10. Winfield Scott
Scott Rose to fame as the man who defeated Mexico in a brilliant amphibious campaign far ahead of its time, followed by an audacious march on Mexico City. He also devised the “Anaconda Strategy” that helped to strangle the Confederacy and help the Union win the Civil War. A bold, clear-sighted and creative strategist, “Old Fuss and Feathers” too often gets overlooked when such lists as this are compiled. In his day, no less an expert than the Wellington called him the greatest living general.
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Disparaged by the flamboyant MacArthur as “the best clerk I ever had”, Ike was the archetype of the modern “political general” in the age of coalition warfare. Never forgetting that his primary mission was to keep the various allies happily working in concert, he nevertheless orchestrated a massive campaign against the Axis in Europe and North Africa that brought total victory. No general in history has commanded a larger force on land, sea, and air. While he often had to allow his British allies to take the bit in the teeth-- and to put-up with the vainglorious and barely competent Montgomery--he managed to win the war with minimal casualties and no major defeat (though several severe embarrassments). In all, he was the consummate professional soldier.
8. Douglas MacArthur
Even more theatrical than the famously dramatic Patton (Eisenhower, who served as aid in the 1930s, once quipped, “I studied dramatics under MacArthur”), MacArthur was the epitome of the general-hero at a time when America needed one. He successfully led the southern theater of the Pacific Campaign, and presided over the surrender of Japan. In Korea in 1950, his audacious strategy of landing massive forces behind the North Koreans at Inchon was a masterpiece. He drove the North Koreans out of the South and back to the Chinese border. But for that country’s intervention against his forces, the war would have ended in 1950 with MacArthur acclaimed the greatest general of the 20th century. As was, he succeeded in extricating his Army intact, and after appointing Ridgeway to lead 8th Army stopped the Chinese advance, stabilizing the line. His disagreement with the Joint Chiefs and President Truman over how to deal with the Chinese situation led to his sacking.
7. Ulysses S. Grant
The model for the modern American general, Grant was fearless, aggressive, and determined. He understood better than any of his contemporaries (except Sherman, perhaps) the war he was fighting and waged it to a successful conclusion where less men had failed. Grant was a determined, dogged commander who never lost heart in the face of the enemy, despite hideous casualties. After taking a beating during the first day at Shiloh, he merely shrugged and said, “We’ll lick 'em tomorrow”— and he did. There was a move to relieve him after this most sanguine battle; but Lincoln overruled Grant’s detractors: “'I can't spare this man; he fights.” Grant was the ultimate pugnacious combat commander, a pit bull who would never let him go once he had sunk his teeth into an enemy.
6. Robert E. Lee
Often placed at the top of lists like this, Lee’s legend benefited from dying soon after the war. He made grave tactical and strategic mistakes (particularly at Gettysburg), and was greatly aided by the help of such able sub-commanders as Jackson and Longstreet (who often gets little credit). Lee was also an inspiring commander, a bold strategist, and a tactical innovator who came very close to winning an unwinnable war. His dauntless energy and aggressiveness during the Seven Days Battle are particularly striking when compared to the performance of his adversary, the over-cautious McClellan. His two invasions of the North were well-conceived and had every chance of succeeding. The first was thwarted in part by lost orders falling into his enemy’s hands, resulting in McClellan being able to concentrate his forces against Lee’s at Antietam. At Gettysburg, a campaign which was initially even more successful, he may have been suffering from a mild heart attack (this would explain his lethargy and lack of imagination during the battle). Had anyone else been in command of the Confederate war effort in the last two years, the war would have ended much sooner than it did.
5. William T. Sherman
Hated in the South to this day for the devastation he brought them, Sherman stands out as the most clear-sighted strategist of the Civil War. He understood that to break the Confederacy’s indomitable will he had to make war too terrible to bear. His concept of “tough war” presaged the “total war” concept unleashed in the 20th century. Sherman achieved his famous “March to the Sea” by an advance that constantly threatened multiple objectives, keeping the Confederate defenders off balance. Only Jackson and Forrest marched armies faster, and no one marched one further than Sherman. Unlike Grant, he seldom threw his men away attacking heavily defended places or entrenched enemies; instead obtaining his objective by maneuver. He made war hell for his opponents, not his own soldiers.
4. George Washington
This list could not exist had Washington failed. He was a master of guerilla warfare, using maneuver and audacity both to preserve his inferior army and to defeat British forces where possible. His ultimate victory over the greatest power of the age presaged that of Nguyên Giáp, the North Vietnamese generalissimo who defied America in the Vietnam War. He was an inspiration to his troops, sharing their terrible privations and always placing himself at the point of maximum danger in battle. Tactically he was solid if not overly imaginative. But as a strategist, he ran circles around nearly every commander the British sent against him. His boldness was perfectly matched with prudence, a combination necessary for a general fighting with limited resources against an enemy with control of both the land and the sea. Despite the odds against him, he seldom lost a battle and always succeeded in extricating his army to fight another day. In the end, he understood how to win the war he was fighting, and in so doing birthed the United States of America.
3. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Perhaps the most feared general in American history, “that Devil Forrest” was the prophet of mobile warfare. His campaigns were (allegedly) studied by German proponents of the blitzkrieg and compare favorably to those employed by Rommel and Guderian. Though often considered a “cavalry leader” (he was probably the finest in American history), his task-forces were actually well-balanced mobile arms combat teams of cavalry, mounted infantry, and horse artillery. He also has the distinction of being the “fightingest” general in American history, personally killing with his own hands some 30 union soldiers (and losing 29 horses in the process!). Forrest was dubbed “The Wizard of the Saddle,” but he was in truth a wizard (and prophet) of modern warfare.
2. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
His reputation for solidness on the battlefield earned him the name “Stonewall.” But this nickname belies the aggressiveness and rapidity of movement that became his hallmark on the battlefield. During the Valley Campaign, Jackson marched his infantry brigades so quickly and covered so much ground that they came to be known as Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry.” Brave, eccentric, religiously upright, and bold, Jackson was at his best when given independent command, perfectly complimenting his commander-in-chief, Lee, as a Corps commander. His crowning glory at Chancellorsville cost him his life when he was wounded coming back from an evening reconnaissance by his own sentries. It can be argued that the Battle of Gettysburg (and the Civil War) was lost the moment those shots echoed in the woods at Chancellorsville.
1. George S. Patton, Jr.
No general was more controversial—or effective—during WWII than old “Blood-and-Guts.” The only American commander admired and feared by the German high command, Patton was the ultimate progenitor of mobile combat. Like Forrest, he was a prophet of mobile warfare and advocated using every vehicle in his Third Army—artillery caissons to supply trucks to the backs of tanks—to transport his infantry so that they could keep up with the relentless pace he set for his armor. The ultimate warrior, he was the U.S. Army’s Master of the Sword and an Olympic competitor (1912, in the Military Pentathlon). As a young cavalry officer, he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. (During this campaign, he got into an Old West style gunfight with two of Villa’s lieutenants, killing them both!) He created and led America’s only armored brigade during the First World War. Before the Second World War, he was the primary exponent of armored warfare and quickly became America’s foremost “tank man” during the war. In Sicily at the head of 7th Army and in Europe leading 3rd Army he consistently displayed a boldness and aggressiveness that are the hallmark of great commanders throughout history. He combined the fearlessness of Grant with the aggressiveness of Jackson, and created in Third Army a force as mobile as that of Forrest’s. Even more theatrical than MacArthur, he is the general against which nearly every American general since has measured himself and sought to emulate.
*Author’s note: In creating this list, and in placing each of these commanders in the order presented, the over-arching question posed was: who would I want commanding my army were I the President, appointing a commander-in-chief; and, perhaps more importantly, if all squared off against each other who would be most likely to come out on top. I chose “fighting generals”, who knew how to win the wars they fought.