Titans of War: The Five Greatest Generals in American History
Over the course of American history, the United States has been blessed with some of the most remarkable commanders ever to set foot on a battlefield. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, World War II, and beyond, many Americans have skillfully led their armies and soldiers, but I believe that George Washington, Winfield Scott, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George S. Patton distinguished themselves as our nation’s five greatest generals. They were truly America’s titans of war.
In June 1775, the delegates of the Second Continental Congress selected George Washington of Virginia to lead the newly formed Continental Army against the British Crown. Although he had commanded provincial troops and served beside the British in the French and Indian War, Washington had never led a large army in the field prior to his appointment. In his speech accepting the post, he spoke with the humility that defined his sterling character: “I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
No general in American history has ever faced a task as daunting as Washington did during the Revolutionary War. Far from just building an army from the ground up, Washington also had to lead that fledgling fighting force composed of citizen soldiers against the most powerful military-machine in the world. His task as Commander-in-Chief was only made harder by the fact that his soldiers were poorly fed, equipped, supplied, and rarely if ever paid, but Washington always found a way to keep his army together. A citizen soldier himself, Washington made his share of mistakes, and though the war seemed lost at times, he learned to adapt and refused to ever give up.
General George Washington. (Photo Credit: George Washington's Mount Vernon)
Whether crossing the ice-chocked Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 in desperate pursuit of a victory to save the Revolution, surviving brutal winters at places like Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, or overcoming countless other moments of extreme adversity, Washington endlessly persevered with his men for eight long years. Together, they turned the world upside down, delivering the coup de grâce to British hopes in America after forcing the surrender of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, a victory that led to the recognition of American Independence with the Treaty of Paris two years later.
Washington regarded America’s triumph in the Revolution as “little short of a standing miracle,” but without him at the helm of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, there would have been no miracle at all. George Washington was truly the indispensable man of the American Revolution. He set the standard for what it means to be an American general and all who came after him have reverently done their best to follow in his footsteps.
For fifty-three of his seventy-nine years on earth, Winfield Scott wore the uniform of a soldier. He spent forty-seven of those years as a general, serving in that rank longer than any other individual in American history. Over his long life of service, Scott distinguished himself as a warrior for the ages across three different wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War.
Scott’s talent for military leadership was unleashed during the War of 1812, a conflict in which he proved himself fearless on the battlefield, a superb organizer, and skilled at turning volunteers into crack soldiers. Nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his sharp dress and discipline, he used his eye for precision to help mold the U.S. Army into a more professional force in the years after the war.
Scott truly made his name during the Mexican-American War. As the commanding general of the United States Army, he executed the largest amphibious landing in American history on March 9, 1847, a feat that stood unsurpassed until World War II, putting a 10,000-strong force ashore to the south of the fortified Mexican city of Veracruz. After capturing Veracruz, Scott cut loose from his coastal base and set out for Mexico City, leading his small force across nearly 250 miles of treacherous terrain, living off the land and prevailing over Mexican forces in several battles along the way until reaching the enemy capital. Six months after launching his campaign, the Stars and Stripes were raised over the Halls of Montezuma and Mexico City was in Scott’s hands. Admiring Scott’s daring and highly successful campaign from afar, the legendary Duke of Wellington anointed him “the greatest living soldier.”
General Winfield Scott. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Scott was 74 years old and in poor health, but he remained the commanding general of the U.S. Army. Although his native state of Virginia ultimately seceded from the Union, he remained faithful to the Stars and Stripes. Under pressure, Scott resigned his post in November, making way for the younger George B. McClellan, but his impact in guiding the Northern war effort during the opening months of the war was vital to the Union’s ultimate victory four years later. Nicknamed the “Anaconda Plan,” Scott’s grand strategy to win the war aimed to strangle the Confederate economy and divide the states in rebellion by blockading Southern seaports and gaining control of the Mississippi River. It was a strategy that took time to unfold, but one that did ultimately prove effective in bringing about the demise of the Confederacy.
There is a reason why Winfield Scott served as a general longer than any other individual in American history. His sense of professionalism and his abilities to fight, formulate grand strategy, train troops, and more all clearly mark him as a general for the ages.
Robert E. Lee
Over his four years at the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee did not incur a single demerit, graduating second in his class at West Point in 1829. As the chief engineer on General Winfield Scott’s staff during the Mexican-American War, Lee performed so superbly that his commander deemed him “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”
Although offered command of the Federal Forces being raised to quell the Southern rebellion at the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Lee could not bring himself to accept the job. When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, he made the most difficult decision of his life. Unable to draw his sword against his native state, Lee wrote, “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army. . . .”
After accepting a generals commission in the newly formed Confederate Army, Lee had a frustrating start to the war, but his rise to legend came when it mattered most. With the enemy pressing upon the gates of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in June 1862, Lee was called upon to save the day. With Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston wounded, Lee was given command of his embattled army and over a series of bloody engagements, he managed to foil the Union drive towards Richmond.
General Robert E. Lee. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Renaming his command the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee and his soldiers developed a sacred bond, becoming one of the stoutest fighting forces in American history. Although his army was nearly always outnumbered and faced innumerable hardships, Lee and his men achieved stunning successes across many of the war’s major battlefields. “It is beyond all wonder,” wrote a Union officer after the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Sharpsburg, Maryland in September 1862, “how such men as the rebel troops can fight on as they do; that filthy, sick, hungry, and miserable, they should prove such heroes in fight, is past explanation.”
Two times during the bloody four-year struggle, Lee and his army invaded the North and nearly attained war-winning victories. In Lee’s greatest triumph at Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863, he overcame being outnumbered more than two to one, divided his army three times, and launched a series of crushing flank and frontal attacks that overwhelmed the enemy. Even after suffering his greatest defeat of the war at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July 1863, Lee and his men tenaciously fought on for another two years. With his army grinded down and cut off from escape, Lee ultimately surrendered to Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Although he ended up on the losing side of the Civil War, the victories Lee achieved and the challenges he operated under distinguish him as one of America’s greatest generals. His soldiers proved they would follow their leader anywhere and endure every hardship for him. After all, there is a reason why the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Shaara and many others consider Lee “perhaps the most beloved General in the history of American war.”
Ulysses S. Grant
From working as a clerk at his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois and struggling to obtain a commission upon the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Ulysses S. Grant rose to improbable heights, eventually being named General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States with over a million men under his command and masterminding the Union’s ultimate victory over the Confederacy.
A graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, Grant resigned from the Army in 1854 and struggled mightily in life over the years before the nation split. Despite those challenges, he was not a man who turned back when things got tough or when facing crushing adversity, two of the many qualities that helped Grant excel across many of the Civil War’s most significant battlefields.
When the call for volunteers to defend the Union came, Grant immediately stood up to do his duty. Even with his experience, he initially struggled to obtain a commission, but after proving himself as he drilled and mustered in new recruits, he got his chance. Appointed colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry in June 1861, Grant was quickly promoted to brigadier general the following month. When the war really started to get going in 1862 and the Union was looking for a man who would fight, Grant emerged as the champion the North needed.
General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com)
In February 1862, Grant conquered Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee, earning the nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and delivering the Union’s first major victories of the war. Later that April, he averted what might have been a catastrophic blow to the Union by not buckling under pressure and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at the bloody Battle of Shiloh.
Grant went on to conduct what many consider to be not only the most masterfully executed campaign of the Civil War, but also “one of the greatest campaigns in history,” as described by his trusted subordinate William T. Sherman. On July 4, 1863, after months of navigating treacherous waterways, fighting and winning several battles, and orchestrating a 47-day siege, Grant captured the mighty Mississippi River fortress of Vicksburg. His victory secured unimpeded access to the Mississippi River for the Union, which inflicted a fatal blow to the enemy by effectively splitting the Confederacy in two.
After Grant rescued the Union Army of the Cumberland and defeated Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army at Chattanooga, Tennessee, President Abraham Lincoln brought him to Washington and placed him in total command of all Federal forces in March 1864. As Union General-in-Chief, Grant guided the Army of the Potomac to victory through some of the fiercest clashes of the war against Robert E. Lee’s mighty Army of Northern Virginia. His relentless pressure ultimately compelled the Confederacy’s best commander to surrender his army on April 9, 1865. Always looking at the war in terms of grand strategy, Grant also directed the war-winning movements of Federal forces operating far and wide across the war-torn nation.
Facing every condition imaginable during the conflict, Grant showed he could lead and win through it all. As a great general of our own time, David Petraeus, has admiringly declared, he was “near genius as a tactical leader, an operational leader, and a strategic leader.” Through his vision, dedication, courage, and many more positive traits, Grant saved the Union. Sherman put it best when he said, “If the name of Washington is allied with the birth of our country, that of Grant is forever identified with its preservation.”
George S. Patton
Nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts,” George S. Patton was truly in his element on the battlefield. With his family’s long line of military service dating back to the American Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War, Patton was born to be a soldier. In fact, as a believer in reincarnation, he was convinced that he had also been a soldier in previous lives, including as a Roman legionnaire, a marshal for the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte, and more. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Patton went on to distinguish himself as one of the most innovative, hard-fighting, and fast-moving commanders in history.
In 1917, the United States entered the First World War and Patton set foot on the bloody battlefields of Europe with the American Expeditionary Force. The previous year, he had proven himself in his first taste of combat during a military expedition to Mexico. During that 11-month campaign, Patton helped lead the first motorized attack in American military history. As the first officer assigned to the newly established U.S. Tanks Corps during World War One, he continued to display a talent for maximizing new technology on the battlefield, such as at the Battle of Cambrai in France, where Patton’s skill contributed to the Allied victory in the world’s first major tank battle.
In the Great War, Patton had been a young officer, but by the time the United States was committed to the Second World War some 23 years later, he was a general with the knowledge and experience his country needed. From the time he set foot in North Africa in November 1942 to the final defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Patton lived by his philosophy of war: “we shall attack and attack until we are exhausted, and then we shall attack again.” It was a credo that served him and the Allies quite well.
General George S. Patton. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
After suffering a series of setbacks in North Africa, General Dwight D. Eisenhower called upon Patton to help turn America’s troubling military situation around. Patton did just that, resurrecting American fortunes and inspiring confidence through victory. Following North Africa, Patton commanded the U.S. Seventh Army in a successful invasion of Sicily in July 1943, led his U.S. Third Army as it raced across northern France in the summer of 1944, and played a pivotal role in beating back the last great German offensive of the war at the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944/45. By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, historian Alex Lovelace records, “Patton’s Third Army had fought for nine months since becoming operational, capturing more than 80,000 square miles . . . of territory.” His army suffered around 137,000 casualties during that time, but it inflicted more than 10 times that number on the enemy.
When asked which American commander impressed him most during World War Two, German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt replied, “Patton was your best.” He certainly was America’s finest fighting commander of the Second World War, but more than that, the name of George S. Patton also belongs with those of Washington, Scott, Lee, and Grant as one of the five greatest generals in U.S. history.
Header Photo Credits
George Washington: Dontroiani.com.
Winfield Scott: Abc.net.au.
Robert E. Lee: American Battlefield Trust/Don Troiani.
Ulysses S. Grant: Mortkunstler.com.
George S. Patton: New York Post.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: 10 Facts about Washington and the Revolutionary War.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Continental Army.
Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.
American Battlefield Trust: 10 Facts: Civil War Navies.
American Battlefield Trust: Winfield Scott.
History.com: General Winfield Scott Captures Mexico City.
History.com: Winfield Scott.
National Park Service: Winfield Scott.
PBS: The Capture of Veracruz.
Robert E. Lee
American Battlefield Trust: Robert E. Lee.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara.
Ulysses S. Grant
American Battlefield Trust: Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant by Ron Chernow.
Thunderbird School of Digital Management: Grant's Quiet Fortitude by General David Petraeus.
George S. Patton
Encyclopædia Britannica: George Patton.
History.com: 10 Things You May Not Know About George Patton.
History.com: George S. Patton.
Patton: A Biography by Alan Axelrod.