When we last left our heroes they were crunching the calculus of Risk versus Reward in ways that made us call them Audacious. The second aspect of Audacity as a leadership trait is what I have labeled “Flaunting Convention.” It’s also commonly called “thinking outside the box” and was a very popular catch phrase in the 90’s management circles and may be even today but I haven’t managed or lead anything for over a decade so I wouldn’t know. Although, seeing how popular and cyclical some of these phrases are I wouldn’t bet money against it being in vogue.
It is a good phrase though when it comes down to it. There is a connection to Risk versus Reward as well. The strategies that tend to occupy the box are often the result of common human assumptions on what maximizes reward for any given set of risks. The assumptions are the results of years of human trial and error and collective experience. They are the conventions of the day. If the system never changed then following a plan outside the box would be folly. But the world is in flux. Sometimes the change is more rapid than other times. But when a strategist can see the new opportunity outside of the box and seize it then the result is Audacity.
As an example, I offer a brief examination of the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863 during the American Civil War. 1863 was a momentous year in the course of the war. It was a turning point very similar to 1942. Ulysses S. Grant led the Army of the Tennessee in the West. His opponent was Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton commanding some 30,000 troops. The war along the Mississippi was stalemated going into 1863. The Confederacy held a series of strong points along the mighty river the most formidable being Vicksburg. The Union war plan was to control the river thus splitting the Confederacy and squeezing the remaining rump. New Orleans had fallen in April of 1862 placing the mouth of the river firmly in Union hands. The prime obstacle to controlling the river was Vicksburg, which sat on a hair pin bend in the river and bristled with large caliber cannon….ship killing 10 inch guns hauled inland from coastal batteries.
Grant immediately put his aggressive and ingenious military mind to work. Later in the war he would be given the Nome de Guerre “Grant the Butcher” because of the costly and single minded direct assaults he orchestrated against Robert E. Lee in the Eastern Theatre during 1864/65. The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor were bloody sledgehammer blows meant to batter the Army of Northern Virginia into submission and the butcher’s bill was horrendous. It was a bill the Union could afford to pay but not the Confederacy. In contrast to this later defining campaign that crystallized Grant’s reputation as a dull bully, the Vicksburg Campaign stands as a brilliant accomplishment of maneuver warfare, and strategic deception and manipulation.
The signs were there from the beginning when Grant creatively made attempts to simply bypass Vicksburg by finding forgotten swamp trails or imaginatively attempting to “engineer” a change in the course of the river known as the Father of Waters. When these probing operations failed Grant struck upon an “Outside the Box” solution that once launched, so firmly won the initiative that Pemberton’s characteristically cautious response sealed the fate for the 30,000 men of the Army of Vicksburg. The key issue as in many military operations was logistics. The ground to the North of Vicksburg was impossible to exploit and the Confederate control of the Chickasaw bluffs would prevent any supply of a Union army that might attempt to approach Vicksburg. The swift current and impressive batteries of Vicksburg meant that even if ships could “run” the batteries they would not be able to return back up river. Many thought that the down river passage itself would be suicidal. Iron clad riverboats might make it but wooden supply steamers were thought to be a long shot. In short, supply was problematic and the approach to Vicksburg was difficult from any direction.
Grant’s stroke of genius was to test what he believed to be false assumptions. First he would march his army down the Mississippi river to a point below Vicksburg. Then proceeding past the bend at Hard Times he would ferry his troops across the river by means of Admiral Porter’s Iron Clads and transport/supply ships. Porters flotilla would run the Vicksburg batteries in a daring night time passage on two separate nights. Two key assumptions were being probed. First that an army could operate without secure logistical supply lines and second that Union ships would hazard the Vicksburg batteries.
The Audacity paid off handsomely. I won’t describe the entire campaign but you can see an outline of it here below on the map. Pemberton was paralyzed. Grant had sent his work horse Sherman to demonstrate with a large force against the Chickasaw Bluffs to the North of Vicksburg. Confederate General John S. Bowen recognized the danger but with such a small force he could not hold Grant at Port Gibson which would have been the equivalent of stopping him on the beaches at Normandy. Eventually, Grant would fight a string of battles driving inland away from Vicksburg while living off the land and what limited supplies Porter could manage in his transports. Securing Jackson, the State Capital, Grant swung back towards his primary objective and a belated sally by Pemberton was crushed decisively at Champions Hill. Vicksburg was invested and the Chickasaw Bluffs were abandoned leaving the Union with a vital intact supply line North via the Mississippi. Vicksburg was doomed and would fall on July 4th, 1863, a day after Pickett’s Charge decided the battle of Gettysburg.