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Four Marketing Lessons from the Battle of Vicksburg

“Man proposes, but God disposes.”
— Opening line from the Autobiography of U.S. Grant

Photo by the author.

Gettysburg has been cited so frequently as the decisive turning point of the war that it seems to be common knowledge. The tagline for the 1993 film about this important battle was this: In 1863, the Northern and Southern forces fight at Gettysburg in the decisive battle of the American Civil War.

James Arnold, in his insightful book Grant Wins The War, begins by arguing that the Battle of Vicksburg was the the decisive victory that broke the back of the South. When the Union Army captured Vicksburg, they effectively took control of the Mississippi River, cutting off all supplies from the West so that with the blockades it would only be a matter of time and the Armies of Northern Virginia would be depleted and defeated.

Arnold’s intro notes that of the twenty most brilliant campaigns in military history, more than half were by Napoleon. Only two were conceived and executed by generals in the U.S. Civil War. The first was General Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign. The second, Grant’s victory here at Vicksburg.

Here are four important marketing and leadership lessons that stand out from this battle. Each could be elaborated on with illustrations from businesses today.

National Archives, Library of Congress

1. Fight the Right Battles

James Arnold begins this book by presenting the significance of the battle of Vicksburg. A key to success, whether in war or business, is not simply winning battles but in fighting the right battles. What propelled Grant to fame was not winning victories alone, but recognizing the importance of the objectives he pursued. Vicksburg, in Arnold’s estimation, was even more significant than Gettysburg in bringing down the South.

2. When Your Plan Isn’t Working, Change Your Strategy

In assessing the situation, General Grant observed that the firepower and high ground that Vicksburg controlled overlooking the Mississippi made it impregnable from an assault from the river side. After much consideration the first plan conceived was to re-route the river. The objective was important enough that time was less important than speed. In May 1863 digging commenced. After a while it became apparent this was an ill-conceived plan that wouldn’t work. General Grant abandoned the idea and produced a superior strategic initiative.

3. Learn from Previous Experience

Like many generals of the Civil War, U.S. Grant participated in the Mexican War a number of years earlier. There were two generals he served under and from each he learned something invaluable. From General Taylor he learned how to manage a big operation, how to maintain supply lines including food and munitions and how to coordinate movements. From General Winfield Scott he learned about taking initiative and the power of speed and the unexpected. With a small army and a sudden surprise appearance in Mexico City, his hundreds of men terrified tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers.

Here’s how this played out in Vicksburg. Grant decided to bring his forces downstream for a similar surprise maneuver, abandoning his supply lines. In a series of skirmishes Grant’s army remained mobile and could not be located by Confederate forces because they survived by foraging. He also sent a small raiding party southward as a decoy, generating rumors that kept the enemy confused and fearful. They seemed to be here, there and everywhere.

4. Know the Condition of Your Troops

General Grant not only made sure the men were fed, but also rested. In addition, he was very much in touch with the morale of his troops. For example, at the beginning of the war, he wanted his untested troops to come away from the first battle with confidence. He knew, from Mexican War days, that General Hood was a bit quick to run away from battle in order to preserve the numbers under his command. Grant used 1000 men to conquer a fort in which 500 of Hood’s men were stationed. Hood fled as expected. Grant told his men that they just defeated an army of 2000 with minimal losses. His objective — give the men experience in battle without undermining confidence — was achieved.

Here is a story from Vicksburg that illustrates this point as well. The army had to cross a narrow wooden bridge at one point. He went first, parked his horse on the other side, facing his men as they came across. As they marched passed he greeted each one, looking them in the eyes, assessing their morale and their readiness for what lay ahead.

Much more can be said about this significant victory for the North, but my aim here has been to draw attention to several features that make it a useful model for business lessons today, especially in marketing.

For more, here are Four Books on U.S. Grant
Related: Lessons from Desert Storm

Originally published at Ennyman’s Territory, April 17, 2019.

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