Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Winning wars requires more than just an army; it requires military tactics and strategy. Planning an offense or a defense on a football field takes thought and effort. Imagine multiplying that offense or defense to include thousands of men, horses or tanks, and supply needs. There have been many great generals in history, who relied upon smart strategy, or, in some cases, a willingness to accept great losses, to secure an American victory in wars from the American Revolution to Desert Storm.

These generals varied from the calm and thoughtful, like Eisenhower to the brash and loud, like Patton. They shared a commitment to duty, patriotism and a belief that their army could be victorious.

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George Washington

George Washington is most often remembered as the first President of the United States; however, before he was President Washington, he was General Washington, leader of the Continental Army. Washington was a skilled military leader and strategist, and his defeat of the British is a memorable moment in military history.

In 1776, Washington and the Continental Army lost the colony of New York to the British. Washington was frustrated and angered by his defeat, and did not forget it, even as his troops left Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. Washington communicated his plan with the Continental Congress in a series of letters, and in 1779, received a letter from the President of the Continental Congress to think himself, “at Liberty to direct the military operations of these States in such a manner as you think expedient”.

Washington’s initial strategy required the full cooperation of France, but also required a British willingness to fight in New York. The British preferred to fight further south, believing this provided them with an advantage. His initial strategy placed the decisive battle in New York City, but this was not to be. The French encouraged a final battle in Virginia.

In 1781, Washington learned that the French navy had effectively trapped the British army in Virginia. This led to the creation of a new strategy.  The decisive battle would be fought at Yorktown.

Outside New York, Washington built bread ovens and army camps, and circulated letters discussing his attack on New York, then under the command of British General Clinton. Everything possible was done to maintain the impression of a planned assault on New York City.

Leaving behind a small force, Washington and most of his troops set out for Yorktown. In September, a large number of American and French forces gathered in Williamsburg. The Battle of Yorktown began by the end of that month, and ended by the 18th of October with a British surrender.

Washington’s smart use of confusion tactics provided the cover and space necessary to amass troops at Williamsburg and to take Yorktown. His willingness to be flexible with his plan brought success for the young nations.

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  • I don’t recall Schwarzkopf wanting to go to Baghdad at all. He knew the mission of Desert Storm was to simply push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Although it’s been a couple years since I read his autobiography.

    • IndigoRed

      Schwarzkopf did oppose an offensive on Baghdad because he simply hadn’t the men and materiel for such an operation. He had planned on the liberation of Kuwait with minimal power projection, and without backup forces – he had no reserves. Force projection into Iraq to Baghdad would have left his small force vulnerable to Iraq’s remaining forces which were still formidable.

      • Archer110353

        You are correct. US forces did not have adequate forces nor did we plan on having the required supply chain for the push towards Baghdad. It was never the goal. The goal was to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. This was accomplished.

    • john_koenig

      I recall him saying off the record that he was ready to take Baghdad but was rebuffed by Colin Powell.
      Think of the misery that could have been avoided if we had gotten Saddam 15 years earlier.

      • Charles Cates

        Yep, most of the wars past WWII have had more than a military objective. Oil, oil, oil…

        • Heartland Patriot

          Aw, sad that HRC lost?

          • Charles Cates

            No. I don’t like pols. I don’t like gov. I worked for those bastards 15 years

        • 714knarf

          Nonsense…it has never been about oil…we have enough oil on this continent to supply our needs for the next 500 years. the problem with the wars since WWII is that we forgot that we won WWII not with body counts but by destroying the enemy’s ability to conduct war.

    • Phillip Barker

      Look at the tape of him announcing the halt. He could barely contain his rage about being told to stop.

      • The campaign was ended arbitrarily at 100 hours. Schwarzkopf wanted a few more days to mop up and consolidate his gains. NOT invade Baghdad. He was not alone in that assessment.

  • Grant’s success was due to the fact he had more troops and supplies and did not mind getting half his forces killed since he knew eventually the other side would run out of bodies. He got over 7,000 of his men killed in 30 minutes at Cold Harbor and still refused to stop the offensive, his genius was based on getting his men killed he was no commander he was a butcher.

  • Erica

    Patton fought in the Mexican American War? Maybe you mean he was in Pershing’s expedition to Mexico in 1916

  • Wade Gregg

    His troops called him “Old Blood and Guts” –> wrong. The American press coined the term “Old Blood and Guts.” Patton’s troops affectionately called him “Georgie” especially while he was in command of Third Army in Europe.

  • Benton Rollins

    McARTHUR WAS VERY OVER RATED. HE WAS GIVEN 24 HRS NOTICE OF THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR AND DID ALMOST NOTHING TO PREPARE OUR FORCES IN THE PHILLIPINES. HIS AIR FORCE WAS CAUGHT ON THE GROUND AND DESTROYED, WHICH LEFT THE GROUND TROOPS IN DIRE STRAITS. HE LED THE UN TROOPS ALL THE WAY TO THE CHINESE BORDER IN THE KOREAN WAR AND IGNORED WARNINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR THE CHINESE . WHEN THEY ATTACKED THE UN FORCES WERE ROUTED AND FORCED WAY BACK INTO S. KOREA. BIGGEST MARINE CORP RETREAT IN HISTORY. FIRED BY TRUMAN BASICALLY FOR INSUBORDINATION. WANTED TO DROP THE A-BOMB ON CHINA WHICH WOULD HAVE STARTED WWIII. PLUS HE WAS VERY ARROGANT, CONCEITED, AND FULL OF HIMSELF.

  • Jmorrow

    An interesting selection, but Patton, MacAuthur and Eisenhower would not have accomplished anything without Marshal. He changed the way we waged war by engaging the full industrial resources of the US in the effort.

  • Randy Finley

    General Patton did not serve in the Mexican American War (April 25, 1846 – February 2, 1848). That would have been difficult since he wasn’t born until November 11, 1885. He did however participate in the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916. A little solid research and proper references would make for a much more interesting and credible article.

    • Grabber

      You are correct sir…perhaps the writer is referring to the Pancho Villa incursion into Mexico as the Mexican American War.

    • Dar

      Thank you, Randy, for letting them know. Words (and titles) do mean things.

    • David Couvillon

      He served in the “Pancho Villa Expedition”. Mar 1916-Feb 1917.. (I guess technically you could call it a Mexican American War).

    • Phillip Barker

      They also grossly misrepresented the events of the Korean War. MacArthur was fired because he insisted on following retreating Chinese troops into China to destroy them rather than let them regroup, regain strength and attack again.

      • Ralf Zabotskowitz

        They never crossed the Yalu, so they didn’t follow them into China. China told Mac that if he persisted in his campaign to the Chinese border (
        In North Korea) they would enter the conflict. Mac didn’t believe them, believed if they did our airpower would be able to stop them. He was wrong.

      • Dave_TX

        MacArthur was grossly insubordinate and was too old to understand the changed nature of warfare after the development of the Bomb.

      • MacArthur also requisitioned 20 atomic bombs for his planned invasion of China. Also missing in this article is MacArthur ignoring obvious signs of Chinese intervention as Allies Forces approached the Yalu River.

        This was not going to be pretty. The Chinese were well-prepared and knew of MacArthur’s intentions and game plan.

        • Gary

          Actually, the Chinese were poorly trained, prepared,
          and equipped. The only thing they had was numbers. A large portion of their Army froze to death at the Chosin Resevoir.

          • In fact, the Allied forces did not face the regular Chinese Army. The Chinese consigned to battle in Korea were almost entirely hasty conscripts. Volunteers in name only, enlisted under duress, whose training consisted of a forced march to the Front.

            China was in for the long haul. Their regular forces in reserve, those in Korea were merely cannon fodder. Delaying the expected MacArthur China offensive. No big surprise on their performance, considering.

          • Alec Ordway

            A large portion was slaughtered by the marines under Gen. Oliver Smith at Chosin and the “attack in a different direction” campaign. Thank God Gen. Smith didn’t listen to MacArthur’s subordinate Gen. Almond and proceed recklessly into the interior. His foresight to build airstrips and stockpile supplies saved the division.

    • Willik

      General Patton was a Logistics genius which made him great tactical commander in the field. No commander in WWII was better at it and he had to do it in a hobo’s ”rock soup” style.

      He succeeded DESPITE his American superiors who were “Allies” and not American as far as he was concerned.

      As an aside: General Patton was dyslexic, yet overcame it to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, field commander the US has EVER fielded. And he lead, many times, from the FRONT!

  • eramthgin

    Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower do not deserve to be on this list.

  • Joe Wilson

    What about old Fuss and Feathers? Made it to Mexico city with a tiny force and ended the war, was offered the presidency of Mexico by the Mexicans but refused. the came up with the Anaconda plan that strangled the South into submission. Missed a good one there author.

  • cglover

    Where is William Tecumseh Sherman?
    The first American general who truly understood war..and how to fight and win.

    • Archer110353

      Sherman reported to Grant…or did you miss that bit of information?

      • UnderCoverBrother

        Grant was too drunk to supervise

        • Dave_TX

          Another believer in the myth of the Lost Cause.

    • Phillip Barker

      He would have been tried for war crimes in today’s world. Being willing to burn everything in your path against an already defeated enemy does not make you a great general.

      • Dave_TX

        Sherman did not burn everything in his path. Obviously you grew up with the great lie of the Lost Cause. After the war people who lived many miles from the path of Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee claimed he burned them out. That was a good story to pass down to the grandchildren, but it was a lie.

        • Phillip Barker

          Every reputable source I’ve read confirms he burned military targets, industry targets, infrastructure targets, and private property. His stated reason for doing it was to crush the south in a way that they would not economically recover for 100 years. That strategy worked. It’s considered a war crime today.

          Directly from his written orders:
          “To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills,
          houses, cotton-gins, and for them this general principle is
          laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested
          no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should
          guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants
          burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility,
          then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less
          relentless according to the measure of such hostility.”

          Apparently every district and neighborhood entered by Sherman’s men was very hostile. Don’t try to rewrite history. There’s ample evidence of the brutality of the march. His march is the reason there are so few antebellum homes in the south. They were all burned by his men. There’s also ample communication from Lee’s commanders begging him to allow them to implement the same policies against the north to level the playing field. He always replied that he would rather lose than become barbarians raiding and plundering civilians like Sherman.

          • trollkiller1

            its not a war crime to destroy property, unless you’re an oversensitive revisionist Southerner longing for the days of slavery and the Confederacy

          • gladileft

            But Lee did confiscate and burn stock, property etc. in his retreat from Gettysburg.

        • SylviasDaddy

          Either you lack accurate information (nothing to be ashamed of) or you are being malicious.
          I call your attention to “War Crimes Against Southern Civilians” by Walter Brian Cisco.

      • It is POSSIBLY a war crime in this era, to loot and destroy civilian foodstuffs and anything of value to the enemy. Moot point. War is HELL, Sherman knew that, and his strategies forced the South into an earlier surrender. Pure and simple.

      • trollkiller1

        “already defeated”? funny how none of the Confederate Generals knew that

    • HardCorps

      “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number.”

      This General had some understanding of war, himself.

      TJ Jackson, Lt Gen

    • Eric Belander

      That would be Stonewall Jackson. He understood modern war before Sherman did.

      • Dave_TX

        Jackson was very inconsistent. He performed well in the Valley and at Chancellorsville, but failed miserably in the Seven Days Battle.

      • SylviasDaddy

        Please furnish the details of any war crime or atrocity that Stonewall Jackson or men under his command committed.

    • UnderCoverBrother

      The consumate war criminal…

    • Thank you. Where is William Tecumseh Sherman? Nothing against the others, but every American general since General Sherman has studied and used the tactics devised by General Sherman.

  • sargeh

    There is no way MacArthur belongs on this list.

  • j40bob

    Many of these generals were simply more famous than some of their contemporaries who may have been better. Sherman was probably better than Grant, as good as Grant was. Omar Bradley may have been as important as Patton. It’s hard to say how good MacArthur was. His non-stop public posturing made him look more heroic than he probably was. He cost a lot of lives in Korea by pursuing the Chinese forces as far as he did. Schwartzkopf was made famous by his well-received public descriptions of the war. As the article stated, his tactics weren’t extraordinary; he overwhelmed the Iraqis with superior numbers and weaponry. There were a lot of good generals, including a couple on this list. But the list is mostly popularity.

    • Jeeper752

      Decades ago I had the opportunity to ask the opinion of Army and Marine veterans of MacArthur’s Western Pacific Command.

      The Army vets thought “Doug” could walk on water.
      The Marines said they would not even pee on him if he was on fire.

      Korean War vets I had the chance to ask had the same opinions and broke down along service lines.

  • Kurt Taube

    I would have included Robert E. Lee and possibly Stonewall Jackson, even if they were best known for fighting against U.S. forces.

  • UnderCoverBrother

    Ridgway is credited with being the first allied general to recognize the Chinese pattern of attack and its vulnerabilities. He saw that the Chinese came ferociously in overwhelming numbers, but fought only briefly before retiring to rest before attacking again. Ridgway reasoned that Chinese supplies were limited by the amount each man could carry on his back and, in heavy fighting, were soon used up. Ridgway found considerable success in launching immediate counter-attacks before the Chinese could resupply its soldiers.

    • Dave_TX

      That, and he knew how to use his artillery to great advantage.

  • sciajoe

    The article missed an important points with Ike. During the time between WWI and WWII, the army gave him the task to study the relationship between the military and industry to better work with industry should we get in another war. That assignment had a lot to do with his appointment to serve in Britain and to become allied commander in Europe. He had a mind for logistics and managing troop and material movement. We had plenty of tacticians, but only one general with Eisenhower’s unique skills. He also had political skills – working with generals and world leaders from many countries. If he had an ego – it did not show – he always showed up for work and never brought attention to himself.

  • Dave_TX

    Grant recognized the Civil War had to be prosecuted across the whole of the South in a coordinated fashion unlike his predecessors. Certainly, Winfield Scott had recognized the continental scale of the war, but he was shoved aside and left only his anaconda idea of using a blockade to isolate the South. Grant took advantage of the network of rivers and the North’s ability to repair and build railroads to move troops and supplies rapidly across the war zone while using the telegraph networks to stay in communication with the far flung armies. The Civil War was the first modern war and Grant was the first modern general.

  • Dave_TX

    Right up to the beginning of WWII Patton saw a role for horse cavalry and even designed a new cavalry saber.

    • Frankly, if horses didn’t eat like horses, Patton would have used them to augment his armored cavalry.

  • Tony Bell

    Our greatest general was the one who didn’t lead men in combat beyond the rank of captain: George Marshall.

  • Willik

    General/President Eisenhower was a “Political” general who never heard a shot fired in anger.

    He WAS good at delegating authority to those who could apply where necessary, in both his service as SHEAF commander and President.

  • SylviasDaddy

    Yes, just as the German Army’s atrocities forced Poland and Czechoslovakia and Ukraine into an earlier surrender, and persuaded millions of Jews to abandon all hope.
    The authors of the Axis atrocities paid with their lives.
    The damyankees who did that and more were never punished.

    • trollkiller1

      comparing Union forces to Nazis is historically absurd and morally beneath contempt, unless you’re a member of the KKK. Ironed your sheets yet?

      • SylviasDaddy

        [Definitions taken from “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged” (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.; 1981)]

        BIGOTRY: Obstinate and unreasoning attachment to one’s own belief and opinions with intolerance of beliefs opposed to them.

        IGNORANCE: A lack of knowledge, either in general or of a particular point.

        INTOLERANCE: Unwillingness to tolerate a difference of opinion or feeling, or refusal to allow others the free enjoyment of their opinions.

        PREJUDICE: Unreasonable predilection for or objection against something; or an opinion or leaning adverse to anything without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge; or an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics; or an opinion or judgment formed beforehand or without due examination.

        Since your remarks were couched in the form of a jeer, some readers might think that you are bigoted, intolerant, or prejudiced. I prefer to be charitable and think that you are simply ignorant – that you lack knowledge of 1860s history. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to be jeered at. I am glad to help you gain the information you lack.

        I call your attention to “War Crimes Against Southern Civilians” by Walter Brian Cisco. That book will give you the information you don’t have.

        Best wishes to you!

  • Pete Julian

    Where is Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson? Victims of the PC crowd.

  • Alec Ordway

    General Jacob Devers was a better tactician, better at logistics, and a better leader than Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton combined. He could have shortened the war by months and saved lives and prevented the Battle of the Bulged if he’d been allowed to cross the Rhine at Strasbourg.