Fun Memorial Day quiz on the home page this weekend, posing the question: Who was the best American general? I voted and then, confident NRO readers would agree with me, turned to the results. Not even close:
When last I looked, Washington was running away with it, with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Patton with 21 percent and, of all people, Robert E. Lee, with 13 percent. Then came Ike with 11 percent, followed by U. S. Grant, at 9 percent.
Let’s cede pride of place to George as the Father of Our Country, but also leave him out of the running, as his generalship came before the tactics of modern warfare that began with the American Civil War. Also pass over the vastly underrated Winfield Scott (1 percent), who resigned as the Army’s top general in 1861 and died in 1866, but whose “Anaconda” strategy for choking the South proved in the end to be correct.
I think you can make a strong case for Patton, who would certainly be my No. 3. Audacious, daring, an Olympic pentathlete, the Army’s Master of the Sword, Patton cut his teeth on Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, then fought in World War I before finding eternal glory in World War II. But Patton was never the army’s top commander, and was subordinate to Ike, who was general of the Army and supreme allied commander.
All Eisenhower did was save the world, so let’s put him at No. 2.
Which leaves Ulysses S. Grant. Please spare me the southern pride in Lee, who may have been a tactical genius but as a strategist was a loser. Lee lost to Meade at Gettysburg, the only time he tried to take the fight to the North. Lee’s reputation in part rests on his personal honor and his gallant-loser status.
Which leaves us with Grant.
Forget the world; Grant saved the Union by crushing Lee and the rebels through force of will and scorched-earth tactics. Like all great commanders, Grant understood that real victory came only when the opponent’s will to fight was destroyed; after he got finished with the Confederacy, “the South shall rise again” could never be more than a resentful slogan. Adopting the outlines of Scott’s strategy, Grant executed brilliantly, defeating the South along the Mississippi, then turning Sherman and Sheridan loose in the interior, making Appomattox inevitable. With Grant, there was no exit strategy, no accommodation, no negotiation, and no bipartisanship. Just total victory and unconditional surrender.
As president, too, he applied the same tactics to the defeated South, enforcing civil rights for blacks and crushing the Klan, aka the terrorist wing of the Democratic party.
In the midst of our own Cold Civil War, America could use a man like Grant again.