Special Report

The Greatest Generals in American History

national_museum_of_the_us_navy / Flickr / Public Domain

“General” is the highest rank in the Army,  Marines, and the Air Force. Today, the highest rank anyone can attain in  any branch of the service is general with four stars. In WWII, there were several five star generals–known as General of the Army. They included Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower, the two great leaders during WWII. In peacetime, that rank disappeared.

George Washington was the first American to hold the rank as the Commanding General of the Continental Army. There were several generals that held that rank after that. The number of generals greatly increased during the Civil War. The figure approached 1,000. Since then, the figure has dropped precipitously.

Even though the American political system has successfully maintained civilian control of the military since the country’s inception, the United States holds a special place for the generals who served the nation with distinction. And the U.S. has rewarded some of those distinguished soldiers who chose to enter politics.

Becoming a general has proved to be a stepping stone to the presidency. Twelve U.S. generals have gone on to occupy the White House, and half of them served during and after the Civil War. The qualities of inspiring leadership and decisive action that distinguished their military careers helped propel them to the presidency. 

Click here to see the greatest generals in American history

24/7 Tempo looked at histories of the U.S, histories of the major military engagements the country participated in over the years since it was founded, and the importance of the wars in which these generals fought. The list is made up of generals who led troubles in critical battles, affected the course of entire wars, or managed the largest numbers of troops in U.S. history.

1. George Washington

Washington has to top this list. As commanding general of the Continental Army, he was more responsible for the victory of the U.S. over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. He was the first of 12 generals who later became president. In 1976, President Gerald Ford promoted Washington to “General of the Armies of the United States,” a rank topping every general in the United States Army.

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2. Andrew Jackson

Jackson, America’s seventh president, was crucial to the U.S. during the War of 1812, defeating the Creek Indians, who were allies of the British, and the British themselves at the Battle of New Orleans.

3. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant, yet another general who became president, was the most important general of the Civil War. Highly successful in engagements in the West, President Abraham Lincoln made him head of all U.S. armies, after which he defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee and ended the war.

4. William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman was Grant’s second in command throughout the Civil War, and took over in the Western U.S. when Grant moved East to run the war for the Union. He is best known for his “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, the first example of “total warfare” which destroyed vast amounts of Confederate property.

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5. Philip Sheridan

Sheridan was in charge of Grant’s cavalry throughout most of the Civil War. However, he is best known for his cruel war against Native Americans in the West. Under his command, thousands of Indians were killed, and tribes were forced onto reservations.

6. Robert E. Lee

It is reasonable to ask why Lee belongs on a list of American generals since he was the leading general of the Confederacy. Lee, however, was skilled enough to keep the much larger Union Army at bay though the Civil War and engineered several of the South’s greatest victories.

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7. John J. Pershing

Pershing was the leader of the U.S. Troops during WWI. He oversaw what was known as the American Expeditionary Forces. America’s late entry into the war tipped the scales toward the British and French, who had been in a military stalemate against the Germans for years. The effect was a German defeat.

8. Douglas MacArthur

MacArthur commanded the U.S. armed forces in the Pacific theater during WWII and defeated the Japanese. He also led allied forces during the Korean War that prevented the communist North Korean and China from overrunning the peninsula. One of his greatest contributions was not as a soldier. He was critical in rebuilding Japan in the years immediately following WWII.

9. George C. Marshall

Marshall’s name is not anywhere near as well known as Eisenhower’s or Patton’s. However, his efforts in WWII were just as important. As the Army’s chief of staff, he spent a great deal of time with President Franklin Roosevelt determining the strategy of the U.S. forces. Marshall also was the architect of the plan to rebuild Western Europe after the war.

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10. Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower was the supreme commander of all Allied forces in Europe and Africa. He was the engineer of the Western Allies victory over Germany. Eisenhower was another general who eventually became president of the United States.

11. George S. Patton

Patton was arguably the most famous general of WWII after Eisenhower. Known as a tactical genius, he oversaw Allied victories in Africa, Italy, France, and Germany.

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12. Omar Bradley

Bradley was another of Eisenhower’s chief subordinates. He commanded a large portion of the D-Day landing force. Later in WWII, he ran the Twelfth United States Army Group, which was one of the largest forces in U.S. history.

13. Matthew Ridgway

Ridgway served in senior posts during WWII. However, he was best known for overseeing the UN forces during the Korean War, and turning around those forces that had been badly damaged by the North Koreans.

14. Norman Schwarzkopf

Schwarzkopf commanded Operation Desert Storm, the American-led military action that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Following a six-week-long air bombardment of Iraq and its positions in Kuwait, the ground campaign involving 700,000 troops began on Feb. 24, 1991. The campaign lasted only 100 hours, as coalition forces quickly retook Kuwait and destroyed or incapacitated most of the Iraqi army while sustaining only minimal casualties.

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15. William Westmoreland

Westmoreland is best known for his role commanding all troops in the Vietnam War. He has been blamed for misleading both the government and the public about the U.S. progress, and the eventual defeat of American-backed forces.

16. Alexander Haig

Haig was well-known for commanding U.S. troops in Europe during the 1970s. However, the peak of his career was as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford.

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17. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

Combining a stern righteousness with battlefield brilliance, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, in collaboration with Robert E. Lee, defeated the Union Army at both battles of Bull Run and at Chancellorsville. It was at Chancellorsville where Jackson was shot by friendly fire and died.

18. Nathan Bedford Forrest

Considered to be a military genius despite his lack of formal military training, the charismatic Forrest acted as a semi-independent Confederate cavalry commander during much of the Civil War. His command conducted raids against Union supply and communication lines, depots, and garrisons in many states in the war’s Western sector. Forrest’s campaigns were especially damaging to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Some contend that Forrest forestalled Vicksburg’s fall in July of 1863 by several months.

19. Zachary Taylor

Taylor was a career soldier who fought in every significant conflict in the 19th century until he became president in 1849. It was his success in defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) that made him a national hero and eventually landed him in the White House.

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20. William Henry Harrison

Harrison led troops against British-Native American alliances during the War of 1812. He’s best known for defeating the Shawnee at the Battle of Tippecanoe and the Battle of the Thames. The former battle served as the general’s campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison was the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, himself a general during the Civil War.

21. David Petraeus

Petraeus is credited with using his counterinsurgency skills to turn around the Iraq war. Petraeus recognized that the military was not effectively using the lessons of counterinsurgency. Because of his expertise in counterinsurgency operations and successful leadership as a division commander, President George W. Bush selected him to lead all forces in Iraq. The renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics championed by Petraeus is credited with turning the tide of the Iraq War

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