Today in 1945 General George S. Patton Jr. breathed his last in a hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. Three days later he was buried in the American Military Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg, where he rests today.
General Patton is today one of America’s iconic generals, a status cemented by the 1970 biopic about him. For many people, that film is the start and finish of George Patton. Yet who he was and who he became has its roots in the Civil War.
Patton’s paternal ancestors were from central Virginia, originally Fredericksburg and later Culpeper. His grandfather, VMI graduate George Patton, became colonel of the 22d Virginia and served in the Shenandoah Valley and on the mountainous front between Virginia and West Virginia. George Patton suffered a mortal wound on 19 September 1864 at the Third Battle of Winchester as his brigade was overwhelmed by Union cavalry. He is buried in Winchester today.
The Patton family gave others (a total of 8) to the Confederate Army, all serving with the Army of Northern Virginia. Four did not survive the war. Most famously, George Patton’s brother Waller Tazewell Patton died at the head of the 7th Virginia during Pickett’s Charge. The war and its aftermath ruined the Pattons, and in 1866 Colonel Patton’s widow (the grandmother of General Patton) packed up the family to join some cousins in California. Without the Civil War, General Patton would have been born in Virginia.
For the future General Patton, the family saga in the Civil War was a defining element in his life. As a child, the future General Patton grew up playing with his grandfather’s sword from Third Winchester. He also met and was mesmerized by John S. Mosby, whose tales of fighting in Virginia inspired the young George Patton to become a soldier. A lifelong horseman, Patton learned to ride on the saddle that his grandfather had been using when mortally wounded. (Both sword and saddle are on display at the Patton Museum and Center of Leadership in Fort Knox, Ky.) Patton followed his father and grandfather to VMI for a year before transferring to West Point.
Patton’s Civil War ancestors directly touched him as he lay wounded in the Argonne on 26 September 1918 (a few weeks before his 33rd birthday). At the time Patton was a colonel commanding a tank battalion. Leading his tanks into battle on foot, German machine-gun fire clipped him in the leg and he fell wounded in a shell hole where he lay for several hours before evacuation. During that time, his thoughts turned to his grandfather, who died at 33 also as a colonel. Patton later recalled also seeing visions of his ancestors looking down in approval of his gallantry, also saying “Not yet” – as if he had more to do before dying. “I would never have gone forward when I got hit had I not thought of you and my ancestors,” he later told his wife.
From that moment on, Patton was ever more conscious of having a destiny and a duty to uphold the tradition of his Civil War ancestors – a feeling that guided his actions for the rest of his life.
The photo below (from the Patton Museum) shows Colonel Patton (r) with his father in 1919 at the combined graves of his grandfather and brother Waller in Winchester.