, rendezvous with the ferrying flotilla, and cross over to the east side, permitting it to march northeast toward Jackson, Mississippi (to the east of Vicksburg), then about-face and head west to the fortified city where he would make a second attempt to capture it by siege.
Fellow generals, and some political leaders and pundits in Washington, were skeptical of his ability to take the city, and in large part resorted to rumor-mongering and gossip to undermine the general’s credibility and the Administration’s confidence—focusing on Grant’s supposed “intemperance” with alcohol and his reported state of universal intoxication during battles. This would not do for a commanding general whose reputation for success, lack of dithering about, and absence of political grandstanding, was catching the eye and ear of President Lincoln. Lincoln liked the homespun, modest Grant and appreciated his valor and effectiveness. Nevertheless, he wanted to assure himself and others that Grant, perhaps despite personal weaknesses, could be the Union’s long-sought after Wellington or Washington. Lincoln, through his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, dispatched the former managing editor of the New York Tribune, Charles A. Dana, now employed as Assistant Secretary of War and the Administration’s go-to “troubleshooter.” Stanton gave Dana an unusual mission: He would travel to the Western Theater, ostensibly as a Special Commissioner to investigate and inspect the Army’s paymaster service, but would, actually, observe Grant’s command—of his Army and of himself—and report regularly back to Stanton and Lincoln. His task was to “settle their minds as to Grant, about whom at that time there were many doubts, and against whom there was some complaint.”
From a tent near Grant’s, surrounded by magnolias and oaks, and shaded by cypress and cottonwood trees around the fertile plantations of Milliken’s Bend, Dana was given immediate and total access to the General and his small staff, and an insider’s view of the unfolding plan to take Vicksburg that would leave a modern-day embedded journalist stomping mad with jealousy. Grant, it is unclear how, knew of Dana’s real purpose from the beginning, and wisely kept him close at hand and intimately abreast of the Army’s efforts. He need not have worried (if he did), however. Dana’s daily dispatches back to Washington revealed a sober commander, in control of himself and his Army, and steadfastly advancing his plans and forces toward his objective of Vicksburg. Dana’s independent observations were crucial to convincing the president and secretary of war that Grant was as competent, and as worthy of their confidence, as they had hoped. With such an immediate and detailed accounting of Grant’s plan to take Vicksburg, Lincoln was able to remark that the campaign (even before it was successful) was “one of the most brilliant in the world.” Months later, after the victory at Vicksburg (and simultaneous Union victory at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania) revealed that the war had begun to look winnable, he would write to his now-favorite general that any past misgivings and concern over Grant’s proposals were unwarranted. “You were right, and I was wrong,” Lincoln unashamedly conceded.
Lincoln’s assignment of Charles Dana inside the camp of General Grant is evidence that American strategic civil-military relationships illustrates the fiduciary ties between a civilian principal and his military agent—most notably those of fidelity. It also provides evidence that remedies available to those principals can shed light on whether certain choices politicians make in response to wayward generals is symptomatic of a diseased relationship, or a sign of good health instead. Lincoln’s choice looks exactly like a concerned principal exercising a clever self-help remedy to gauge whether his investment in a particular employee—in whom much “trust and confidence” has been placed—should be deeper, or whether he should cut his losses and bow to the recommendations of his learned political advisors. It also depicts how candor (or Lincoln’s lack of it in attempting to hide Dana’s true mission from Grant) interacts with the other fiduciary duty of loyalty. In this case, the former was used to test the latter. Fortunately for both the president and General Grant, loyalty and competence were revealed to be in fully working order. Lincoln was not at risk of being deceived by Grant: he had no compromising influences or split loyalties, and was offering his full and faithful effort. But, even if Lincoln had been disappointed in what Dana observed, his secret undercover detective work would still have signaled the cardinal relevance of these fiduciary traits to parties in the strategic civil-military relationship.