Question of the Week: 4/29-5/5/19

Robert E. Lee has been a trending topic on the Internet recently and there’s been a lot of discussion on social media about his life and memory. Let’s have a civilized moment and context…

In your opinion, what makes a general “great”? How much does his personal life influence his military ability and “greatness”?

14 Responses to Question of the Week: 4/29-5/5/19

  1. A great General wins the majority of his battles [and this “winning” may include “defeating the enemy’s attempts to achieve HIS objectives” through maneuver. For example, U.S. Grant did not fight a battle to take possession of Paducah; he merely out-maneuvered the enemy, and prevented the Rebels taking the south bank of the Ohio River.] A great General possesses the Love of his men: they believe in him and trust him not to risk their lives needlessly. And a great General possesses the confidence of his Political Leaders to achieve the Ultimate Objective.

  2. General Stilwell (The Stilwell Papers, p. 291) names the attributes of a great commander as (in order):

    – character

    – power of decision

    – moral and physical courage

    – knowledge of warfare (including logistics)

    – be human and fair

  3. I mentioned in my talk at the last Symposium, (in regard to the last part of the question) any issue you might have with Grant the memoirist/historian has absolutely nothing to do with his generalship. Being able to correct a footnote based on 130 years of additional research, doesn’t mean that if the general was wrong, he was then dishonest, thus not a good leader, thus not a good general. That has somehow been argued recently. Same applies for Chamberlain, Sheridan, Gordon, Early, and others whose suspect postwar writing shouldn’t impact the degree to which we judge their generalship.

    1. Those are good points. I would add that we should prune away the “reputation” an officer acquired at the time and examine closely what he achieved from a military perspective and why. Some will move down the ladder – Stonewall, Sherman, and Sheridan are just examples – and some will move up – Thomas (perhaps too much) is an example. And, of course, one can salute the military accomplishments of a Gordon or a Chamberlain without giving credibility to some of the post-war fiction which they authored.

  4. Love to hear from a military veteran officer on this question one who was there to properly know . . do we have any in the following ?

    1. Here’s a few qualities and behaviors I observed in the “great” flag and general officers I worked with over my career.

      They are big thinkers who get the strategy right
      They are great communicators…up and down the chain of command
      They follow tactical execution of the strategy…and adjust as necessary
      They make decisions…and expect their leaders to make decisions
      They take risks
      They listen and learn
      They fully empower and trust their people
      They are team players…and don’t care who gets the credit
      They are enthusiastic cheerleaders and optimistic realists

  5. I’m of the mind that what makes a General great is trust. Trust genuinely earned and fostered is what enables the greatest force. Sustained victory is only achieved when forces are confident in their leader and themselves.
    His or her personal life has little to no influence on his military ability or “greatness”, in my humble opinion.

  6. I don’t really know. Heinz Guderian was a dedicated Nazi who believed in their cause. His campaigns and tactics are studied around the world. Hitler fired him for daring to move his forces back after the Soviet counter-attack in front of Moscow in December 1941. I think by any criteria he was indeed a ‘great general’, but being a Nazi, the character question becomes valid. Nathan Bedford Forrest is held up as a great general by some in this life, he helped start the KKK. Stonewall had some great moments, but he was as odd of a duck as there was, and his performance in some campaigns and battles belies any claims of him being a ‘genius’. I personally believe what makes a truly ‘great general’ is that he, and maybe in the future she, gets the job done. Period.

    As is said, ‘the winners’ write the postscripts, or words to that effect. I think Ike was a truly great leader/general. He had to hold together an often prickly and shaky coalition to bring the war to Germany and prevail. And he did. Norman Schwarzkopf was very impressive in his role as leader of coalition forces in the First Gulf War. Raymond Spruance was not known for being as aggressive as Halsey, but he always seemed to have what was required to prevail. US Grant made mistake after mistake and faced considerable adversity, including tactical defeats, but still prevailed in his various campaigns. Determination and decisiveness have to factor in to the qualities of a great leader/general. They also have to “know when to fold them” to fight again.

    So I repeat, I just don’t know!

  7. In my opinion, a good general anticipates the moves of the enemy and counters them. He is personally brave and bold, but does not waste the lives of his men. He uses intelligence, logistics, and terrain well and knows his men and their capabilites. Great generals are feared by their opponents and are blessed with a 6th sense. Therefore, using my own biased definition, these are my top 4 generals:
    1. George S. Patton
    2. Robert E. Lee
    3. John S. Wood (4th Armored Division, WWII)
    4. Stonewall Jackson

    1. Taking your own criteria, and limiting the question to the ACW,, I’d be interested in how you assess the following two attributes in Lee’s performance at Gettysburg:

      “does not waste the lives of his men”.

      “knows his men and their capabilities”

      1. I agree with you, you have made excellent points. My definition does not stand up at Gettysburg. I think Lee won at Chancellorsville because Hooker took counsel of his fears of Lee. Lee won in the Wilderness because Grant took counsel of his fears. Both generals bragged that they would have no mercy on Lee.

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