Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Patrick Lynch - December 18, 2016

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
YouTube (Lee in the Post-War Years)

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.

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