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Luck and American History

Mark McNeilly is the Director for Branding and Marketing Strategy for a major global computer company. He is the author most recently of George Washington and the Art of Business: The Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief as well as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers. In this article, he uses a Chinese proverb about luck to take a new look at two men in American history.  Read his past OUPblog posts here.

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: a poor farmer finds an ox and all the villagers congratulate him on his good luck. However, the farmer cautioned them that all might not be as it seems. A few days later the ox steps on his oldest son’s foot, crippling him. All the villagers offer their sympathies but again, the farmer tells them that it is too early to tell. Weeks later, officers from the local warlord come to the village and take all the young men in the village for his army. However, they don’t take the farmer’s son since he can’t march. And so on. The moral of the story is that one can’t always tell what may be good luck or bad. Two examples from American history further illustrate this truth. Curiously enough, both involve generals named Lee.

The spring of 1862 was a time of danger for the Confederacy as the South had suffered multiple defeats in both the West and in North Carolina. Now a Union Army under General George B. McClellan was threatening Richmond, the capital of the southern states. Commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was General Joseph E. Johnston. He had been one of the heroes of the Southern victory at the First Battle of Bull Run and was a very highly-regarded officer.

To drive the Union forces away from Richmond Johnston launched an attack at the towns of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. However, it was poorly implemented and led to casualties the South could ill afford. It was ultimately unsuccessful and left the Union army still menacing Richmond. Even worse from the Confederate viewpoint was that General Johnston himself had been severely wounded in the battle. Who could replace this war hero who commanded the most important army of the South?

The answer came in the form of General Robert E. Lee. Lee had been a hero of the Mexican-American War and at the time a senior officer in the U.S. Army. In fact, based on his reputation Lee had actually been offered command of all the Union armies by U.S. General Winfield Scott. However, Lee’s home state of Virginia was seceding and he was forced to make the difficult choice between his country and his state. In the end he turned down the North’s offer in order to serve the South and became the personal military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Now appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee worked hard to reinvigorate his troops to meet the threat. He then coordinated with Stonewall Jackson’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson was able to defeat Union forces there and threaten Washington, then force marched his men back to aid Lee. Reinforced by Jackson’s men, Lee drove away the Union army during the Seven Days Battles.

Lee would go on to win several other battles, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Although Lee would not ultimately win the war for the South, these victories against great odds would take the Confederacy to the brink of independence. Even now his campaigns are studied by soldiers and historians for their brilliance. So what had appeared as bad luck for the South (Johnston’s wounding) had turned out to be good fortune.

Rewind back almost another century. The Revolutionary War was going badly for the Americans in the winter of 1776. George Washington had suffered multiple defeats and had retreated across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania to escape the British army. Because of these reverses many patriots looked to America’s other leading general, Charles Lee, for hope. Lee was a former officer in the British army who had migrated to the colonies before the Revolution. After the commencement of hostilities Lee had offered his services to Congress and had hoped to be named the commander-in-chief. Instead, he was made third in seniority, which did not sit well with him. Yet, because of his experience and Washington’s defeats, at this low point of the war the hopes of many revolutionaries rested with him.

Despite entreaties by Washington to combine forces with him in Pennsylvania, Lee was intent on consolidating his troops and those of General Gates in New Jersey in order to strike a blow against the British. He did this in hopes that a victory would force Congress to give him supreme command. And so the morning of December 13th found Lee at Widow White’s tavern, penning a letter to Gates about Washington, criticizing him by writing that “A certain great man is most damnable deficient.”

He was just finishing the letter when the tavern was surrounded by British dragoons led by Benastre Tarleton. When Tarleton threatened to burn down the tavern unless Lee surrendered, the American general gave himself up and went into British captivity in only a nightshirt and slippers.

Lee’s capture was seen as yet another severe setback for the Revolutionary cause and a case of very bad luck. Yet, as events proved, Lee’s capture turned out to be good news for America. The scheming general was removed from the scene, leaving Washington as the unchallenged supreme commander. Only a few weeks later, Washington would win twin victories at Trenton and Princeton, a key turning point in the Revolution. Washington would eventually go on to win independence for America in 1781 with his victory at Yorktown.

So what can we learn from the Chinese proverb and these two interesting stories from history? Well, maybe the next time you have some “bad luck,” take a deep breath and realize it may not be bad luck after all. You may just need to wait to see how things eventually turn out.

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