The Greatest General In American History, Part I

December 21, 2011, 8:29 pm

General Gates   General Horatio Gates   Revolutionary War   Rare  4x4    150

So the comments on this post got me thinking. Who was the best general in American History? It’s been several centuries, the US has fought lots of wars, and we have lots of famous generals.

So, who is it? Well, first, a disclaimer. As a historian I hate “who is the best…” or ranking lists of all kinds. History isn’t a sport, and it’s not organized like one. Generals don’t often get to fight against one another and certainly generals from the same countries rarely do. They fight in different eras with different resources and different enemies. Generals fight the wars in front of them, not the wars they want and certainly not a standardized war that would allow us to dial out personal differences. That makes rankings unfair, no matter how they are organized.

Nonetheless, it’s the end of the year when rankings flourish like kudzu, and I’m going to do it. Or, at least, I’m going to lay out a case and make a choice based on that case. It won’t be the only possible case. It might not even be the best case. It’ll be my case, though.

So, onward.

My first requirement is that the general had to be fighting for the United States. Uncontroversial, seemingly, but there go Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

My second requirement is that the general had to be fighting an enemy that was equal or superior to the United States in military and economic power and the general had to be fighting the main body of the enemy in that war. Everyone looks great beating up the Cleveland Cavaliers (sorry, sports metaphor). They’re out.

That takes out the Indian Wars of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War (ahh, booo!), the Boxer Rebellion (double boo!), the Moro War, the interventions in Latin America, World War II (Japan was nowhere near equal to the US in economic size and the larger part of their army was in Manchuria during the war; Germany always had the bulk of its army in the East) and everything post-1945.


Eliminated are such contenders as Arthur MacArthur, Teddy Roosevelt (okay, he was never a general, but still…), Adna Chaffee, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Matthew Ridgway, Creighton Abrams, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus.* If I’m leaving anyone out, remind me in the comments.

The wars left are the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and World War I.My third requirement is that the general must have some argument to being the critical general of that conflict. That means that either they were the overall commanding general or were of such importance that they cannot be ignored. Or both.

Eliminated are “Light Horse” Harry Lee (not a general), William Sherman (wasn’t fighting the main body of the enemy), George Thomas (ditto), and Black Jack Pershing (not the most important commander).

Thus, for generals left after the three requirements, we have George Washington, Horatio Gates, Winfield Scott, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, George McClellan, George Meade, and Ulysses S. Grant.

I’m eliminating Gates immediately. Saratoga was the victory of the Revolution but Camden was a disaster. Out also goes Andrew Jackson. New Orleans was a great battle to set up a Presidential run, but otherwise it was British stupidity that shaped it more than Jackson’s abilities. Plus, one battle? Feh. Zachary Taylor’s battles in the Mexican-American War were unimaginative bloodbaths, and he wasn’t even a famous President afterwards. McClellan? Okay, I know he was facing Robert E. Lee, but the man was a nickname rather than a general. Meade won Gettysburg, the most important battle of the most important war of American history, but that doesn’t make him the greatest general.

That leaves Washington, Scott, and Grant.

Two more get eliminated tomorrow, sort of, and the first one eliminated isn’t the one you might guess.


*One of the unfair parts of my formulation is that it eliminates those fighting counter-insurgenices. Insurgency warfare is a form of tactics designed effectively to eliminate large differences in military and economic resources.

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