Re: The Best American General?

by Daniel Foster

Michael, I’ll cop to being the guy who put together the list. We wanted to limit it to ten, and we wanted it to be fairly well distributed across the generations. To respond to some of the comments from your post:

Nathanael Greene and William T. Sherman were casualties of these constraints. If they seem arbitrary constraints — well, to a certain extent, they are. But we knew there was going to be great debate about the names included and those left off no matter what we did, and indeed there has been.

My own two cents? Greene was Washington’s indispensable man, and may have been the better pure general. I am a huge fan of his. One of the small joys of living in the New York metropolitan area is the lasting footprint of the Revolutionary War: “Fort Greene,” so named for the defensive bulwark Gen. Greene commanded in the Battle of Long Island, is now one of the heppest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. On northern Manhattan and the Jersey palisades, the opposing Forts Washington and Lee (commanded by General Charles Lee) were erected to contest the British Navy’s access to the upper Hudson. Both names have stuck. There’s a park at the site of the former, and a town in New Jersey, on the western terminus of the GWB, bears the name of the latter. NB: I read in — of all places — the G-File that Fort Lee’s high concentration of Asian women boasts the longest average lifespan of any demographic group in America.

Sherman, too, deserves his spot in the pantheon, as both a tactician and a strategist, not to mention as a prognosticator. His exchange with a confederate-sympathizing friend from South Carolina just after that state’s secession straight-up foretells the broad outlines of the coming war, so much so that I’ve always wondered at its authenticity. This is the condensed version most often quoted, but the full thing comes from a 1932 biography aptly titled Sherman, Fighting Prophet:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

As for the controversial guys who made the list? Robert E. Lee is, of course, a polarizing choice, and one who made it as a tactician despite being a middling strategist engaged in a unworthy cause. By contrast, Eisenhower, who was never really a field commander, made the list almost entirely on the strength of his logistical and administrative genius and his ability to manage the politics and personalities in the European theater. This was, in its way, as important a contribution to the Allied victory as his shepherding of the Normandy invasion.

From Washington to Eisenhower, we’ve been mighty lucky — and/or blessed by Providence — to have men worthy of their moments.

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