Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War
Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Michelle Powell-Smith - November 27, 2016

Winning wars requires more than just an army; it requires military tactics and strategy. Planning an offense or a defense on a football field takes thought and effort. Imagine multiplying that offense or defense to include thousands of men, horses or tanks, and supply needs. There have been many great generals in history, who relied upon smart strategy, or, in some cases, a willingness to accept great losses, to secure an American victory in wars from the American Revolution to Desert Storm.

These generals varied from the calm and thoughtful, like Eisenhower to the brash and loud, like Patton. They shared a commitment to duty, patriotism and a belief that their army could be victorious.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

George Washington

George Washington is most often remembered as the first President of the United States; however, before he was President Washington, he was General Washington, leader of the Continental Army. Washington was a skilled military leader and strategist, and his defeat of the British is a memorable moment in military history.

In 1776, Washington and the Continental Army lost the colony of New York to the British. Washington was frustrated and angered by his defeat, and did not forget it, even as his troops left Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. Washington communicated his plan with the Continental Congress in a series of letters, and in 1779, received a letter from the President of the Continental Congress to think himself, “at Liberty to direct the military operations of these States in such a manner as you think expedient”.

Washington’s initial strategy required the full cooperation of France, but also required a British willingness to fight in New York. The British preferred to fight further south, believing this provided them with an advantage. His initial strategy placed the decisive battle in New York City, but this was not to be. The French encouraged a final battle in Virginia.

In 1781, Washington learned that the French navy had effectively trapped the British army in Virginia. This led to the creation of a new strategy. The decisive battle would be fought at Yorktown.

Outside New York, Washington built bread ovens and army camps, and circulated letters discussing his attack on New York, then under the command of British General Clinton. Everything possible was done to maintain the impression of a planned assault on New York City.

Leaving behind a small force, Washington and most of his troops set out for Yorktown. In September, a large number of American and French forces gathered in Williamsburg. The Battle of Yorktown began by the end of that month, and ended by the 18th of October with a British surrender.

Washington’s smart use of confusion tactics provided the cover and space necessary to amass troops at Williamsburg and to take Yorktown. His willingness to be flexible with his plan brought success for the young nations.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Ulysses S. Grant

The work and military strategy of Ulysses S. Grant helped to turn the tide of the Civil War, leading to an eventual Union victory. While Grant is often remembered for his work near the end of the war, he also played a key role in 1863, in the Battle of Vicksburg. Grant split his forces after crossing the Mississippi River, sending General Sherman onto Jackson, Mississippi. He and his army set out to take Vicksburg, a key supply post for the Confederacy. The post was well-defended, but after a nearly two-month siege, Confederate General John Pemberton’s force of 30,000 surrendered to Grant. This paved the way for Grant’s promotion.

Ulysses S. Grant was appointed General-in-Chief of the Union Army in February 1864. As a general, Grant’s strategy differed from those used previously; before, the goal had been the Confederate capitol. For Grant, the goal was the decimation of the Confederate army, at nearly any cost. Unlike the Union commanders of the past, Grant was fully willing to accept massive casualties to achieve this goal and to take advantage of the Union advantage of numbers over the South.

In May of 1864, Grant’s efforts began in earnest to force his way further south and destroy the Confederate Army. During the course of May, the Union suffered massive losses, totaling approximately 50,000 men. This total was half the entire total of the Confederate force at the time. Congress petitioned for Grant’s removal and U.S. President Lincoln refused. While the Union was sustaining immense losses, Grant was winning the battles against General Lee of the Confederacy.

The battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the eventual siege of Petersburg functionally destroyed the rebel army. In the last year of the war, Grant lost nearly half of the Union army, but it was the last year; and in 1865, General Lee surrendered and the city of Richmond fell to the Union.

Grant’s willingness to accept that a Union victory would only come at great cost was essential to the Union’s win in the Civil War.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

George S. Patton

U.S. General George S. Patton served in the Mexican-American war, then in the new U.S. Army Tank Corps in World War I. In his role in the Tank Corps, he developed a strong understanding of tank warfare. He is most clearly remembered for his involvement in the Third Army in World War II, particularly the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton’s military strategy is easily summed up in a quote from the man himself before landing on the coast of Morocco in 1942 in command of the U.S. forces in North Africa, “We shall attack and attack until we are exhausted, and then we shall attack again”. His troops called him “Old Blood and Guts” and he was known for his offensive, rather than defensive tactics.

These offensive tactics were essential to the U.S. victory in the Battle of the Bulge, also called the Ardennes Offensive. This is the largest battle the U.S. Army has ever been involved in.

During D-Day, Patton led a fictitious army division as part of the overall distraction strategy employed by the U.S. and allies; however, after D-Day, Patton, in command of the 3rd Army, entered northern France. Over the course of ten months his tanks and infantry moved rapidly through six countries under Nazi control–France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. The 3rd Army captured more than 750,000 Nazis, and killed or disabled 500,000 others during the ten-month offensive.

Patton’s success was, in part, based on the speed with which he could move his troops; he moved the 3rd Army into position ahead of German expectations, providing an advantage, even in the harsh winter weather of 1944. The arrival of the 3rd Army at Bastogne proved a decisive blow for the Germans, and one they could not recover from.

Patton had always been a bit of a loudmouth, and something of a disaster when it came to publicity. He was relieved of his command after the war, as he found the de-Nazification of Germany excessive and said so publicly. Patton died of injuries sustained in a car accident not long after the war and before returning to the United States.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Douglas MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur fought and successfully led troops in World War I, served in peacetime, and led U.S. forces in the Pacific in World War II. He later led, and was then relieved of duty, U.S. military efforts in Korea.

While MacArthur had had a successful military career, he began to question his superiors during World War II. As commander of the Pacific, MacArthur disagreed with the strategic decision to focus most of the resources of the U.S. military in Europe, rather than the Pacific.

In the Pacific, MacArthur embraced the island-hopping strategy. This was an old naval strategy, but had not been used on this scale previously. The island-hopping strategy focused on a single island at a time, progressively gaining more and more land. In the final battle to retake the Philippines, the United States lost less than 6500 men, while the Japanese lost more than 20,000. While MacArthur was highly critical of the decision to focus energy in Europe, his strategy was winning by the time Truman opted to drop the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. United Nations forces, led by MacArthur, responded. While MacArthur had been an abrasive, but successful leader during World War II, he now became more vocal about his opposition to U.S. President Truman’s policies. MacArthur pushed back the initial offensive, but was soon forced to retreat. His past strategies were proving themselves ineffective in Korea.

In particular, Truman prioritized avoiding a war with China at nearly any cost. MacArthur strongly disagreed. He was relieved of his command by Truman in 1951. MacArthur devised a plan to contain communism and presented it to President Eisenhower in 1952. The plan showed the same extremity MacArthur had relied upon throughout his career, including, in this case, the use of atomic weapons. Eisenhower refused the plan.

Douglas MacArthur was impetuous and daring, willing to fight, and willing to take risks. His strategy was effective in the Pacific, but certainly not without costs. It was not, however, an effective choice in Korea, nor one to move forward with during the Cold War years.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Dwight D. Eisenhower

In 1941, Dwight D. Eisenhower was approaching the end of a relatively undistinguished military career, marked by nothing of great significance. While he completed his training at WestPoint in 1915, he did not leave the United States in World War I, and the following years of peacetime offered few opportunities. By 1930, he had taken on a post as the assistant to Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur.

After 25 years of service, he achieved the rank of colonel in 1940. He had served dutifully, and was, while working in peacetime, strongly interested in developing the best possible citizen-soldier force, ready to mobilize if needed.

Within a period of only three years, he went from an unknown and relatively undistinguished officer to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. The dramatic change in Eisenhower’s life began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Only days after the attack, Eisenhower reported to Washington D.C., at the request of General George C. Marshall and presented his plan to respond to the attack at Pearl Harbor. Eisenhower was assigned to the War Plans Department, and was, at the time, recognized for his problem-solving ability.

In February 1942, Eisenhower, now chief of the War Plans Department, devised a plan to win the war. Critical to his plan was a careful design, directing forces and efforts only where essential to win the war and defeat the Axis Powers. In June 1942, as the U.S. established a European front to their entrance into the war, Eisenhower was named Commander General of the European Theater.

In Europe, Eisenhower effectively both cemented alliances and commanded the U.S. forces. By 1943, he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater. Eisenhower planned the D-Day landing in Normandy and other key offensives. Eisenhower’s ability to make accurate predictions and smart judgements was essential to the Allied Victory in Europe.

After the war, he returned to serve as Chief of Staff of the Army, and later, President of the United States. As a leader, his willingness to make hard decisions continued, then, as he had during the war, in the pursuit of peace.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War

Matthew B. Ridgway

Matthew Ridgway is best known for his effective use of strategy in the Korean War, and his ability to reclaim a relative success in Korea. Ridgway was called upon to correct MacArthur’s faults, and developed a strategy that remained in use until the Iraq War of 2003.

Ridgway graduated from WestPoint in 1917, but did not serve overseas during World War I. He did spend time in both China and the Philippines during the years between World War I and World War II, and played an important role in World War II. In World War II, he commanded first the 82nd Airborne, and later the 18th Airborne Corps. His efforts were essential in the Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes Offensive.

After General Douglas MacArthur’s efforts allowed North Korea to make significant gains, including the city of Seoul, Ridgway was called to Korea to lead United Nations’ forces. Ridgway was able to stop the North Korean counter-offensive and gradually push North Korean troops back to the border between North and South Korea.

Ridgway adopted a strategy of containment; he did not push further into North Korea, nor did he try to take additional lands. He sought to simply keep North Korean forces within their own boundaries. For some time, North Korea continued to try to push into South Korea, and Ridgway continued to fight them back behind their own borders.

The containment strategy remained in active use for a great many years. No attempt was made to eliminate communism, or to push into communist countries; however, they were actively discouraged from expanding into additional lands. In many ways, this was a defensive strategy rather than an offensive strategy.

This was the key military and diplomatic strategy throughout the Cold War and in the years directly after, with one notable exception. That exception, Vietnam, was not a success.

Seven American Generals Who Shaped How We Wage War
FILE – In this Sept. 14, 1990 file photo, U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, answers questions during an interview in Riyadh. Schwarzkopf died Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 in Tampa, Fla. He was 78. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File)

Norman B. Schwarzkopf

General Norman B. Shwarzkopf finished his military education in 1956, and served two tours with great honor in Vietnam; however, he personally questioned the strategies employed in the war. He believed that the conflict in Vietnam lacked a clear objective or well-designed strategy. Following Vietnam, Schwarzkopf continued to climb in the military administration, gaining rank and skill.

He was, in his capacity as the head of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for organizing both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. This was the largest mechanized deployment of U.S. forces and equipment since World War II.

Between August 1990 and January 1991, Schwarzkopf assembled some 765,000 troops-541,000 American-from a total of 28 countries, hundreds of ships, and thousands of tanks and aircraft. The first step in the response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a six-week long aerial bombardment. Schwarzkopf hoped that this would rapidly lead to a peace settlement; however, it did not.

Schwarzkopf’s strategy was a relatively classic one. When the aerial assault failed, Schwarzkopf feigned an amphibious assault, beginning the ground war on February 24. In reality, his troops were quickly wrapping around Iraq’s elite Republican Guard to cut off supply lines and communication. Allied losses were very few, with fewer than 300 dead. Within only 100 hours, the United Nations’ coalition troops had regained control of all of Kuwait. While Schwarzkopf believed that the forces should move on to Baghdad, the United Nations had only approved the reclamation of Kuwait, rather than an assault on Iraq’s capitol.

His strategies were classic, but they were effective; he accomplished the goals set forth by the United Nations at a minimal human cost to allied troops, and with great speed. Schwarzkopf retired in 1992. He continued to question the decision not to press on to Baghdad during Desert Storm.