Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

New Historian (Napoleon's Coronation)

It isn’t easy to ‘judge’ military leaders as they could only use the resources and logistical systems of their time. When attempting to simplify this complex query, historians tend to go by Politics, Strategy, Tactics, and Logistics. There are very few generals in history who excel in all of the above and in most cases; supposedly ‘great’ commanders are deficient in more than one.

Certain generals excel in one or two of the above, but a promotion often placed them in a position where their weaknesses were brought to light. As it’s hard to judge ancient commanders, I have only included one from before the 18th century. I have chosen four military leaders who possessed certain qualities but lacked severely in others. All of these individuals were either good or even great in their way but carry a loftier reputation than they deserve.

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1 – Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was one of the most influential men in the late stages of the Roman Republic. He was a member of the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Crassus and was given the name ‘Magnus’ (the Great) by Sulla (possibly ironically) after his success in Sulla’s Second Civil War in 82 BC. He was a consul of the Roman Republic three times and sided with the conservative part of the Roman Senate (the optimates) in the civil war with Caesar. Defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC was an ignominious end to his military career; he was assassinated in Egypt the same year.

Pompey is lauded as a great military commander by some, but his best victories probably came at the very beginning of his career. He impressed Sulla during the Second Civil War and was sent to Africato to fight Gnaeus Domitius; Pompey subsequently routed his opponent. He was welcomed as a hero upon his return to Rome and given his nickname. However, Pompey was also known as the ‘adolescent butcher’ due to the ‘unnatural cruelty’ shown to his enemies in a previous campaign in Sicily.

Pompey led an army against Quintus Sertorius in Spain during the Sertorian War and was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Lauro. Things got no better at the Battle of Sucro where, once again, Pompey was easily beaten in an open field battle and was almost captured. Things only improved once he was joined by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius and the duo gained a win at the Battle of Saguntum. However, Pompey knew he couldn’t win the war, so he placed a bounty on the head of Sertorius. It was a successful strategy as his enemy was murdered by one of his own men!

Pompey returned in time to take a significant amount of credit for Crassus’ work in defeating Spartacus in the Third Servile War in 71 BC. He finally became consul in 70 BC and claimed to be the First Man in Rome. Pompey beat the Pirates of the Mediterranean who had been a major problem but given the enormous resources at his disposal; it would have been tough for Pompey not to emerge victoriously! His propensity to take credit for the hard work of others led to him being called a vulture by Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Lucullus had enjoyed success against the kings of Armenia and Pontus during the Third Mithridatic War. Pompey once again swooped in, won a minor victory, and the cards fell into place as Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, committed suicide while Tigranes, the King of Armenia, surrendered. With Caesar and Crassus, he was one of Rome’s most powerful men but backed the Senate against Caesar in the civil war and lost. After winning a victory at Dyrrachium in 48 BC, he was defeated at Pharsalus despite having twice the men Caesar had. He fled to Egypt but only found death at the hands of the Egyptian King’s men.

Pompey has been described as an able commander but not an innovative one. He possessed excellent organizational skill but was reluctant to fight open battles. Perhaps he knew his limitations because when he was pressurized into fighting an open battle at Pharsalus, he was soundly beaten.

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  • Dennis Zonn

    What?! No Bernard Law Montgomery?

    • Emilio Dumphque

      Yeah, Monty owes his desert victory to the RAF stationed at Malta, rather than his own skill. They’re the ones that kept Rommel from getting his supplies.

    • Patrick States

      Probably because very few think that he was a great, or even good commander.

  • Emilio Dumphque

    Lee was thwarted at Gettysburg by an under-rated man. Pickett’s charge had more than one element. The surprise was Jeb Stuart’s vaunted cavalry, 4000 strong, that was supposed to arrive in the rear of Meade’s center at the same time and place as the frontal charge! But the great cavalry charge was halted on the road by none other than George Armstrong Custer and 400 Michigan cavalrymen! Outnumbered 10-1, he attacked the head of the line and stopped it dead, ruining the timing of the attack. Custer deserves more respect than he gets.

    • Riley Hall

      No, Custer deserves the disgust he receives. He was better at getting men killed than fighting.

      • Emilio Dumphque

        Custer prevented the Lee from winning at Gettysburg. If they’d won there, the North would have had to sue for peace on the South’s terms!! It’s importance can hardly be overstated.

        • Stephen Martin

          Make no mistake. Custer was a vain, narcissistic asshole. But he was a great leader on a tactical level. When promoted to a level where he had make big strategic decisions, though, he failed on a grand scale. He also failed to inspire subordinate commanders who, when they were needed most, found reasons not to come to his aid.

          • Emilio Dumphque

            There was also an element of sibling rivalry to his bravado: His brother is the only man ever to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor TWICE! Probably hard for George to take.

          • QueensKnight

            That’s not true others have been awarded the MOH twice. A guy by the name John King comes to mind first.

          • Emilio Dumphque

            I stand corrected. His brother was only the first to receive it twice.

  • ltc444

    The victory at Gettysburg rested on sheer luck rather than any skill by the Union Commanders. Buford knew ground. He basically disobeyed orders to occupy the high ground. Had a junior officer not recognized that Little Round Top had not been occupied and exceeded his authority and occupied this key terrain feature Lee would have turned the flank and rolled up the Union Line.

    Lee was a master of using internal lines and economy of force operations. He was not so good when he was forced into set piece battles. Like Gettysburg.

    • Dr_ML_Shanks

      Nonsense. Had “Lee turned the Union flank,” Union forces would have simply retreated to the *next* ridge line for their stand. Or the next one, or the one after that…all the way back to the fortifications of Washington D.C. which there was *no possible way* for the Confederate Army to storm or besiege. In point of fact, the entire Gettysburg campaign was a monstrous waste of Confederate resources that they could not afford or support North of the Potomac, Lee’s dreams that local sympathizers would support the army or that he could live off the land was hopelessly naive ….

      Strategically, Lee wanted to be an offensive general…despite the lack of Union targets to seize that could end the war. The only way for the Confederates to win was to carefully conserve resources and spoil Union attacks until the losses forced them to sue for peace or lose an election. Finally, it is worth considering that Lee was very much hit-and-miss tactically, often trying to substitute bold attacks for wise choices. Pickett’s charge should *never* been allowed, as he’d seen the same situation before in his prior defeat at Malvern Hill…trying to bull his way uphill against superior Union artillery, which was a terrible idea.

    • Robert McIntire

      Buford seizing the high ground wasn’t luck. It was initiative. The same with the occupation of Little Round Top.

      • ltc444

        In an Army which was not appreciative of initiative it was luck that these officers where in a place and time to go against the dogmatic approach of their commanders and took the initiative exceeded their authority and saved the battle.

  • Jason Scott

    George Washington was a master of the tactical retreat and keeping his small to sometimes almost nonexistent army intact. He was a military genius in this regard. Certainly he was no great offensive tactician, but offensive tactics did not win the day in the revolution. A strong defense, outlasting the enemy and masterful diplomacy took the win. Still, I could see how he wound up on here if your only standard was individual battle victories. Meanwhile I’m baffled that Lee is on here, his bold strokes and general policy of offensive strategy combined with defensive tactics are still studied far and wide today.

    • Sunny Lalingua

      perhaps he is studied for the purpose of what not to do in a battle. Review the battle of Gettysburg as an example.

      • Dr_ML_Shanks

        3rd day of Gettysburg was a repeat of Malvern Hill, writ large. A disastrous loss.

  • Old bald fat guy

    “Lee spent 32 years in the U.S. Army until he fought with the South in 1861 and made a name for himself during the Mexican-American War.” Poorly written article (are there NO editors in the online world?) This implies that the Mexican War (1848) was fought by the Confederacy after 1861,

  • Scott Roberts

    Come back when YOU have led men in battle to the extent they have… Otherwise, your OPINION is pointless.

  • Michael Zalar

    In 1808 Napoleon entered Spain as commander of the French army. He led a brilliant campaign which crushed the Spanish and British forces. It is only after he personally withdrew that things started to go bad. This would suggest that Napoleon was the superior leader in Spain. No deficiency in his military leadership, only that of the underlings he left behind.

    • Morrill Turpitude

      True up to a point. One of the key talents of great military leaders is the ability to identify and emplace capable subordinates. Bonaparte was not very good at it. As the national leader he had a relatively free hand to select his subordinate so he did not have the political machinations Lee and Washington had to deal with. I can’t imagine any military commander with lick of sense would have made Daniel Sickles a corps commander on his own in the US Civil War. It was family money and connections that got and kept that command for Sickles. It was only Sickles’ own stupidity at the Peach Orchard that saved George Meade the trouble of having to appeal to higher authority to get the idiot relieved from command of III Corps.

  • Clifford Deal

    Lee’s 2 major problems at Gettysburg were subordinate generated. A] the death of Jackson led to the break up of his previously successful ‘hammer and anvil ” tactics used previously, with Longstreet holding a position and Jackson flanking. B] Scouting was not carried out to the east by 2 large cavalry brigades of “grumble” Jones and Beverly Robinson, who Stuart had detailed to screen and picket positions on Lee’s right as Stuart flanked the Army of the Patomic on a ‘long range’ scout. i feel that failures in the chain of command should NOT reflect that much on the CO. Reshuffling an entire army in less than 30 days takes some doing, and Imboden’s West Virginians did well on Lee’s left.

  • If I remember right, Lee spent much if not most of his career in the Army Corps of Engineers. From that standpoint it might be considered remarkable that he was as good as he was.

  • J Michael Malloy

    I wonder if any general could have done a better job that Washington did. First his opponent was the strongest military power of the time. They completely dominated the sea until the end of the war when the French were able to contribute to a blockade of Yorktown. His “army” was composed mostly of untrained summer patriots who too often left the day their enlistment ran out. But perhaps the most disability Washington suffered under was the lack of financial support from the various states and the Continental Congress. Food and supplies were always scarce or non existent. When your leading an army that’s freezing and starving in Valley Forge while your opponent is comfortably sheltered in Philadelphia and still winding up on the winning side you’ve got to be a great military leader. Washington like Lee was out manned, out gunned, and out supplied, but unlike Lee, he won.

    • Shaun W

      Washington was kind of like Fabius Maximus, the first Roman general to find any success fighting Hannibal Barca. Fabius basically fought a holding war against the Carthaginians and avoided open battle for the most part, trying to wear Hannibal down. Washington himself was conscious of this, as the Enlightenment guys were all steeped in the Classical world.

  • NiccoloM

    Wow this is oversimplified garbage. Never mind Napoleon was fighting all of Europe off, something Welington didn’t have to do. Or that his tactics were innovative and copied for the next 60 years. As for Washington, he was fighting a far more powerful military.

    • Shaun W

      Napoleon won a lot of truly brilliant victories and really began the series of events that would lead to modern warfare with his revolutionary use of artillery. Hard to call that overrated.

      • NiccoloM

        precisely

  • Shaun W

    This is dumb bravado, pure and simple. It invalidates basically every history ever written.

  • PMR

    Meh. This article is very myopic in what it is looking at.Washington was not a great tactical genius, but winning the Revolutionary War was political, keeping your army intact, taking care of logistics and finding the talent needed to win among all amateurs that he mostly had to win it with.
    Keeping the Continental Congress from messing up, staying patient no matter what happened, keeping a line of retreat to the back country and finding leaders like Greene and ‘mad’ Anthony Wayne to be where he couldn’t and making politically unpopular choices like getting rid of generals like Gates, certainly merits a lot of respect. It’s ironic the author talks about Lee being bad when many of the characteristics Lee lacked were what Washington had in abundance.
    While he certainly made grand strategy mistakes, Napoleon revolutionized warfare. All his opponents learned. What worked in 1798 didn’t work in 1812, 14 years later. That is as much a credit to countries like Prussia and Austria learning and adapting as it is a criticism of Napoleon. Also, most Generals studied never have to deal with all the different elements of War like Napoleon. Compare what Wellington, who is praised, was in charge of, an army in Spain with the richest country in the world paying for him to stay in the field, to what Napoleon had to deal with.

  • SkippingDog

    Where’s Patton?

    • Dawg

      You’re kidding, right? He did some stupid things (Metz), but he was solid commander.

      • SkippingDog

        Patton killed a lot more of his own people than anyone thought necessary. He was a butcher of US soldiers.

        • Dawg

          The Third Army, under Patton’s command had one of the lowest casualty rates in the Army…….maybe you shouldn’t get your history from the folks who keep perpetuating the same tired old myths. Patton wasn’t perfect, but he was one of the best ever in the field.

  • John Kacher

    George Washington kept a poorly fed, poorly clothed, poorly armed, often outnumbered army together until he beat and received the surrender of the most powerful military force in the world at Yorktown. He doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near this list.

  • John Kacher

    Robert E Lee defeated in succession: Union Generals McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker with a smaller, poorly equipped army. A lesser general would have lost the war on the Peninsula in 1862.

  • John Kacher

    MacArthur deserves top billing. Nearly 8 hours after knowing about Pearl Harbor, MacArthur loses most of his air force consisting of 109 P40s and 35 B17s on the ground and gets beat by an army a third smaller than his own which leads to the largest surrender in US History.

    • Ikemounce

      MacArthur had some faults, but he was still a great commander.

  • John Massoud

    No one could have done a better job in their particular circumstances than Washington or Lee. This list is an embarrassment

  • IowaDave

    What about Wellington, most famous for being nearby when Crown Prince Blucher won the Battle of Waterloo?