The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras

Khalid Elhassan - May 4, 2022

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General William Hull in Fort Detroit. Imgur

14. A General Who Fell for a Bluff

General Brock also tricked the Americans into believing that he had more regulars under his command than was the case, by dressing his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison. They would then duck out of sight, and return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. Brock also ordered his troops to light five times as many fires at night than was the norm, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength.

General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5,000 Natives. Brock sent a message demanding surrender, and informed Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting commenced. Hull, unwilling to sacrifice his men against hopeless odds, and fearing for the women in children inside the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild, decided that resistance was futile. So he raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender.

Read too: Greatest Military Bluffs in History.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General William Hull, surrendering Fort Detroit. ThoughtCo

13. A Shameful Surrender

General Brock kept up the psychological pressure on General Hull, and gave the American garrison commander only three hours instead of the requested three days before he would attack. Hull caved in and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British suffered only two men wounded. The surrender of Fort Detroit was a military disaster for the US, and derailed plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war, before the British had time to rush in reinforcements.

It also reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of defending Canada from forcible annexation by the US. Additionally, it fired up Native Americans in the Northwest Territory to war against US outposts and settlers. An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident and forced the invaders back across the border. As to General Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American War of Independence.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General George B. McClellan. Wikimedia

12. The Union General Who Came Close to Capturing Richmond in 1862

In March, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital. Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began his march to Richmond. The only opposition between McClellan and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by General John B. Magruder and outnumbered 10 to 1 by Union forces.

Magruder, aware that his small force stood no chance in a fight, and desperately needing to buy time until reinforcements arrived, set out to bamboozle McClellan into slowing down. Fortunately for the Confederates and unfortunately for the Union, Magruder was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was known before the war for his florid manner and proneness to theatrics and ostentatious displays. Now, he resorted to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case. He pulled it off.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General John B. Magruder. Calisphere

11. Elaborate Trickery to Halt a Much Stronger Enemy

General Magruder took advantage of the small Warwick River which separated him from the advancing federal forces. The Confederate commander set out to convince his Union opposite, General McClellan, that the river’s fourteen-mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked. Magruder directed his forces to create a din, with drumrolls and men cheering in the woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the vicinity than was the case.

He also employed the same column of men over and over. They would march within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line, then slip away outside the Union observers’ line of sight, reassemble in column, and march back to the defense line to take up defensive positions once more. With such theatrics, Magruder convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack. It was a task made easier by McClellan’s predisposition to take counsel of his fears and believe himself outnumbered.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
The Warwick River line and the 1862 Siege of Yorktown. Wikimedia

10. Timidity Kept This General From Seizing Richmond and Winning the Civil War in 1862

On April 5th, 1862, General George B. McClellan ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege. Unbeknownst to him, he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond as it was his for the taking. For a month, McClellan methodically prepared for a huge attack to break through Magruder’s “strong defenses”. He concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5th, 1862, followed by an overwhelming attack.

Having already bought his side a month to prepare for the defense of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, and left behind empty trenches for the enemy to occupy. McClellan resumed his advance on Richmond, but by then the Confederates had concentrated sufficient forces to thwart him. McClellan was halted at the gates of Richmond, then pushed back to his starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles. The Peninsula Campaign thus came to an ignominious end.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
Benedict Arnold. History Network

9. America’s Most Infamous Traitor Was Once a Brilliant General in America’s Cause

American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the United States’ most infamous traitor. His name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. At one point, though, he had been a leading patriot in the fight against the British, and was perhaps the most capable combat leader on the rebels’ side. Then a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy. Before he turned traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the American side, and played a key role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec.

The Quebec Expedition failed in its ultimate aim, but General Arnold exhibited remarkable leadership in getting his men to the outskirts of Quebec. In 1776, an enterprising Arnold constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain, which he used to defeat a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, his successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against Arnold. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, Arnold was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors. It took George Washington’s personal entreaties to prevent Arnold’s resignation.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
Benedict Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold. History of American Women

8. A Turn to Treason

Benedict Arnold stuck around long enough to repel a British attack in Connecticut, and was finally promoted to major general. However, his seniority was not restored – another slight that would gnaw at him. He again sought to resign, but was again prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in halting the British advance into upstate New York in 1777, which culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and was severely injured. Crippled by his wounds, he was put in charge of Philadelphia, where he began to socialize with British loyalist families. He also took to extravagant living, which he financed with questionable dealings that led to a scandal. While in Philadelphia, he met and married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits that soon put Arnold deep in debt.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
A French map of West Point in 1780. Wikimedia

Between resentments and financial difficulties, Arnold secretly approached the British to offer his services. He was placed in charge of fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, upstream from British-occupied New York City and barring them from sailing upriver. Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy and contrived to deliver them into British hands for £20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents incriminating Arnold. He fled just in time to evade arrest. He was made a brigadier general in the British Army, and led soldiers against the American side. The British never fully warmed to him, however, and after the war, he was unable to secure a regular commission. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before he finally settled in London, where he died in 1801.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General John Sedgwick. Civil War Talk

7. A General More Remembered for His Unfortunate Last Words Instead of His Stellar Record

John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of Revolutionary War veterans, including one grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick became a respected and competent Union general and corps commander in the Civil War. His kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ well-being, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his death and ironic last words, than for any of his life accomplishments or the good service he gave his country in a long military career.

Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837, and was commissioned as an artillery officer. In the following decades, he served ably in the US Army, and was still in uniform when the Civil War broke out in April, 1861. He was given a cavalry regiment, and by August, 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac. The following February, he was put in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign, and was twice wounded during the Seven Days Battles.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
The death of General Sedgwick. Wikimedia

6. Unfortunate Last Words

At the Battle of Antietam, General Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge. His division was shot to pieces, lost 2200 men, and he was hit by three bullets. When he recovered and returned to duty, he was promoted to command his own corps. He won early success with his VI Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in defeat. In the Overland Campaign in 1864, Sedgwick led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, he was positioning his artillery, when his troops came under sniper fire and began to get jittery.

The avuncular Sedgwick chided his men for their timidity under single bullets, and wondered how they would react when they confronted massed Confederates on the firing line, and faced full volleys. The men were chagrined, but continued to flinch. So Uncle John Sedgwick continued: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“, at which point his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet that hit him in the face. It struck beneath his left eye, killed him instantly and turned him into the highest-ranking Union battlefield death of the Civil War.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’, by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art

5. The Patriots’ Low Point in the American Revolution

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American Revolution. It depicts General George Washington and a flotilla of Patriots in boats crossing the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, for a surprise attack against enemy forces. The portrayal of Washington standing at the boat’s prow, staring determinedly at the enemy shore, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats, captured imaginations then and since The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration.

As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence had not been going well for Washington and his Revolutionary forces. The Patriots had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where they had only avoided annihilation via a near-miraculous escape. Morale was low, so Washington planned a daring raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank, in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
George Washington. Pinterest

4. George Washington’s Unexpected Turn to Humor

The portrayal of George Washington in Washington Crossing the Delaware is true to the essence of what is known of the man. His style was heavy on projecting an aura of detached dignity and a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct during the crossing: it was one of the rare occasions when the general let down the formality, and cracked jokes. Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized trooped clambered into boats on a frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
‘The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, Decemeber 26, 1776’, by John Trumbull. Yale Art Gallery

All things considered, it was not a comedy gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. At first, the men were stunned, and stood around looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the entire force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Revolutionaries crossed the river, and fell upon the enemy in Trenton, where they killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand men, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded Americans.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
George Washington with some of his dogs. History Network

3. A General Who Stopped a War for a Dog

Just about all American presidents have been dog people. Even the ones who might not have been that fond of dogs have often found it convenient to keep a mutt or two in the White House for appearances’ sake, and to project a wholesome image. However, few American presidents were as fond of Man’s Best Friends as was George Washington. America’s first president was a big-time dog lover. During his lifetime, he had dogs from just about every group recognized by the American Kennel Club today.

Greyhounds, French hounds, spaniels, terriers, Newfoundlands, and Briards were just some of the breeds kept by Washington at one time or another. He maintained a pack of fox hunting hounds in a well-kept kennel that had a spring running through it to supply the dogs with fresh water. He personally inspected it twice a day, every morning and evening, when he dropped by to check on his hounds. As seen below, Washington’s love of dogs even led him to call an unexpected truce during the Revolutionary War, in order to return a lost dog to its owner: an enemy general.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
The Battle of Germantown. Wikimedia

2. A Great Leader, but a So-So General

George Washington was a great man and a great leader, but only a so-so general who lost more battles than he won. Fortunately for him, the Patriots did not need to outright win the War of Independence on the battlefield, but simply continue the fight until the British finally grew tired and gave up. Even more fortunately for General Washington, the battles he won included the American Revolution’s final and most important battle: the Siege of Yorktown, which ended with the surrender of a British army.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
General William Howe. Brown University

The fights he lost included the Battle of Germantown, near Philadelphia, in which a British army led by Sir William Howe defeated Washington and his forces on October 4th, 1777. After the loss, the retreating Americans discovered that their ranks included an unexpected addition: an unknown but clearly well-kept terrier. When they inspected the dog’s collar, the Americans discovered that it belonged to Sir William Howe. The British commander’s dog had wandered into the battlefield, and in the chaos and confusion attached itself to the Americans. The Patriots wanted to keep it in order to taunt the British, but Washington was too classy to keep another man’s dog.

The Incredible American Generals that Defined their Eras
George Washington riding after his hounds at a hunt. Journal of the American Revolution

1. A Touching and Honorable Moment In the Midst of War

George Washington bucked his men and resisted their calls to keep Sir William Howe’s prized terrier. Instead, he sent a messenger under a white flag of truce, across the lines to the British commander. The messenger delivered the dog to Sir William, along with a note that read in relevant part: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe“.

Howe was impressed by the unexpected gesture from his enemy. The British commander expressed his gratitude to Washington, and described the incident as “the honorable act of a fine gentleman“. The touching episode did not end the war, which continued unabated for years. Nor did it end Howe’s participation in the conflict. However, although he continued to fight and win battles against the Americans, Sir William Howe did so with less enthusiasm than he had exhibited before Washington interrupted the war to return an enemy’s dog.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – The Death of John Sedgwick

Antietam on the Web – Special Order 191: Perhaps the Greatest ‘What If’ of American Military History

Arnold, Isaac Newton – The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (1880)

Atkinson, Rick – The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (2007)

Barthel, Thomas – Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography (2010)

Burns, Patrick – American Working Terriers (2006)

Catton, Bruce – The Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life (2011)

Coffey, Thomas M. – Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (1986)

Council on Foreign Relations – TWE Remembers: Secret Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, a Coda)

Doubleday, Abner – My Life in the Old Army (1998 Edition)

Elting, John Robert – Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812 (1995)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Benedict Arnold

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia – Trenton and Princeton Campaign (Washington’s Crossing)

History Collection – 10 Significant Things About the Culper Ring, George Washington’s Most Important Spy Network

History Daily – When George Washington Ordered a Ceasefire to Return a Dog

James, Dorris Clayton – The Years of MacArthur: Triumph & Disaster, 1945-1964 (1985)

Kilmeade, Brian, and Yaeger, Don – George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (2013)

Manchester, William – American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964 (1978)

Politico, December 24th, 2015 – George Washington Crosses the Delaware, Dec. 25, 1776

Psychology Today – George Washington: President, General, and Dog Breeder

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Task Force Baum – The Hammelburg Raid

Zaslow, Morris – The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812 (1964)