What moments from the biographies of the famous, and infamous, define the person?
While it is unfair to conclude that a single episode reveals a person’s entire character, it is likely that some instances are insightful. Consider, for example, the behavior of Bruce Ismay and Charles Lightoller. Early in the twentieth century Ismay was president of the White Star steamship line. White Star owned the RMS Titanic, which Ismay accompanied on its fateful maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller was the ship’s Second Officer, placing him fourth in command behind the Captain, Chief Officer, and First Officer.
Lightoller was in charge of lowering the lifeboats on Titanic’s port side. Although Ismay had no official duties during the crisis, he was often near the boats on either side encouraging that they be promptly filled and lowered. Except for a small number of crewmembers to navigate the vessels, Lightoller only permitted women and children into his portside boats. Ismay was last seen on the starboard side where he took a seat on the final boat.
Twenty minutes before Titanic sank, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the boat he was then loading. Lightoller refused and was soon struggling in ice-cold water with hundreds of others where he found an overturned lifeboat. Along with twenty others he survived the night standing on the upside-down hull.
The Ismay-Lightoller comparison is revealing because each responded differently to the same incident, while the story’s inherent drama amplifies its tension. Grant and Lee shared no such occurrence. However, both had similar winning reactions to apparent defeats.
The better-known story is Grant’s reaction to his failures at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It was the first time Grant fought Lee’s Virginia army after compiling a victorious record for the Union in the Western Theater. It was fought over much of the same ground where Lee won his greatest victory a year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yet from a casualties suffered-to-inflicted viewpoint, Grant did even worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker who commanded the federal army at Chancellorsville. Grant’s losses at The Wilderness totaled about 18,000 whereas Lee’s were about 11,000. Conversely, at Chancellorsville, Hooker suffered losses of about 17,200 as compared to Lee’s 13,300. Continue reading