Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Patrick Lynch - December 18, 2016

It isn’t easy to ‘judge’ military leaders as they could only use the resources and logistical systems of their time. When attempting to simplify this complex query, historians tend to go by Politics, Strategy, Tactics, and Logistics. There are very few generals in history who excel in all of the above and in most cases; supposedly ‘great’ commanders are deficient in more than one.

Certain generals excel in one or two of the above, but a promotion often placed them in a position where their weaknesses were brought to light. As it’s hard to judge ancient commanders, I have only included one from before the 18th century. I have chosen four military leaders who possessed certain qualities but lacked severely in others. All of these individuals were either good or even great in their way but carry a loftier reputation than they deserve.

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
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1 – Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was one of the most influential men in the late stages of the Roman Republic. He was a member of the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Crassus and was given the name ‘Magnus’ (the Great) by Sulla (possibly ironically) after his success in Sulla’s Second Civil War in 82 BC. He was a consul of the Roman Republic three times and sided with the conservative part of the Roman Senate (the optimates) in the civil war with Caesar. Defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC was an ignominious end to his military career; he was assassinated in Egypt the same year.

Pompey is lauded as a great military commander by some, but his best victories probably came at the very beginning of his career. He impressed Sulla during the Second Civil War and was sent to Africato to fight Gnaeus Domitius; Pompey subsequently routed his opponent. He was welcomed as a hero upon his return to Rome and given his nickname. However, Pompey was also known as the ‘adolescent butcher’ due to the ‘unnatural cruelty’ shown to his enemies in a previous campaign in Sicily.

Pompey led an army against Quintus Sertorius in Spain during the Sertorian War and was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Lauro. Things got no better at the Battle of Sucro where, once again, Pompey was easily beaten in an open field battle and was almost captured. Things only improved once he was joined by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius and the duo gained a win at the Battle of Saguntum. However, Pompey knew he couldn’t win the war, so he placed a bounty on the head of Sertorius. It was a successful strategy as his enemy was murdered by one of his own men!

Pompey returned in time to take a significant amount of credit for Crassus’ work in defeating Spartacus in the Third Servile War in 71 BC. He finally became consul in 70 BC and claimed to be the First Man in Rome. Pompey beat the Pirates of the Mediterranean who had been a major problem but given the enormous resources at his disposal; it would have been tough for Pompey not to emerge victoriously! His propensity to take credit for the hard work of others led to him being called a vulture by Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Lucullus had enjoyed success against the kings of Armenia and Pontus during the Third Mithridatic War. Pompey once again swooped in, won a minor victory, and the cards fell into place as Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, committed suicide while Tigranes, the King of Armenia, surrendered. With Caesar and Crassus, he was one of Rome’s most powerful men but backed the Senate against Caesar in the civil war and lost. After winning a victory at Dyrrachium in 48 BC, he was defeated at Pharsalus despite having twice the men Caesar had. He fled to Egypt but only found death at the hands of the Egyptian King’s men.

Pompey has been described as an able commander but not an innovative one. He possessed excellent organizational skill but was reluctant to fight open battles. Perhaps he knew his limitations because when he was pressurized into fighting an open battle at Pharsalus, he was soundly beaten.

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
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2 – George Washington

Before the inevitable outrage by readers, let’s remember that I am discussing the military command abilities of the men in this piece. George Washington was inspirational and deserves his place amongst the pantheon of American heroes. He was one of the Founding Fathers and of course, the first President of the United States. However, he was not a great general and suffered a number of defeats during the War of Independence.

As a young man, Washington served six years in the British Militia but failed to distinguish himself. He desired the ‘redcoat’ that came with an Officer ranking but never received it. He led a serious of tough campaigns against the Native Indians in the west and lost approximately one-third of his 1,000 man group over a ten month period. However, his efforts did greatly assist the frontier population of Virginia. Washington was also involved in the embarrassment of the Forbes Expedition in 1758. In an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne, his unit, and another British unit fired upon one another in the belief the other unit was the French enemy. 14 men died in the incident.

He may not have gained the rank of Officer, but Washington did learn a great deal about British military tactics; this knowledge was to come in useful 20 years later during the War of Independence. Looking at things from a critical perspective, Washington didn’t excel when it came to strategy or tactics. One of his most significant successes was the surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton after crossing the Delaware River in December 1776. A quick follow-up win at Princeton in January 1777 forced the British to retreat to New York City. Another smart move was inoculating his troops against Smallpox in February 1777. As a result, only 1% of his men died from the disease compared to 17% beforehand.

However, Washington suffered a succession of defeats and was outmaneuvered at times. In fact, there were calls to remove him from command after his loss at Philadelphia in September 1777. When it came to forging sophisticated strategies to befuddle the opposition, Washington fell short. As a result, he has to be considered as an average battlefield general at best.

Where he excelled was in his ability to motivate his men and keep morale high after an extended period of losses. When disease ravaged his Valley Forge camp in the winter of 1777-1778, Washington had to use his motivational skills to prevent his men from deserting. It was the talents of General von Steuben that enabled the army to emerge from Valley Forge in fighting shape. While Washington played a pivotal role in the rest of the war, it was the military abilities of other men that helped America defeat the British. To Washington’s credit, he held the army together long enough for the French to arrive to help the U.S. against their mutual enemy.

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
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3 – Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon is probably one of the most divisive figures in world history. Those who support the idea of the ‘great’ Napoleon would point to his multiple successful campaigns. Those who believe he is overrated can reference the high casualty rates he suffered throughout his military career. Certainly, the Corsican-born, self-proclaimed Emperor of the French, is one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of all time.

He enjoyed a string of impressive successes until his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. As future dictators were to discover, attacking Russia was a case of biting off more than he could chew and he suffered defeat after enormous casualties on both sides. After being exiled to Elba by his enemies in 1814, Napoleon escaped and raised yet another army. At the end of the One Hundred Days, he endured his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

Right up until 1812, the French army fought like a well-oiled machine during the Napoleonic Wars. He utilized conscription and created the efficient Grand Army, and the relatively short supply trains he used enabled the French to move much faster than other armies of the age. Perhaps his biggest mistake was ‘overreaching’ by attempting to invade Russia. It has to be said that the Russians enticed him into the invasion by violating the Continental System.

Napoleon used revolutionary tactics and was unquestionably a great leader of men, but it could be argued that he doesn’t deserve his place in the pantheon of all-time legendary military commanders. While the Grand Army’s ‘living off the land’ tactic worked well in central Europe, it was useless when invading Russia. It was also ineffective in Spain during the six-year Peninsular War due to the less fertile lands. The angry Spanish used guerilla-style tactics to ensure the French were not able to send small foraging parties.

In contrast, Wellington’s army established better relations with the Spanish and even paid for the food. His army moved at an almost glacial rate in comparison to the French but was better fed and rewarded with decent intelligence reports from the locals. In the end, the allies were able to push the French out of Spain.

Over the entire course of the Napoleonic Wars, some five million soldiers and sailors died. Regarding proportion of men at arms, this was a higher rate than WWI and WWII! The invasion of Russia was, of course, a costly mistake; Napoleon admitted as much later in his life. The campaign failed for a number of reasons; disease, the awful weather, faulty logistics, and ill-discipline.

The aforementioned ‘living off the land’ tactic failed Napoleon in Russia. He wanted his army to march up to 20 miles a day; his supply trains would go no faster than 12 miles. Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men, 50,000 horses and wagons with enough supplies to last 30 days. He foolishly believed he could win the war within 20 days by forcing the Russians to fight a major battle. As the French marched further into Russia, the lack of available supplies to live off became evident. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, and it took three months to reach Moscow. Within five months, only 100,000 tired and hungry men remained; defeat was inevitable.

Napoleon’s career had a profound impact on world history. He dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, reduced the number of German states to 50 from 300 and sold the territory of Louisiana to America. He enjoyed great victories but also suffered disastrous defeats. As a result, notions that he is an all-time great military commander are probably wide of the mark.

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
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4 – Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee was one of the most prominent generals of the American Civil War. He led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until 1865. Lee spent 32 years in the U.S. Army until he fought with the South in 1861 and made a name for himself during the Mexican-American War. Lee was also involved in the infamous event at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 when he helped suppress John Brown and his followers as they seized control of the federal arsenal in Lee’s home state of Virginia.

Let’s be clear; Lee was unquestionably a good general, but over the course of time, he seems to have been painted as some God of War. In reality, he probably wasn’t even the best Confederate general as some historians bestow that honor on Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson or James Longstreet. He had some excellent wins during the Civil War; standout victories include the Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.

Lee was an aggressive general, and this tendency helped him pull off some stunning triumphs. At Chancellorsville, he defeated a Union army with superior numbers. After this win, Lee convinced the civilian leaders of the Confederacy to plan a Northern invasion to gain an outright military victory. This was a huge gamble since the South was struggling against the larger Northern forces and Vicksburg was under siege at that time. You could understand Lee’s desire to win the war outright, but in reality, a containment strategy would probably have served the South well at that point.

Gettysburg was a disaster for the South. On day one of the battle, the Union General John Buford retreated to the high ground overlooking the town in what was to prove a decisive move. Lee ordered his exhausted troops to try and take the high ground, but they were sent back by the enemy. Even if they had been successful, it is debatable whether they could have held it. On the third and final day of the battle, Lee ordered the infamous Pickett’s Charge which was a complete failure and practically ended the fight. Gettysburg was a blow from which the South would never recover.

To be fair to Lee, he was often outnumbered by 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 and the victories he achieved were often remarkable. However, perhaps he didn’t fully understand the nature of war. He focused on offensive strategies that used up resources his army simply didn’t have. The losses he suffered were unsustainable and in the end, his gambler’s nature backfired.