in: Advice, Character, Sunday Firesides

Sunday Firesides: Iron Hearts in Wooden Ships

During the Civil War, the Confederacy’s greatest hope for its defense of New Orleans, and the Union’s greatest fear in securing its capture, were the former’s fleet of ironclad ships. 

As it turned out, the ironclads proved ineffectual, and the Confederacy’s overall defense, hampered by disorganization and what one historian called the “cowardice of untrained officers,” fell apart. The Union Navy handily muscled its way up the Mississippi to capture the South’s largest city.

Theodorus Bailey, the Union’s second-in-command on the operation, summed up the lopsided victory this way:

“It was a contest of iron hearts in wooden ships, against iron-clads with iron beaks—and the iron hearts won.”

A half-century later, during WWI, German officer Ernst Jünger reflected on Bailey’s words in criticizing orders to dig more, and more elaborate, trenches, to the exhaustion and demoralization of his men. “Trenches are not the first thing, but the courage and freshness of the men behind them. ‘Battles are won by iron hearts in wooden ships.’”

Certainly, superiority in technology — and resources — has been the difference-maker in many conflicts. But just as often, an under-resourced and technologically less advanced force, bands of “primitive” but ferociously devoted guerillas, have successfully held off far more formidable foes.

It’s easy to think that a lack of some technology or resource is the only thing holding us back from success in our non-martial endeavors — that some app or funding will be the thing that finally allows us to lose weight or launch a thriving business. 

At best, such things can aid existing efforts. At worst, they can be a distraction from the more fundamental linchpins of success: will, leadership, persistence. 

Victory in any battle depends less on the quality of the vessel in which you fight, and more on the quality of the man who stands at its wheel.

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