The Big 10: America’s Greatest Generals

Selecting the top 10 American generals was easy in one way, tough in another.

Easy in the sense that American military history – not counting the colonial era – is so brief (barely 235 years since Lexington and Concord). Tough in the sense, that there are a lot of really fine general-officers who, for whatever reason, did not make the final cut, though barely missing it.

Readers for instance will question why I did not include the likes of Generals Winfield Scott, Ulysses S. Grant, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Norman Schwarzkopf, and others. Frankly, there is no reason other than the fact that a list of 10 can not include 15 or 20, so much of the selection-weight had to be based on personal preference.

Following are my top 10 favorite American generals in historic-chronology:

Gen. George Washington, Continental Army

No list of the top 10 greatest American generals (or greatest generals in world history for that matter) can ever exclude Washington in my opinion. Though often underrated as a tactician – and yes, he did have his tactical flaws – Washington was a strategic genius and a master at raw leadership. He knew how to build an army from nothing. He knew how to keep that army together when it was coming apart. He had sense enough to surround himself with superb officers (both American and allied). He welcomed and heeded the counsel of those officers. He was not averse to taking risks. He refused to quit. His physical and moral courage were unmatched. And at the end of the day, he won the American Revolution.

Gen. Nathanael Greene, Continental Army

Gen. Greene – one of Washington’s ablest commanders – has always been one of my favorites. Commenting on his army’s successes, he once remarked, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”

Gen. Andrew Jackson, U.S. Army

A hard-bitten, somewhat-ruthless Indian fighter nicknamed, “Old Hickory,” Gen. Andrew Jackson’s unconventional warfare campaigns against native American Indians were enough to earn him a berth on this list to be sure. But his greatest military victory – the decisive defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans – was accomplished in extraordinary fashion with an unlikely army composed of U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, pirates, a few freed slaves, Choctaw Indians, and militiamen from several states.

Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Army

Aside from the fact that Gen. Forrest personally killed 30-31 men in single combat over the course of the American Civil War, had 29 horses shot out from under him, and was seriously wounded four times; the so-called “Wizard of the Saddle,” was perhaps the best cavalry or mounted infantry (dragoon) commander America has ever produced. The New York Times in his 1877 obituary, said Forrest was “considered by many to have been the most formidable cavalry commander … in the Armies of the South.”

Indeed, the speed, shock, maneuverability, and mobility of his forces in action were hallmarks of Forrest’s operations. His soldiers loved him. His fellow generals admired him. His enemies were terrified at the mere mention of his name. Gen. Robert E. Lee said of his finest subordinate commanders, the most remarkable was one he “had never met” — Forrest. And U.S. and foreign military officers alike have studied Forrest’s campaigns over the decades since the end of the war. It has even been speculated that some aspects of the German Blitzkrieg were patterned after some of Forrest’s operations.

Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate Army

So much has been said about “Stonewall” Jackson’s masterful maneuvering in the Shenandoah Valley that it almost seems redundant to mention it here. What I will say is that had Jackson not been killed, and had Lee had him at Gettysburg, the war might indeed have had a different outcome.

Whenever I think of Jackson, I think of the Battle of Chancellorsville where Jackson’s Confederates appeared out of nowhere, smashing into the Union Army’s right flank and literally rolling up the encamped Federal force. Sadly, that night Jackson was mortally wounded – his left arm shattered –in a friendly fire incident during a leaders-recon mission. Following the amputation of Jackson’s arm, Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right arm.” Worse for Lee, Jackson would develop pneumonia and die within eight days.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army

Though many of my Southern brethren may skewer me for listing Gen. Sherman, it is impossible to have such a list and deny him a berth as he was a master of the concept of “total war,” and the so-called “first modern general.” His campaigns through the heart of the South were terribly destructive, but undeniably effective.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate Army

The so-christened “Marble Man,” Gen. Lee may forever personify the ideal American commander. A gentleman with unshakable integrity who earned the undying loyalty of his men and the almost reverent respect of his enemies, Lee dumbfounded the numerically superior Union Army time-and-again. Had he won the war – which his limited resources would never enable him to do – he would have been far more than the “ideal” commander. He would have been the perfect commander.

Gen. John A. Lejeune, U.S. Marine Corps

Gen. Lejeune is the father of the modern Marine Corps, and that reason alone is enough to land him a berth in the top 10 greatest American generals.

Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, U.S. Marine Corps

The reasons for Gen. Vandegrift’s receiving the Medal of Honor are frankly the same for why he is deemed one of the greatest-ever American general-officers; that being he led the now-famous 1st Marine Division (made famous by Vandegrift and a succession of leaders after him) in the first ground offensive against the Japanese during World War II. Though often isolated and without adequate resources on the far side of the world, Vandegrift led his Marines to victory in some of the most grisly combat – both conventional and unconventional fighting – of the entire war.

Gen. George S. Patton, U.S. Army
 
No self-respecting list of the top 10 American generals could exclude the great Gen. George Smith Patton Jr.; the always-decisive commander who frequently defied his superiors, raced across Europe faster than his fuel and supplies could keep up with him, crushed or routed his enemies at every turn, and once said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

[AUTHOR NOTE: Next up, America’s greatest sea captains and admirals.]

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