Clausewitz & Effect

To identify the what of a problem is easy. Clean. Lose weight. Learn a language. Fix up the house. Get more out of meetings. Better meet customer needs. Target a market niche. Lead the industry. Achieve more. Grow as a business. Grow as people. With finite time and money, however, these tasks often become daunting. Add competing factors and they can become Sisyphean. The how remains elusive. How do I solve this? How am I going to do this? How can I get through this? The why can be maddening. Why will this work? Why am I doing this? We must develop patterns of strategic thought to see our way through.

Permit me to tell a story:

The summer of 1864 sweltered. Dust-covered men in tattered uniforms of woolen blue and cotton butternut huddled in trenches, avoiding sniper bullets and biting flies in equal measure. The American Civil War was in its fourth year. It was also the saddest period of Ulysses S. Grant’s life.

On March 1st of that year, Abraham Lincoln had promoted Grant to lieutenant general. After four years of bitter fighting and unfathomable cost, the job came with heavy expectations. Capturing Richmond would end the war. Lincoln gave Grant command of all Union armies to affect that purpose. He set to work. In conjunction with Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, for the first time, those armies shared a coordinated plan.

Benjamin “Beast” Butler and the Army of the James would lunge for Richmond from the south. The Army of the Shenandoah under Franz Sigel would march there from the north. William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, would engage Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate Army of Tennessee northwest of Atlanta. George “Snapping Turtle” Meade would marshal the Army of the Potomac out of its winter camp along the Rapidan overland towards Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant was to travel in tow.

A month and four days after his promotion, Grant found Lee in the thickets of Spotsylvania County. The ensuing Battle of the Wilderness cost him 17,666 men in two days. After the first day, the experience of fighting in that humid tangle of forest brought him to tears. His general staff remarked never before seeing a man so distraught. On May 15th, a stopgap force, including Virginia Military Institute cadets - some no older than fifteen - routed Sigel. Five days later, a threadbare army under P. G. T. Beauregard trapped Butler between the confluence of the James and Appomattox at Bermuda Hundred. Come June 12th, Grant’s efforts to outflank Lee failed. A bloody stalemate at Cold Harbor halted the Army of the Potomac ten airline miles from Richmond. Grant ordered a final movement across the James to strike at the railroad hub of Petersburg. When it came four days later, Lee blunted the attempt. Both sides entrenched a line over thirty-five miles long, reaching from the Chickahominy to the Appomattox. There was no more room to maneuver. It would be a siege. At the same time, Sherman’s advance through the ruggedness of North Georgia stalled at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain beneath Confederate breastworks there. Lee detached Jubal Early’s Second Corps the week prior to drive the Union out of the Shenandoah Valley. The day after next, June 18th, Old Jube finished the task and stood poised to attack Washington.[1]

All Union offensives were either frustrated or failed. Its very capital was under threat. A month and four days since crossing the Rapidan, Grant had lost a total of 54,926 men. Newspapers called him a butcher, baying for his resignation. His worries compounded. 1864 was an election year. Each successive reverse lowered popular support for Lincoln. If the president were to lose in November, the Democratic nominee was sure to sue for peace, forever severing the warring halves of the United States. For a chance to save the nation, the country needed a victory. Prolonged siege warfare would not do. Grant became despondent. He slept little, refusing to take meals or smoke his habitual cigars. Despondency became depression.[2] During earlier bouts with sadness, Grant turned to the bottle. In 1854, suffering from loneliness, separated from his wife and family, drunkenness forced his resignation from the service.[3] Here in the stifling heat of coastal Virginia - ten years, one month, and fifteen days after that scandal - Grant fell off the wagon.[4] The walls closed in as the trench lines lengthened. What was he to do?

I relate this story because struggle is ubiquitous in human life. Whether in the workplace or at home, we all face setbacks. How we deal with that adversity is more profound. The Overland Campaign was a strategic success. Sherman captured Atlanta. Lincoln won the 1864 election. The Siege of Petersburg led to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. Ulysses S. Grant became a hero. That reputation staked him to two consecutive presidential terms and two best-selling volumes of his memoirs, published by Mark Twain. Grant faced his deepest depression amidst the greatest crisis in American history and found success. If that is possible, we too can overcome difficulty in our own lives.

By all accounts, including his own, Grant was a man of ordinary talents and few social graces. He was an average student and hated military science, instead preferring to ride horses and paint landscapes.[5] What Grant did have was patience and exceptional focus. So deep was his concentration, that when at study and in need of papers not at hand, Grant would rise from his desk and walk across the room to obtain them without ever leaving the posture he assumed sitting in his chair.[6] His true gift was to remove the superfluous, leaving only the practical. With a singular problem in his sight, he reasoned that only then could he best grapple with it and solve it. Sherman, his close friend, offered this on the subject:


"I am a damned smarter man than Grant. I know more about military history, strategy, and grand tactics than he does. I know more about supply, administration, and everything else than he does. I'll tell you where he beats me though and where he beats the world. He doesn't give a damn about what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell. . . . He uses such information as he has according to his best judgment; he issues his orders and does his level best to carry them out without much reference to what is going on about him and, so far, experience seems to have fully justified him."[7]


Grant embodies the essence of strategic thinking. However, strategic thinking often does not come to us as second nature.

In Grant’s day,  almost all West Point cadets took lessons in military science from Dennis Hart Mahan. As a professor and Chair of the Engineering Department at the Academy, Mahan wrote the book on US military strategy, in quite literal terms. His influence rippled across every major battlefield of the Civil War. A military evangelist, Mahan favored the writing of Antoine-Henri, Baron de Jomini. A luminary military theorist of the Napoleonic Wars, Jomini was the authoritative text on military science in the 19th century.[8] What these men had developed, however, were strict patterns for solving problems of a defined structure. When that structure changed, their solutions no longer worked. In 1871, Mahan was forced to retire from West Point. Aging and depressed, he threw himself into the paddlewheel of a steamboat. After the shock of the First World War, Jomini was pulled from Academy military science curricula.[9] Despite their monumental scholarship, time had made them obsolete. They did not offer strategic thinking, but doctrinal thinking.

Distinct from their contemporaries, the Prussian Kriegsakademie had adapted the philosophy of Carl von Clausewitz into its core syllabus when Mahan was still a cadet.[10] It was the finest war college in the world, although the world would not know it for a century. Like Jomini, Clausewitz was a military theorist emerging from the experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Where Jomini defined doctrine, however, Clausewitz sought a unifying theory. In doing so, he framed the tenets of strategic thought. By the 20th century, academies throughout the world adopted the Prusso-Clausewitzian model, in lieu of now outdated Jominian doctrine. In a twist of irony, Jomini had been Clausewitz’s biggest critic.[11]

What then is strategic thinking? It is a thought pattern developed from acknowledgement of philosophical truths and pragmatic realities: Uncertainty underpins all things. There is an imbalance between our ideal performance and actual action. We must define our own success. Success is not singular in itself, but a chain of singular efforts. It is impossible to sustain these efforts forever. We progress through virtues of intelligence and determination. Intelligence perceives effective action through the fog. Determination is the willingness to act upon that perception, knowing frictional imbalances. Our perceptions must target the element we understand as most crucial to our success. So determined, we create success by linking our efforts together towards that target. Because we know we cannot continue forever, we perceive the best possible action to improve the situation. Desirous of success, we cannot yield. If our action fails, we reason another course to try again. Within repeated practice of our action, the how approaches science. Within repeated practice of our reasoning, the why approaches art. Genius becomes the balanced union of our intellect, experience, personality, and temperament. In Clausewitz’s words, “What we should admire is the acute fulfillment of the unspoken assumptions, the smooth harmony of the whole activity, which only becomes evident in the final success.”[12]

Many human endeavors are a wrestling match against some form of resistance. In these, we may adapt Clausewitz’s theory of war into a practical guide for our lives. The validity of this assertion abounds. We find echoes of Clausewitz in aspects of Kierkegaard’s selfhood and pathos, Camus’ La Peste and Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Frankl’s logotherapy, Who Moved My Cheese?, habit forming techniques, and Agile method product development. Many elements of project management mirror Clausewitzian ideas. Fog of war is akin to the Cone of Uncertainty. Friction relates to velocity impediments. The culminating point denotes work in progress limits and business constraints. A center of gravity is the project charter. The chain of engagements are iterative increments. Virtues of intelligence and determination resound in inspection and adaptation. Clausewitzian genius becomes the realized practice of craftsmanship. The conceptual parallels exist. What remains is to adapt this pattern in forming our actions.

On August 17th, 1864, faced with an election that seemed unwinnable and a war that seemed without end, Lincoln sent Grant a telegram. “Hold on with a bulldog grip,” he wrote in encouragement, “chew and choke as much as possible.”[13] Grappling with depression, vice, and Lee, Grant did just that. He had always done that. Earlier in the war, during the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, the Confederate Army of the Mississippi had pushed Grant’s Army of the Tennessee to its breaking point. That night, unable to endure the cries of wounded men, Grant walked out into the rain and sat under a tree. Sherman found him there sometime after midnight, staring at a map. “Well, Grant, we’ve had the Devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up at the gruff redhead amid a puff from his cigar. “Yes, yes.” he replied, “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” At dawn, Grant punched back. By nightfall, the Union held the field. Lincoln opined, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”[14] He had an inherent grasp of strategic thought. Grant could “face the arithmetic,” as the president would portend.[15] We can live his example. When faced with a problem, focus on what you can do in that moment and then fight like hell.


[1] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox (New York: Random House, 1974).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Random House, 1958).

[4] Foote, The Civil War, Vol 3.

[5] Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1950).

[6] Foote, The Civil War, Vol. 1.

[7] James Harrison Wilson, Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish War, the Boxer Rebellion, Etc. Vol. 2, (1912; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 2009).

[8] Allen R. Millet & Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christian E.O. Millotat, Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System (Carlisle, PA: USAWC Strategic Studies Institute, 1992).

[11] Christopher Bassford, “Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction” (presentation, 24th Meeting of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, Atlanta, GA, 26 September 1993).

[12] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret (1832; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[13] Foote, The Civil War, Vol. 3.

[14] Foote, The Civil War, Vol. 1.

[15] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (New York: Random House, 1963).

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