“Four O’clock in the Morning Courage”: General Grant, Shelby Foote, and Spiritual Warfare

Pardon me if you’ve heard all of this before . . .

An anecdote from the Civil War[1]:

In May 1864, in the middle of what would become known as the Battle of the Wilderness, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (not his real name, but that’s for another time) received frazzled and beleaguered staff officers from various parts of the battlefield bringing grave portents of the pending destruction of Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Not normally a man of bad temper, General Grant finally lost it when a senior officer stormed up to him, declaring that the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, was about to throw his entire force at Grant, split the Union army in two, and send them all to certain defeat. What happened next is terrific narrative history. From the late, great historian, Shelby Foote[2]:

Grant was not a curser, but his patience had run out. He got up from the stump, took the cigar out of his mouth, and turned on this latest in the series of prophets of doom and idolators of his opponent. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do,” he said testily. “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both flanks at the same time. Go back to your command and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”[3]

Other versions of this anecdote have Grant saying (something to the effect of): “Quit telling me what Lee is going to do to us, and start telling me what we are going to do to him!” Regardless, it’s a great story.


I love Ulysses S. Grant. Unabashedly. Unashamedly. Undeniably. I love that dead guy.[4]

General Grant had just arrived in the eastern theater of the Civil War, as the newly-minted General-in-Chief of all Union forces, having made a name for himself as the victor of multiple important campaigns in the west (i.e., Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi). As supreme commander, he was determined to take the field in the place of greatest need: with the Army of the Potomac, in the east (i.e., Virginia). And here he was, in the midst of his first battle against Lee. His army had already fought one horrible, terrifying, bloody, deadly day against their familiar southern enemies. There had been success. There had been failure. And things did not appear to be going well on this second day of combat.

The problem giving rise to Grant’s ire was not his men, or the army that they comprised. Indeed, the Union army in 1864 was the most modern, the most seasoned, and likely the largest army the world had ever seen up to that point. The great powers of Europe watched the events in America with pronounced anxiety, knowing that a “superpower”[5] was being forged in flame across the ocean. The world had never seen the likes of Grant’s army.

Grant’s problem was that the men he was leading in the east had a story. It was a story defined mostly by defeat. For nearly three long years of brutal war, and despite a couple of great and timely victories, the Army of the Potomac had been outmaneuvered, outwitted, out-led, and sometimes outfought by the ragged “greybacks” and their commander, Robert E. Lee. They had come to believe – as strongly as their counterparts – in the genius, infallibility, and invincibility of Lee – despite their own significant numerical, technological, and logistical superiority. In short, the Army of the Potomac saw themselves as their enemy wanted them to see themselves. They were an army that was not walking in victory.

I cannot help but think of the Church – and particularly, the Church in America – when I recall General Grant and his army. And lest this essay be dismissed as simply the musings of a war-minded militarist (a sometimes not unfair descriptor of yours truly), it is necessary to acknowledge a spiritual truth:

The Church is at war.

Scripture informs us very clearly, in language however metaphorical, that: (1) there is a battle being waged; and (2) we, the Church, are engaged in it. What do we know about this war? We know that we are equipped with weapons and armor (Ephesians 6:10-18).   We know that these weapons – and this war – are not of the flesh, but of the spirit (2 Corinthians 10: 3-4). Most importantly, we know that the war is already won! (1 Corinthians 15: 54-58).

Yet, despite this last statement of reality, despite the knowledge that we fight in the greatest spiritual force that ever existed, on the side of the victorious King, we so often fight as if we are defeated. How often in conversations with fellow combatants do you hear these statements?:

“I am under so much attack right now.”

“I just feel like the enemy is really having his way with me (or him, or her).”

“God, protect us from the attacks of the enemy!”

Pardon my wearing-wool-in-85-degree-heat, not-having-had-a-bath-in-days, chafing-and-rashes-all-over irritability, but I can just hear General Grant (assuming a redeemed, Army of God form, of course): “Quit telling me what the enemy is going to do to us, and start telling me what we are going to do to him!”

I am convinced that, in the realm of spiritual warfare, one fundamental problem plaguing the Church today – much like Grant’s Army of the Potomac in 1864 – is that we have fallen for the trap of seeing ourselves exactly how the enemy wants us to see us. We have so many experiences; our story is rich; it contains highs, but it is also painful, and it contains what seem like defining lows. Ultimately, we have lost sight of the simple fact that we are who Christ says we are. We are not who the enemy says we are. We have become “prophets of doom” and “idolators of our enemy.”  We ascribe to the enemy qualities and characteristics that are not his.  We think and act as if he is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  But these are qualities and characteristics that are God’s alone.  Why do we give to the enemy that which he most desires (i.e., equality with God)?

Who does Christ say that we are? Look what he said when he commissioned his first general:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16: 18-19)

The imagery here is striking. The gates of hell – the place where the enemy conducts his government of theft, death, and destruction – is viewed and identified by our Commander-in-Chief as a defensive­ position. After all, gates are fixed locations; stationary places; objects to protect. Jesus sees his – and our – enemy as an enemy fighting to guard his evil government, to preserve it from the attacks from the Church. Not the other way around.

So does this mean that the above statements are incorrect? Does it mean that the spiritual attacks I experience are not real? Should I not seek and ask for God’s protection in the battle?

Not at all. (I will expound on this in later posts, insh-allah.[6]) But there is a deeper truth. Stated simply: If these statements reflect my core understanding of what spiritual warfare is, then I need my Commander to transform my mind. I cannot walk in Christ’s victory if this is how I consider, and approach, and enter the fight.  If I approach this battle as one on the defense, it is really no wonder that I am on the defense.  In tactical terms, I have surrendered the initiative to the enemy.  But the initiative – from Creation to the Cross – was always God’s.  Something is missing, and I (we) need it.

Shelby Foote said that General Grant had “4 o’clock in the morning courage,” meaning that “[y]ou could wake him up at four o’clock in the morning and tell him [the enemy] had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber.” From where did this courage come? I believe that Grant understood the reality of who he was, of who and what his army was, and of the victory that he believed was already theirs.

In the midst of every spiritual battle (mine and yours), I hear Jesus say (in a gruff, Grant-like tone), “Take heart! Be courageous. You know who you are. You know who the Church is, and you have not been given a spirit of fear. You know that I have won and the victory is yours!”  More on what that looks like later.

*  *  *

[My favorite thing about Grant? Again, from Mr. Foote:

Grant in the Wilderness, after that first night in the Wilderness, went to his tent, broke down, and cried very hard. Some of the staff members said they’d never seen a man so unstrung. Well, he didn’t cry until the battle was over, and he wasn’t crying when it began again the next day. It just shows you the tension that he lived with without letting it affect him… Grant, he’s wonderful.

Yes, Shelby, he was.]

[1] All quotations, unless otherwise cited, are pulled from http://www.clangrant-us.org/ulysses_s_grant.htm.

[2] If you love military history, you should read anything you can by Shelby Foote. If you don’t love or even care about military history, you should read Shelby Foote. You’ll come away loving military history. And then you’ll need to read more Shelby Foote. Either way, I recommend starting with Stars in their Courses.   It’s an excerpt of his three-volume Civil War masterpiece, describing the Gettysburg campaign.

[3] Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, Vol. III:  Red River to Appomattox, p. 185.

[4] As with all pure love, this love is not blind. Grant had flaws. Great, big, obvious, ugly flaws. But he knew it. It’s part of why I love him.

[5] A term not actually employed until nearly 100 years later.

[6] My favorite phrase transliterated from Arabic: “God willing.”


4 thoughts on ““Four O’clock in the Morning Courage”: General Grant, Shelby Foote, and Spiritual Warfare

  1. Love your writing, Barry. Looking forward to more!

    Favorite quote:

    “I cannot walk in Christ’s victory if this is how I consider, and approach, and enter the fight. If I approach this battle as one on the defense, it is really no wonder that I am on the defense. In tactical terms, I have surrendered the initiative to the enemy. But the initiative – from Creation to the Cross – was always God’s. Something is missing, and I (we) need it.”

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