I am currently taking some courses to finish my Masters in Criminal Justice. I was a cop, so it kinda makes sense if you think about it. I still keep my peace officer license and my peace officer instructor license current and I figure that if I can't get a full time job teaching history, then criminal justice is another option for me. Anyway, the course I am taking now is Leadership in Criminal Justice. I looked forward to this with about the same level of anticipation as one awaits a colonoscopy without benefit of anesthesia. But the class has been very interesting as we study different leadership styles. And, of course, it got me thinking about it in a historical context.
In graduate school I focused on military history, with an emphasis on 19th Century America. I thought since I had spent so much time as a Civil War reenactor (in lieu of dating) that I had picked up some useful tidbits that may help me in class. It really didn't. But I did develop a healthy interest in what makes a good commander in the field. So, I'm going to give you my top five American generals. The criteria that I used was that it had to be pre-1960. I consider Confederate generals to be American too. Feel free to disagree with me as to my list and I fully expect that some of you will. That's fine. Healthy debate makes us all smarter. Or at least it makes me smarter. I confess in advance that this list is very heavy on the 19th Century, as that is what I specialized in. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
So, in no particular order I give you the Half A$$ Historians top five American generals.
1. Patrick Cleburne
Though technically I guess he isn't American because he was born in Ireland on Saint Patrick's Eve, he did fight in our Civil War. Many of you may never have heard of him before. Cleburne first saw service in the British Army, as did many Irishmen of his era, but he immigrated to the United States around 1849/50 and found himself living in Arkansas of all places. That is a long way from County Cork! Cleburne was quite popular with the townsfolk first as a pharmacist and then as an attorney. Once he and a friend were ambushed by some ne'er do wells from the Know Nothing Party. Cleburne was shot in the back but turned around and shot his assailant dead. When the war started, though he owned no slaves, he threw his lot in with the Confederate cause and enlisted in the Yell Rifles as a private. They elected him Colonel and he rose up from the ranks from there. His men were the shock troops of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. He was a master at using terrain to his advantage. No task was too difficult. But here is what made him great. Cleburne won accolades for himself but always said that the credit belonged to his men. He saw to their needs before his own. And they loved him for it. Also, Cleburne put forth a detailed proposal to the Confederate government arguing that they should free slaves in exchange for military service. This cost him politically as he was not promoted again. Sadly, Cleburne fell at the Battle of Franklin in November of 1864 at the head of his troops, leading them in a suicidal charge ordered by General Hood. Once of his contemporaries, General Govan, said that when he last spoke to Cleburne, Govan said "It looks like many of us won't make it back to Arkansas to tell of this fight." Cleburne, with tears in his eyes said "Well Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men." And that is exactly what this Rebel Son of Erin, nicknamed the Stonewall of the West did. I cannot tell you how proud I am to have some other Rebel Sons of Erin, namely a few of my ancestors, who served with him in his brigade and then in his division. They made that fateful charge at Franklin by his side. They'd have charged the very gates of hell if he had ordered it. That, Dear Readers, is the mark of a good commander.
2. George Henry Thomas
General Thomas makes for a nice contrast with the above General Cleburne. Whereas we have the foreign born non-slaveholding Confederate General, we also have the Union General born and raised on a plantation in Virginia. Odd, isn't it? Thomas, an Old Army guy, stayed loyal when Virginia seceeded from the Union even though some contemporaries did not. This cost him dearly. His family disowned him. His sisters destroyed his letters and turned his picture around facing the wall. When asked later they said that they had no brother. Ouch! Unfortunately, he labored under a cloud of suspicion as to his true loyalty even though his battlefield record was stellar. Thomas and his eventual superior, Grant, did not get along all that well. He also had General Schofield stabbing him in the back frequently. But look at what he did where it matters. His brilliant defense of Horseshoe Ridge during the Battle of Chickamauga prevented a rout at the least and saved the Army at best. While the Union right was collapsing into disorder, Thomas patched together some units and held out desperately. None other than a future president, James Garfield, reported to General Rosecrans that Thomas was "standing like a rock" and thus he became The Rock of Chickamauga. Later at the Battle of Nashville, Thomas all but destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Sadly, the Union generals spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Rebs, which served to keep Thomas from taking his rightful place among the best commanders the North produced during the Late Unpleasantness.
3. Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson committed more acts of badassery than any other person who ever occupied the Oval Office with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt. Consider this, while fighting a duel with a man who accused him of cheating in a bet on a horse race and then doing then unthinkable, insulting his wife Rachel, Andrew Jackson took a bullet to the chest. He very calmly steadied his aim, with blood running down his shirt, and then shot his assailant dead. No Southern man, or probably a Northern one either, would stand for having his wife insulted. Not that I condone dueling, but in certain situations I certainly understand it. While President, a would be assassin accosted him and Jackson proceeded to beat the crap out of him with his cane. But being his own Secret Service detail came after he put an ass kicking on the English that they haven't forgotten. During the War of 1812, our forgotten war, Jackson took command of perhaps the motliest crew of soldiers ever commanded by an American general. His troops were rough frontiersmen from Tennessee, pirates, free persons of color from the city, and even a Native American or two. They stood fast in front of New Orleans against the very cream of the British Army. The British sent their "A" team to New Orleans and Jackson's troops gave them hell. During the midst of the battle where, for a moment, it looked as though the day might go against them, Jackson calmly stood at the center of his lines oblivious to the shot and shell which rained around him. This inspired his men to hold fast, and hold they did, inflicting about 2500 casualties on the British with the loss of less than 400 of their own. Understandably Jackson is not held in high regard by Native Americans today and with good reason. But this doesn't take away from his accomplishments (and those of his soldiers) in front of New Orleans in 1815. Plus, it gave us one of the catchiest tunes of all time. You can listen to it here.
4. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Let me start off by saying that, contrary to what has seemingly entered the national conscious as fact, Forrest did NOT found the Klan. Was he connected with them after the war? Probably. Did he use his influence later to induce them to disband. The historical record indicates that perhaps he did. In his last public speech, reported by the New York Times, he accepted a bouquet of flowers from a black woman and spoke on the need for reconciliation between the races. That often gets left out. I say all this because he has become a polarizing figure after the war as people on both sides use him to promote their own agendas. None of that is why I included him on my list. I did so because he was a damn good commander on the battlefield. He is another example of a person going from private to general during the Civil War. As a cavalry commander, he moved his troops like lightening. His battle exploits are like something out of Greek mythology. At Parker's Crossroads when his troops were being attacked from two sides, he ordered his men to "Charge em in both directions." Or after one engagement, his report said "I saw Grierson make a bad move and I rode right over him." Forrest was personally brave as well. Some credit him with dispatching 30 Yankees in combat while having 29 horses shot out from under him. His bravery is beyond question. As to his post war activities, well, that is exactly that, post war. What he did with the men in his command is the stuff of legend, which is exactly why it is.
5. George S. Patton
And there you were thinking that I had left him off the list! No list of great American generals would be complete without including General Patton. I really don't even need to say anything about him other than having his picture grace the presence of this blog. What his 3rd Army did while moving ot the relief of Bastogne is a feat unparalleled in the annals of American military history. There was so much more to Patton than simply ivory handled revolvers and a fetish for properly attired soldiers. He was very intelligent and almost philosophical. I urge all of you to read Carlo D'Este's wonderful biography of him to see a deeper picture of a man we know more for the movie than what he did in real life. My grandfather once had to hide from him in a cabinet under a counter in a shop in Paris to avoid being caught out of uniform! Later he had a chance to meet him while properly attired. General Patton is one of the best commanders this country has ever produced and even though his methods may have been unorthodox or even perhaps harsh, he got results.
So there you have it. I know there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for not including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, or George Washington. I mean to take nothing away form any of them. I tried to think a little bit outside the box on this one and include some names like Thomas and Cleburne that normally don't get brought up when we discuss great American commanders. I considered this from strictly a military point of view, so spare me any comments about Confederates, slavery, or Patton's penchant for slapping soldiers. I considered them only in light of what they did on the battlefield. I'm curious if any of you have some other 20th Century (pre-1960) generals to offer. (Pershing, etc)
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who wears a shirt and tie to work every day lest the ghost of General Patton catch me and issue me a fine and a tongue lashing.