Skip to main content
Dwight D. Eisenhower

7 greatest military leaders in American history

Throughout the course of US history, the country has created an array of military commanders whose vision, courage, determination and strategic brilliance have left an indelible mark on the story of the nation.

Image: Dwight D. Eisenhower serving as a major general | Public Domain

From Washington leading the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War, to Eisenhower leading the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II, we take a look at some of the greatest military leaders in US history.

1. George Washington

George Washington earned his place on the list of greatest military leaders in US history when he turned a rag-tag army of rebels into an effective fighting force that proved more than a match for the mighty British Empire. His use of guerilla tactics, surprise attacks and tactical withdrawals throughout the American Revolutionary War demonstrated he was a man who wasn’t afraid to use any trick in the book to achieve victory against sometimes overwhelming odds.

His greatest victory came at Yorktown in 1781. Coordinating his attack with his French ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington led the Continental Army to victory, leading to the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis and forcing Britain to the negotiating table. With the war won and America now an independent nation, Washington did not make himself the nation’s new monarch; he instead stood for election. He became the first President of the United States in 1789.

2. Winfield Scott

A military genius whose innovative approach to warfare saw him pioneer the development of amphibious operations during both the war with the British of 1812 and the Mexican-American War of 1846, Winfield Scott was a master of meticulous planning.

His crowning achievement came during the Mexican-American War where he devised a bold strategy to capture Mexico City. Scott’s forces executed a daring and difficult amphibious landing at Veracruz, after which they fought their way toward the city, defeating the Mexican Army at the Battles of Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. After finally capturing the city, Scott managed to keep order while the Mexicans and Americans hammered out a treaty that brought the war to an end.

Not just a brilliant tactician, Scott also played an important part in modernising the US Army, improving soldiers’ efficiency on the battlefield through improvements in training. He was pivotal in turning the army into a professional outfit that was more than capable of defending the country both at home and abroad.

3. Ulysses S. Grant

Rising from relative obscurity to become the Union’s top general during the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant distinguished himself as a man of singular strategic vision, relentless determination and a master of battlefield adaptability.

Grant was a bold and adaptable military strategist. His mastery of logistics and his ability to coordinate large-scale operations singled him out as an exemplary leader. His Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns provided a showcase for his innovative approach to warfare, employing flanking tactics and coordinated assaults to outmanoeuvre and defeat his Confederate opponents. It was under Grant that the Union emerged victorious from the Civil War, paving the way for America to abolish slavery for good.

4. William Sherman

Another legendary figure from the American Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman’s innovative strategies on the battlefield revolutionised warfare, and played a decisive role in securing a victory for the Union. Sherman was an early proponent of what became known as ‘total war’ - targeting not just an enemy’s troops, but also the resources they relied upon to wage war effectively.

Sherman’s most famous action during the Civil War was his ‘March to the Sea’. Setting off from Atlanta, his troops cut a swathe of destruction across Georgia, destroying military, industrial and civilian infrastructure on his way to capture Savannah, leaving the Confederacy struggling to fight back effectively, leading to their eventual surrender. A meticulous planner, ruthless and determined, Sherman has gone down as one of the greatest American military leaders of all time.

5. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson

Widely regarded as one of the greatest tacticians in US military history, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson earned his nickname after he and his brigade stood their ground under heavy Union fire at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

A meticulous planner and disciplined commander, Jackson’s genius lay in his bold and innovative tactics, characterised by a fondness for launching surprise attacks against the enemy, and not being afraid to deploy his troops offensively at rapid speed. His biggest triumph came in his ‘Valley Campaign’ of 1862, where he defeated Union forces in a series of devastating engagements, displaying a mastery of the arts of both strategic deception and mobile warfare.

A daring and innovative military leader, Stonewall Jackson was cut down in his prime at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 at the age of just 39.

6. George S. Patton

One of the greatest generals of the Second World War, George S. Patton was a master strategist and tactician whose bold and aggressive approach to warfare made him a formidable opponent on the battlefield, especially in North Africa and during the liberation of Europe. He was also a determined and charismatic leader, which enamoured him to his men and impressed his superiors.

Patton was a perfectionist who demanded the highest standards not only of the men under his command but also of himself. He drove the men under his command hard, spurring them to achieve success after success on the battlefield, particularly in relieving troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and during the Allies' relentless drive into the heart of Europe.

Badly injured in a car accident, Patton died at the age of 60 in 1945, just two months after the end of the war.

7. Dwight D. Eisenhower

A man with remarkable leadership qualities, as well as a flair for diplomatic finesse, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the World War II general charged with pulling off one of the most audacious military operations ever conceived - Operation Overlord.

D-Day was a triumph of planning and leadership, and at its heart was Eisenhower. Under his leadership, the Allies pulled off what many thought impossible - the largest amphibious invasion in history, followed by the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation.

After the war, Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of NATO in the early days of the Cold War before becoming the President of the United States. An exceptional wartime leader whose tactical brilliance and diplomatic skills contributed so much to ending the war, Eisenhower was one of the greatest military leaders in US history.