Five Greatest American Field Commanders

For today’s edition of History List Friday, I’m looking at what I consider to be the five best American field commanders of all-time. (Note that I didn’t say “United States,” because two of them displayed their genius while making war against the United States.)

Ready? OK, here we go:

5. Winfield Scott – Scott spent fifty years as a commander in the army, and participated in some of its most notable campaigns during the first half of the 19th century. In the War of 1812, Lt. Colonel Scott led the American assault on Queenstown Heights, Ontario. His troops were winning until New York militia refused to cross the river in support; Scott was forced to surrender. Exchanged in 1813, Scott commanded the First Brigade in the Niagara campaign of July 1814, decisively winning the battle of Chippewa before being wounded at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, ending his involvement in the war. In the Mexican War, Scott led a successful amphibious invasion of Mexico at Vera Cruz, and then through a series of flanking maneuvers, forced Santa Anna’s army to backpedal into Mexico City. (No less an authority than Wellington himself had predicted that Scott’s army would never be heard from again.) Santa Anna, believing that the walls of Mexico City could not be breached, fortified the town and secured the fortress-less castle of Chapultepec and dared Scott to attack. Scott did attack, his men carried Chapultepec, and Mexico City quickly fell. Wellington, learning of the feat, now called Scott the world’s “greatest living general.” At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott was the commander of the Union forces, and as such, was the primary architect of the Anaconda Plan, which was a naval blockade of the South. While this plan took years to show concrete results, it was key in eventually choking the South off from resupply and severing in into easily managed segments.  During his lifetime, Scott published the Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States in 1830 and in 1840, he wrote Infantry Tactics, Or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvre of the United States Infantry.

4. U.S. Grant – Grant might not have been a brilliant military strategist, but he was at the least a very good one. It was Grant’s battlefield demeanor, however, that places him in the top five. Named a brigadier general in August of 1861, Grant quickly established himself as a bold, aggressive commander, seizing Paducah, Kentucky, a key port on the Ohio River.   (In the Western Theatre, control of the rivers would be the key to victory, and Grant understood this from the beginning.) A few months later, Grant seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. At Fort Donelson, Grant’s army suffered a surprise attack while he was away; Grant regrouped and counterattacked, and Donelson surrendered a few days later. In was here that Grant earned his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. When asked for terms by the Rebel commander, Grant coolly replied that he would accept no terms except “unconditional and immediate surrender.” Grant’s troops were taken unawares at Shiloh, but, once again, Grant calmly regained the offensive the next day and carried the field. Grant’s dogged persistence and gutsy, imaginative campaign at Vicksburg resulted in the capture of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Coming east after having been given command of all Union Armies in March of 1864, Grant’s campaigns against the heretofore unconquered Robert E. Lee were brutally effective, though terribly costly. It is worth noting that Grant’s tactics changed when he changed theaters; in the West, he maneuvered to gain control of critical waterways. In the East, he used his massive manpower advantage to bleed Lee white. In both cases, he was ultimately successful.

3. George S. Patton – George Patton was the father of American armored tactics. During World War I he was the first officer assigned to the U.S. Tank Corps, and became a vocal advocate for expanded use of armor in battle during the interwar years. In 1942, following U.S. entry into World War II, Patton trained his tanks for battle in California before participating in the successful capture of Morocco from Vichy France.  Given command of II Corps after its disastrous losses against the Afrika Korps, Patton counter-attacked, and in combination with British General Bernard Law Montgomery, drove the Germans out of North Africa.  In Sicily, Patton commanded the U.S. 7th Army brilliantly, driving westward across the island and then north, again in conjunction with Montgomery, until the Germans and Italians were compelled to evacuate. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), while on Sicily, Patton’s slapping of a serviceman cost him the chance to follow the 7th Army into Italy, and he was instead rotated among several locations as a decoy to the Germans, who expected Patton to lead an invasion wherever he went. Eventually he was assigned to England, where again he was a decoy for the fictitious “First U.S. Army Group,” which the Nazis were convinced would be assaulting Calais. This misinterpretation resulted in the misplacement of several German Panzer divisions, making them unavailable at Normandy on D-Day. After D-Day, Patton was given command of the Third Army, which he relentlessly drove across France (until he outran his supplies and was forced to stop; the interval allowed the Germans to fortify Metz, which resulted in a protracted siege). When the Germans surprised allied troops with their 1944 Winter Offensive, Patton disengaged a corps-sized element of his army and turned it north toward the “bulge.” This complicated and dangerous move was executed to perfection, and within days Patton’s men were fighting at Bastogne, which the 101st Airborne were barely holding. The Germans, seeing the strength of the forces opposing them, retreated.  Patton’s army then continued moving east, cutting a swath across southern Germany, finally reaching Czechoslovakia in May as the war ended.

2. Stonewall Jackson – Thomas J. Jackson received his famous nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), when his brigade’s unflinching stand in the face of coordinated Union assaults helped turn the tide of battle. In his historic 1862 Valley Campaign, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles in 48 days, engaging three different Union armies (totaling about 60,000 men), and preventing them from reinforcing George McClellan’s drive against Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Union leaders were intimidated by Jackson, and refused to release any of the valley troops, fearing that Jackson would turn his attention to Washington, D.C. Called to Richmond’s defense just before the Seven Days Battles, Jackson removed his men by train unnoticed, and much to the chagrin of Union commanders, turned up in Richmond just as McClellan prepared to attack. Jackson joined Lee’s army for the battles around Richmond, but he did not distinguish himself there. It has been suggested that he was at his best when given independent command. Jackson’s men did much better at Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, but his fame was sealed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. There Jackson accomplished his famous flank march, which annihilated the right of Joseph Hooker’s Union Army and sent them flying north in panic. Sadly for Jackson, however,  as he was scouting for a night attack, he was accidentally shot by his own pickets. He died of pneumonia while recovering.

1. Robert E. Lee – No American commander has ever been as beloved as Robert Edward Lee. Taking command of the rebel army in June of 1862, with George McClellan’s vastly superior federal forces only nine miles outside of Richmond, Lee discounted the odds and audaciously attacked the Union troops repeatedly over a seven day period, driving them back down the Virginia Peninsula from which they had come. With the exception of the battle at Gaines Mill, each of Lee’s attacks had cost him more men than it had McClellan, but the federal commander was so disturbed by the carnage that he treated them as losses. Lee continued his aggressive tactics at Second Bull Run, where John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia was shattered. Largely because of bad luck (Lee’s campaign orders somehow fell into the hands of a Union soldier), his Maryland Campaign ended badly at Antietam, although the odds there were not in his favor. Lee routed the Union forces again at Fredericksburg in December and at Chancellorsville the next spring, before launching into the north again with a campaign that would end disastrously at Gettysburg. From this point forward, with Confederate supplies and men dwindling, Lee changed his tactics and took up a more defensive posture. In doing so, he was able to inflict devastating casualties on numerous Union armies. However, with the elevation of the determined Grant to command, and the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1864, Lee and the South were doomed. Ground down to a mere 25,000 men by the spring of 1865, Lee held out for as long as possible before accepting Grant’s offer to surrender. Rather than dispersing his army and continuing the struggle with guerrilla warfare, Lee asked his men to go home and become good citizens; his men did as they were told, and the nation’s reconciliation began. Even at the hour of his greatest defeat, Lee demonstrated that he was still a successful leader of troops.


Worst. Wars. Ever.

As I mentioned in a previous post, warfare is as much a part of human nature as is romantic love or the need for community. That doesn’t mean that all wars are necessary; in fact, some wars are positively pointless in their origins, destructive in their execution and meaningless in their result. Today’s Friday History List is what I believe to be the five most pointless wars in history. Let’s see if you agree.

5. The Siachen Conflict – This pointless war is to resolve ownership of an uninhabitable glacier that lies on the border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir at a height on 20,000 feet. It began in 1984 and continues to this day, which makes it the only ongoing conflict on my list. The problem started when the treaty ending the Indo-Pak War of 1971 (which would result in the creation of Bangladesh), forgot to mention who owned this icy plateau (frankly, the people who drafted the treaty didn’t think it was a big deal). The war has mainly consisted of raids and counter-raids against enemy outposts, resulting in over 2,000 casualties in 25 years. Certainly not a big number, I know, but completely pointless nonetheless.

4. The War of 1812 – On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain, largely because of British impressment of American sailors. (Impressment was the forcible repatriation of individuals thought to be deserters from the Royal Navy. The United States’ grants of citizenship meant nothing to the English, whose laws did not allow for the renunciation of British citizenship. Therefore, once a limey, always a limey. Americans claimed that many of the repatriated sailors had never been English.) Remember that the British at the time were engaged in a titanic death struggle with Napoleon, and were far less concerned with the complaints of offended Americans than retaining naval supremacy in the Atlantic.  Oddly enough, by the time war was declared, Britain had rescinded its Orders in Council authorizing the impressments – thus removing the major cause of the war. Unfortunately, the news failed to reach the United States in time. After three years of sporadic fighting, both sides could claim victories, but neither side achieved its strategic objectives. Eventually, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and reestablished the status quo ante bellum (nothing changed from before the war). Four thousand were dead of wounds and twenty thousand were dead of disease, in what was at best a tactical draw.

3. The Iran – Iraq War – In 1980, Saddam Hussein, hoping to take advantage of instability in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, invaded Iran, looking to settle an old border dispute. However, his army quickly stalled and was driven back by the surprisingly resistant Iranians. Soon, both sides settled into its positions as an ugly, costly war of static attrition ensued. Before it ended in 1988, 500,000 were dead and the two nations had suffered economic losses of $1 trillion. When the war ended, nothing had changed.

2. The Russian Campaign of 1812 – One of the many Napoleonic Wars, this was the Emperor’s response to the Russian Czar’s withdrawal from Napoleon’s continental system, and it was a disaster. Russia, dependent on foreign trade but denied it under Napoleon, dared to challenge Bonaparte by removing themselves from his economic orbit. Napoleon, needing to demonstrate the costs of insubordination, invaded Russia in the summer of 1812. The French Grand Army made rapid progress as the Russians withdrew before him. By September, Napoleon had captured Moscow (which had been stripped of anything of value before its abandonment) and then settled in to wait for the inevitable surrender offer. It never came. What did come was the Russian winter. By the middle of October, Napoleon gave up and set out for the return march to France. His Grand Army, 600,000 strong, was caught in an early (and brutal) winter, attacked incessantly by roving bands of angry Cossacks and slowly ground away. Of those that left Moscow in October, only 40,000 made it home alive. The Grand Army had been crippled, setting the stage for the demise of Napoleon in the years that followed.

1. World War I – Easily winning the prize as the worst war ever, the Great War started for almost no reason, killed tens of millions, settled nothing and then, as if needing to prove itself again, set the table for World War II. In 1914 Europe, following years of military buildups and the creation of constricting alliances, was like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. That spark came in June with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian extremists (probably with the tacit approval of the Serbian government). Soon, threats were being exchanged, mobilizations were being issued, and by August the great powers of Europe were at war. Stalemates followed invasions, and a war between the trenches was inaugurated. The war itself was typified by thousands of senseless frontal assaults against heavily armed positions by hundreds of thousands of doomed troops. By the time of the armistice in November of 1918, nearly 40,000,000 were killed, wounded or missing, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had fallen and France and Belgium had been laid waste. From the peace came the Bolshevik Revolution, the poorly conceived and only somewhat executed Treaty of Versailles, and an unstable Germany that would soon respond with the greatest evil known to mankind – and an even more deadly world war to settle the remaining issues from this one. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner.