Skip to comments.Who Were the Greatest Military Commanders (Of All Time) ?
Posted on 11/14/2004 5:23:06 PM PST by Cyropaedia
In light of the upcoming film Alexander (the Great), who in your opinion were actually the greatest military commanders our world has known...?
Mine are Genghis Khan, Alexander, and U.S. Grant.
He was a colonel at that time, not a general.
Thank you sir! :)
Great examples!...of military men that were adept at accumulating masses of self-congratulatory credit for virtually no accomplishment.
Gen. George Washington & Gen. Patton
Grant, far an above the greatest American miliatry commander of all time.
John Kerry was in Vietnam?
Why didn't he mention it in the campaign?
I enjoyed General Swartzkopff's analysis of his military prowress at the final briefing.
James Tiberious Kirk
I really think if Lee had done as Washington did in the Revolution, he would have been successful -- that was to make the enemy come to you, get victories where you could, but mainly avoid humiliating defeat. Had this happened, the Northerners would have eventually tired of the costs both in terms of loss of life and economically, the desire to become trading partners with the South would have been too great.
I haven't read through all the replies but most seem to mention land Generals. What about naval commanders? For those commanders of the seas, I nominate Nimitz and Arleigh Burke.
You are mistaken. MacArthur was Army Chief of Staff at the time of the Bonus March. As such he was a full 4-star general.
he never led armies...but was the direct vein to quite a few rulers...that used his strats
Problem was the Union was coming to him, trying to capture Richmond early and Lee was successful in defense. By 1863 Lee knew the South would soon be overwhelmed in the West and was staring to suffocate from the blockade. He was looking for a quick knockout by engaging the Army of the Potomac in the open where his ability to manouevre was unmatched. But he got drawn into a set piece battle with inferior lines and poor topography.
As it was he was able to hold out for 20 more months against overwhelming odds.
Re Bonus march: You're right, of course, didn't realize that Mac had such a high rank that long ago. He was involved in another protest years earlier, when he was a colonel, was he not, with which I think I was was confused.
While everything you say is correct, I still think that Lee's campaign into the North helped turn northern opinion toward winning the war, where in the past many (quite probably the majority) of Northerners wanted to quit the war.
I saw Lee's move North causing a reaction like "HOLY S***" we could lose this thing and starting to consider the consequences of what that loss could mean.
If he was, I don't recall. MacArthur made rank very young --- possibly due to the fact that his father, Arthur, was a high ranking general officer. Douglas MacArthur was a full colonel at the outset of WW1 serving as chief of staff, then deputy commander of the 42 (Rainbow) Infantry Division. He got his first star when he took over the division.
While many other officers were reverting to lower ranks in the peacetime army, MacArthur continued to advance rapidly. He was retired & living in the Philippines (Chief of Staff of the Filipino Army) until FDR called him out of retirement just before WW2.
When you throw Korea into the mix, MacArthur had an incredibly long career. Imagine that he grew up on frontier army posts during the Indian Wars and served until the dawn of the nuclear age. How many of the officers on this list can come close to mastering the technological changes that came to warfare during his career?
Patton and McArthur were good generals.
Patton never got a chance to truly go after the Germans. 3rd ARmy did some great things, but it would have been in Germany pre-Battle of the Bulge if not for Montgomery's screw up in the Netherlands.....
MacArthur did some great things, but I don't know. I don't know or think he did it intentionally, but he took more credit for luck than anything else. He was a great leader though.
I think you are remembering the Bonus March involvement of Eisenhower and Patton, both of whom were Majors at the time serving under MacArthur. Eisenhower was the liason with the overwhelmed capital police and Patton led the calvary that day.
Not a glorious moment for either.
Thanks for that clarification
no problem :)
My dad was actually on Patton's son's staff in Germany as a staff officer....but that was before I was born....
Pete Carroll - best commander...Matt Leinart - best field commander
Seems to me that to decide who were "The Greatest", you have to establish some criteria.
There were many, many decisive battles fought over the course of history and many great commanders, so if we're really going to pick the GREATEST, we've got to settle on what constitutes that.
The results that flowed from a given engagement are a criteria for the MOST IMPORTANT commanders in history, but that does not necessarily mean the best commanders in a military sense.
One of the most important battles in all of history was fought on the Plains of Abraham beside Quebec City in 1759. The armies were tiny. It was a battle of liliputians for the prize of a continent. Few battles have had as many dramatic long-term results. What was written sometime in the 1800s by a great historian is true: With the fall of Quebec begins the history of the United States, and few things in history have had such dramatic results as the establishment of the American Republic.
However, I don't think that we would want to call either Montcalm or Wolfe the greatest military commanders in history. They were both competent military men, but both also made some ghastly mistakes.
I would propose that the criteria for military greatness need to be focused on military capacity itself, in a professional sense. And I think that we must limit ourselves to higher command. There have been some absolutely brilliant soldiers and sailors, whose single-handed actions changed the course of battles. But that is not command.
So, I would propose the following criteria for establishing who were truly the greatest military commanders of all time.
(1) They had to be in high command, either on the land or on the sea (or in the air). Unit command can establish a great tactician, but the greatest military commanders OF ALL TIME must be master tacticians AND master strategists.
This eliminates the Stuarts and Forrests (and Custers?) from the list.
(2) They had to win every battle they ever commanded.
This seems like a shocking requirement, but it is an important one. We are sifting through history here to try and determine those men actually in high command, whose tactical and strategic brilliance is unmatched in history.
There are generals and admirals in their age who changed the face of the world who won every battle they ever fought, demonstrating that NOBODY in their epoch had mastered the military art of their age greater than they.
One single defeat does not mean that a commander was not great, but it's just like football scores. At the end of the season, the team with an unbeaten record is BETTER than the team with one loss and one tie (assuming they're playing in the same league).
So, when we sift through history to find UNBEATEN high commanders, the list dramatically shortens.
Gengis Khan drops off of it. He sent a fleet unprepared into a hurricane and lost the Japanese campaign. The GREATEST commanders mastered both the land and supply by sea.
Every American general or admiral drops off of it (Eisenhower lost Market-Garden). They were all defeated at one point except for him. Patton was defeated at the first Kasserine Pass.
Hannibal and Napoleon lost in the end. They went far, but in the end they were bested, which means they were not the greatest: there were men in their times who were as good or better, obviously: they got beaten, after all.
Alexander the Great was never defeated. He is one of the greatest.
It is debatable whether or not Julius Caesar was defeated by the Celts in Britain. I personally believe that he made peace with Casselvelanus because he was unable to defeat him.
Charlemagne was repulsed in Spain. He falls off the list.
Attila the Hun was beaten at Chalons-sur-Marne. He falls off the list.
Marlborough held high command and beat large professional armies, and was never defeated. He is on the list.
Lord Admiral Nelson was the greatest naval commander in history. Like Jellicoe, he defeated a mortal threat. Unlike Jellicoe, he did so DECISIVELY. Merely winning is not the mark of a great commander. Winning every battle, and winning an overall decisive victory in the great battles: that is the mark of military genius.
Clive of India is an interesting candidate, although the forces under his command, and those of his enemies, were not so redoubtable as to be able to compare him with men commanding great armies and navies in the face of other world-class armies and navies. Beating up on ill-organized native levies is victory, but it is not the same thing as defeating the French Army under Napoleon.
This, incidentally, is why there is nothing in the medieval period that stands out among the greatest. The armies were very small, and the results were very inconclusive in almost every case, Tours being perhaps the one exception. I do not know enough about the rest of Charles Martel's MILITARY career to be able to say much. Nobody who won one battle or one short campaign is among "the greatest military commanders of all time". A professional life of military victory is required.
Wellington is an interesting case. I don't know if he suffered any reverses or fought battles in Spain to a draw.
Marlborough and Nelson and Alexander did not fight to draws. And that is an important distinction between them.
So, Wellington's a maybe, depending on details of the Spanish campaign that I don't know.
Was Zhukov ever defeated? I don't think he was. He would qualify.
I don't believe that Guderian or Von Manstein were ever defeated either. The Russian winter slowed them, but they were not defeated. Hitler fired them and didn't bring either of them back, if I recall. Up until that point, I believe they had an unbroken series of the most amazing victories in history.
So, using those criteria, here is the very short list of the truly greatest military commanders of all time: professional full-time military men, who possessed high command, who showed both tactical and strategic brilliance of such a surpassing quality that they were never once defeated by any of their peers over long careers:
There have been many greats, but they all fall short of perfection in high command. To be the greatest, you have to be perfect.
Bedford Forrest is my favorite character of the War. Brian Steel Wills' biography is excellent.
"Tell Bell to move up fast and fetch all he's got."
Forrest's order to Tyree Bell prior to Brice's Crossroads ~
The answer to that is Wellington.
"Gengis Khan drops off of it. He sent a fleet unprepared into a hurricane and lost the Japanese campaign. The GREATEST commanders mastered both the land and supply by sea."
That was Kublai Khan and not Genghiz Khan. Genghiz never lost a war in his glorious military career that spanned over 50 years.
Yep, I was remembering Eisenhower re bonus march.
With the length of this thread, easy to see we have mucho retired military, and military buffs, at the keyboard.
I would say General Pershing for ordering the massive attack on the morning of Armistice Day, knowing the German enemy would be caught unprepared believing an attack offering no strategic value would occur on the last day of the war. I can only imagine the German reaction while sipping champagne and writing their last love letters only to see a massive American invasion force charging a mere hours before the end of the war. Brilliant!
Number 2: Douglas MacArthur
Number 3: Julius Caesar
If Ghengis Khan suffered no defeats and built that empire, I'd put him on the list. Commanding a horde of barbarians is damned difficult work (just ask Al Zarqawi).
That doesn't seem brilliant to me.
It seems bloodthirsty.
If the war is scheduled to end, and everyone knows it, then launching a surprise attack on the very morning that the war is to end strikes me as showing at least two things:
(1) A callous disregard for human life. The war is OVER, why, then, go in and kill and kill and kill. The night before Appomattox, Lee (allegedly) did not let his army hang any more spies, his theory being that enough blood had been shed, and there was no point in shedding it purposelessly, out of mere spite or revenge. Lee was right. I was unaware of any such attack by Pershing, but it reflects badly on him. And how many American doughboys, on the very eve of going home, had their lives thrown away by an asshole commander for absolutely no purpose.
(2) A potentially catastrophic lack of judgment. An armistice is not an unconditional surrender. It is an agreement between two sides, neither one of them beaten, to end hostilities. For it to work requires trust. For everyone in an exhausting war to know that it is to formally end in a few hours, and then suddenly have the enemy launch a massive surprise attack, very Japanese-like: were I the German commanders, I would feel that I had been treated in very bad faith. Indeed, how would I know that this was all going to abruptly end at 11:11? How would I not know that the enemy had broken faith to try to get the advantage under the guise of a flag of negotiation and agreement of armistice? Would not my honor be offended such that I might be likely to view the horrendous bad faith as a BREACH of the armistice, and continue fighting?
Had it been a French or British attack, it would be more understandable. Those people had been in a terrible war for so very long they truly had cause to utterly HATE the enemy and his race. But the Americans? What was the American reason for breaking faith and decorum like that? The Americans could claim no such historical business.
Now, truth is, until your post, I never heard of Pershing's surprise attack. But if it happened, it doesn't seem like a very heroic act to me. It seems strategically stupid: it might have completely blown the Armistice. And it seems cruel, bloodthirsty and callous. Attacks, esp. in WW I, killed a lot of the attacking soldiers. If it's true, Pershing threw a lot of American lives away for absolutely nothing, and showed incredibly bad judgment. That's not greatness.
Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him. ~Napoleon Bonaparte
Halsey? I'd rank Spruance above Halsey.
I agree with you on the Spartan General Leonidas. MacArthur was made to look the hero for propaganda purposes. He was more, deserving of court martial than Kimmel or Short.
I think that how commanders deal with their defeats shows their wisdom and their humanity and other traits. But if the criteria is military greatness, I think that victory is the coin of the realm. Much like football or chess games: how a side deals with defeat shows their mettle, teaches things, etc. But the unbeaten team at the end of the season is still the best team.
The Celts military history shows their passion for war but also the flaw in the civilization. Hot blooded, they spoiled for a fight. But they could not long endure any sort of discipline and command over them in any sort of supra-clannish way. The result: wild warfare, but the more organized states steadily plowed them under. Celts would fight Celts in the face of a foreign threat. And in the end lost their land to the foreigner - the classic case of hanging separately because of the adamant, persistent, cultural refusal to hang together.
US Grant & Geronimo.
Grant was a great commander because he was not afraid to take casualties in a war of attrition.
Wesley Clark = The best general to almost stert World War III.
Blew all that money on cotton futures.
You might say that Kerry was the commander of the North Vietnamese fifth column in the United States. As such he must be credited with the NVA victory in Vietnam.
"However in a way they show why I believe your requirement for 'victory' is an incorrect vision of 'Military Greatness'."
I apply a very objective standard, related to the profession of arms. Like athletics, or perhaps law. By my estimation, the greatest lawyer - which is not synonymous at all with the best or most moral human being in the practice of law! - is the one who wins all his cases.
I can't pick generals, but I certainly can pick lawyers to advocate my case. And I would say that the best lawyer, from the perspective of who to pick, is the one who always wins. Now, likewise, a King can pick his generals. If I were a King back in the age of Alexander, for example, I'd pick Alexander, because he never lost. If I were King in the age of the Sun King, I'd pick Marlboroug. King in the age of Napoleon, I'd put Nelson in command of my fleets over all others. If I'm assigning military duties, I am going to pick the man that never loses, because, in strictly military terms, he is the best because I know he will win.
Moving to the modern age, if it's World War II and we get to pick generals and admirals off the bench, like sizing up teams, my first pick is going to be Guderian. If nobody's gotten him first, my second pick is going to be Nimitz (because once I have the most effective general, it's more important to also have the greatest admiral before I pick up another general). My third pick will be Von Manstein. My fourth pick, Eisenhower. My fifth, Yamamoto. Then Kutusov.
If it's the US Civil War, my first choice was the first choice of BOTH sides: Robert E. Lee (he was Chief of the US Army before stepping down to go with his native Virginia.
It's a fun mental game.
Speculation on your part, although there is no doubting the abilities of Stonewall Jackson. Whether he was the right man to lead the Confederate Army, though, is questionable.
Realistically, there was no way the South could win, given the North's advantages in industry, manpower, transportation and sea power. I'm reminded of Rossikovski's first dictum; "Amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics".
The scenario you depict would not have resulted in a peace treaty, in my opinion, but rather a longer, bloodier conflict with the same results.
Heinz Guderian is probably the greatest tactical leader of the 20th Century. Rommel and Patton were probably the best at the corps and army level, but both failed to appreciate the logistics that would have carried them to true dominance on the battlefield. Omar Bradley did appreciate that part of war, but he lacked the genius of Patton.
Yes, he was an amazing general, but he never had the extra chutzpah that George Patton managed to display. Ike didn't, either. Only Doug MacArthur came close to him in that area. I'm not a big Mac fan, but he was an awesome general.
He was a great leader, a great president, and a great man. I don't know if I would rank him in the top few generals. He did not have great tactical skill, or much military training, and he lost more battles than he won. Many times, he and his revolution survived more due to his luck than his skill.
Don't get me wrong. As I said in another thread, had there been no George Washington, there would be no USA. He held the army and the country together by the sheer force of his will and his character. Military prowess, even though that was his first claim to fame, was the least of his abilities.