For every war, there is a soldier, but behind every soldier, compelling them to charge forward, is a general. You may think that the high rank of general officers means that they don’t see battle, but the most notable generals in history worked closely with the soldiers under their command to defend life and liberty. Whether they were more of a bumbling type or a strict, highly educated master of strategy, there are scores of memorable generals who participated in some of the world’s most remarkable wars and battles. Here’s 38 courageous and little-known facts about historical generals.
38. Total Destruction
One of the great enemies to the South was General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was known for his scorched earth military policy in which he waged “total war” against the Confederate states by destroying everything he came into contact with. Maybe it got to him, as the media referred to him as insane and he went on to have a nervous breakdown that sidelined him during the Civil War.
37. To Buffalo Buffalo
William Tecumseh Sherman was named after the glorious Native American warrior Tecumseh. This didn’t stop him from waging war against the Native Americans however, and when he was tasked to clear them from their land in order to build the continental railroad, he waged a total war. His tactic: to eliminate their primary resource, the bison. In a couple of years, he successfully brought the animal to the brink of extinction by killing an estimated 5 million.
36. Seems Excessive
General Antonio López de Santa Anna served as general of the Mexican army for many years and even was president of the country 11 times over a 22-year period. A fickle politician and one of the leaders who failed the nation of Mexico, he wasn’t very fortunate on the battlefield. During the Pastry War, he had his ankle destroyed by a cannonball and had most of his leg amputated. Upon amputation, he then ordered for a military burial of the leg, along with military honors and salute.
35. Name of the Horse
Regarded as perhaps the greatest general of all time, Alexander the Great in fact never lost a battle in his career. In his warpath, he would often name the cities he conquered after himself, 70 in total, and once he even named a city after his own horse.
34. Wife Life
Alexander wasn’t a shy person and wasn’t afraid other cultures. While conquering the Persian Empire, he realized that the best way to control the region was to adopt their ways, which he did by dressing like a Persian. In the year 324, he held a mass wedding in Susa, where he ordered 92 Macedonians in the city to marry Persian women. He didn’t exclude himself, of course, and he took two wives in the ceremony.
33. Philosopher General
Having been taught by Aristotle for three years as a boy, philosophy was an essential part of who Alexander the Great was. While on campaign in India, he would often take a break from the warfare and engage with traditional Hindu “naked philosophers.”
32. Captain Planet
While there are many generals that can stake a claim to being the best, no one could come close in terms of death toll to Genghis Khan. He killed up to 40 million people across the Eurasian continent, which actually benefited the environment. By reducing the world’s population by an insane 10%, Khan had removed an estimated 700 million tons of carbon from the earth’s atmosphere. How’s that for a supreme ruler?
31. The One Shooting the Arrow
Genghis Khan believed in meritocracy and preferred to promote soldiers based on their efforts on the battlefield and overall skill rather than their class. During one battle against the Taijut tribe, his horse was shot out from under him and he had a brush with death. After recovering and leading his troops to victory, he took his enemies hostage and asked who had shot his horse. He was so impressed by the soldier who stepped forward that he gave him a place in his army, and the name “Jebe,” meaning arrow. Jebe would go on to become one of the most legendary soldiers in Mongol history.
30. Slaughtering Procession
Nobody knows how Genghis Khan died or where exactly he was buried. This is because, during his funeral procession, his people leading the walk killed everyone they came across in efforts to conceal the exact location. That’s one way to keep a secret.
29. Capture The Land
While Genghis Khan may have ruled over the largest amount of land in history, it was his general Subutai who led much of the battles and is responsible for conquering the largest amount of territory in history. Born as a peasant in the Uriankhai tribe, it took him only a decade to rise to the rank of general, and he became best friends with Jebe.
28. Taking Down Two
In only two days, Subutai led a campaign in which he defeated both the Hungarian army and the Polish army, which were hundreds of kilometers away from each other, in two entirely separate battles.
27. Spy Networks
The Mongol generals were the first to master espionage networks and utilize them in warfare, often employing spies against their enemies years in advance of their planned attack.
26. Death by Dinner
After capturing the Russian Prince Mstislav, the prince begged for his release, but Subutai and Jebe didn’t really like that idea too much. They much preferred a form of torture. After killing their Russian prisoners, they then covered the prince with wooden planks, then placed their dinner on top of the planks, sat down, and had their dinner to the music of his death screams.
25. General of the Strait
One of the greatest generals of the Arab world was Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād of the Umayyad empire. Originally a slave, Ṭāriq was promoted to general after being freed and went on to lead the conquest over the Iberian Peninsular and establish Islamic control. Having led his army across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Spanish derived the name of Gibraltar directly from his name.
24. Tended The Wounded
Not many great generals led the front battle line, fewer were able to rule over a large empire, and even fewer would even think of tending to the wounded during the battle, but Krishnadevaraya did. Being of a different breed, he is known as one of the most powerful and perhaps most beloved Hindu rulers in Indian history.
23. Keep it in The Family
One of the fiercest, humblest and most courageous military leaders of all time, Leonidas died at the Battle of Thermopylae despite his heroics. Even knows this by now, but one lesser-known fact is not related to his battlefield prowess, but instead his love life. His wife Gorgo was actually his niece, as she was the daughter of his half-brother, Cleomenes I.
22. The Name of Lightning
Hannibal Barca got the name Barca from his father Hamilcar, who was given the nickname as a result of his dynamic and powerful military campaigns. Meaning “lightning flash,” Hamilcar liked the name Barca so much that he adopted it as his name, setting a fate for his son Hannibal to pursue and fulfill, which he did mightily.
21. Crossing the Alps Connection
Since they were weak in terms of naval warfare, the idea of crossing the Alps in order to engage in land-based warfare had floated around the camp of Hannibal and his father for years. Upon finally deciding the take on the grand endeavor, Hannibal spent years setting up a network of contacts in the area, creating agreements on food and hospitality, and distributing spies and scouts to coordinate their route.
20. Icy Hot
When Hannibal finally crossed the Alps, to the shock and dismay of the Romans, he did so with 50,000 infantrymen, 9,000 cavalry troops, and 37 ELEPHANTS. During the journey, they encountered much hardship and had to cross a treacherous area full of boulders. In order to clear the path, Hannibal let his men rest and lit the area of the fire. Once ablaze, he then dumped their storage of old wine in the area, creating cracks which then froze and weakened the massive rocks. This made the clearing of the area immensely easier.
19. The Great Diversion
Being in a difficult position is the name of the game during wartime, but Hannibal didn’t always find himself in them, and when he did he used his cunning wit to make it out alive. One such time was when he was trapped by the Roman army in an area of low fields that they surrounded. No matter. Hannibal collected up to 2,000 oxen from the area and tied bundles of wood to the animals, which they then lit on fire when nightfall came. As the Oxen began running for the hills, the Roman army was distracted and Hannibal was able to sneak his army to safety.
18. Snakes on the Boat
Hannibal had all sorts of smart trickery up his sleeve. After the Punic Wars, he spent some time as a naval commander under Prusias I of Bithynia, where he once had to fight a much stronger naval fleet led by King Eumenes of Pergamon. After finding out which ship Eumenes was in, Hannibal had his men collect all of the poisonous snakes they could find and place them into clay pots. Once collected, he had a ship pull up next to Eumenes’ and launch the pots on their deck, which caused utter disarray and paved the way for an easy victory for Hannibal.
17. Beat You With One Eye
By not allowing himself to enjoy the comforts of being commanding general, Hannibal roughed it out with his soldiers, sleeping with them, eating only when they had enough food as well, and suffering through hardships alongside them. While crossing the Alps, he got an eye infection while going through a swamp and didn’t seek special treatment. This led to him losing his sight for the rest of his life.
General George Patton is certainly one of the most famous generals of modern history, but he was thought to be too rogue and undisciplined to command troops during pivotal battles. General Dwight Eisenhower didn’t believe him to be fit enough to lead the Allied invasion of Normandy, so he instead used him as a decoy for D-Day. The Nazi forces believed Patton to be the leading American general, so the Allies created a disinformation campaign that led the Axis powers to believe Patton was planning to cross the English Channel and attack Pas de Calais instead.
15. Not Quite Capture the Rabbit
While there are a few different variations of the story, we can be sure that Napoleon’s most embarrassing lost battle was against an army of rabbits in 1807. In celebration of signing the Treaties of Tilsit, Napoleon had a rabbit hunt organized. It was all fun and games until the 3,000 bunnies collected for the hunt were released from their cages and swarmed the emperor. A good laugh turned into a full out retreat, as the horde of rabbits flanked Napoleon and his men, and forced them to retreat.
14. Submarine Escape Plan
While in exile on the island of St. Helena, some people still desired Napoleon to be their leader. The professional criminal Tom Johnson, who himself escaped from prison twice, was offered £40,000 to rescue Napoleon and smuggle him back into France…via a submarine. Since it was 1820, Johnson drew up plans to build the world’s first submarine, though he never got a chance to try it out, as Napoleon soon died.
13. Whiskey Joe Fights
Personally recruited by President Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union Army, General Joseph Hooker—also known as Fighting Joe after a journalist made a clerical error—had a reputation for partying. A brilliant tactician, he ultimately lost a stunning battle to Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, but not before his own men parodied a famous war song into “Joe Hooker’s our leader, He takes his whiskey strong.”
12. Allegiance Decisions
Though he was the leading General of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee didn’t actually support to the dissolution of the United States of America. He wanted the country to remain together and was even offered the senior Union command, but ultimately decided to side with his home state of Virginia when it chose to secede from the Union in April, 1861.
11. Slave Owners
When the Civil War began, although he was the commander of the Confederate Army, Lee did not actually own any slaves. Interestingly enough, Ulysses S. Grant, who would rise to Commanding General of the Union Army did, as the family that he married into, the Dents, were slave owners. His father, being a staunch abolitionist, refused to attend Ulysses’ wedding to Julia Dent.
10. Art of Survival
The prominent Chinese military strategist Sun Bin is now best known for his own book, Sun Bin’s Art of War, which written in the style of Sun Tzu, who he claimed to be a descendant of. After being convicted of treason by the Wei State, he was sentenced to face-tattooing as a form of criminal branding and had his kneecaps removed. The thing was, he was actually framed by his rival Pang Juan.
9. The Knees Ain’t the Soul
Mutilation couldn’t stop Sun Bin though. Pang Juan had framed him in order to have him as a prisoner and acquire his military knowledge, before ultimately murdering him. Once Sun Bin realized this, he acted as if he was a madman, going so far as to eat a diet of strictly animal feces. After some time, Pang Juan let his guard down and Sun Bin escaped his confinement.
8. Payback is a Tree
Sun Bin made his way to the rival Qi state and helped them fight against the Wei army, which was led by Pang Juan. Sun Bin ultimately got his revenge by defeating the Wei army and setting a trap for Pang Juan. In an ambush area during a battle, Sun Bin carved the words “Pang Juan dies under this tree” onto a tree for Pang Juan to see. Once arriving at the area, Pang Juan lit a torch in order to read the engraving, and unknowingly made himself the target for Qi troops who were waiting for the torch signal, and subsequently lit him up with arrows. After being drowned in these enemy arrows, he committed suicide.
7. S is for Spectre
Ulysses S. Grant is one hell of a name, and that S has been a source of mystery for generations, even for Grant himself. In fact, there is no S in his name, and Ulysses is actually his middle name. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, the S is a phantom initial that arose from a clerical error during his enrollment at West Point. After trying to correct the error he soon learned what anyone with a nickname knows, the more you fight it, the more it sticks.
6. Casual Friday, Everyday
Just because you’re a general doesn’t mean to have to like the idea of uniforms, and boy did Ulysses S. Grant despise them. Constantly in trouble for not keeping with the strict dress code of West Point, his distaste for maintaining uniform standards lasted throughout his life, even while leading battle in the Civil War. When entering the battlefield, he typically wore a private’s coat, simply stitching his rank into its fabric, and a plain civilian hat while refusing to carry a sword on his persons, unlike most of his contemporaries. This led to a reputation of being a scrubby, seedy looking dude.
Ulysses S. Grant went on to become President of the United States, although he had no previous political experience. However, his rise almost wasn’t possible. On the night of April 14, 1865, the date of President Lincoln’s assassination, Grant was supposed to be seated beside the doomed president. He was forced to abandon his theater plans after his wife made arrangements for them to visit their children in New Jersey, and it was a decision Grant would lament for the rest of his life, as he believed that had he been at the theater that evening, he’d have somehow prevented the assassination.
4. Sickening Experience
Douglas MacArthur was one of the great generals in American history, and he was as committed to the military as anyone who had ever lived. So much so, that upon finding out about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s budget reforms to the military he vomited on the steps of the White House. This coming from the man who proposed the use of atomic bombs against China in order to end the Korean War.
3. Like Father, Like Son
The first father and son combo to win the United States Medal of Honor was Douglas MacArthur and his father, Arthur MacArthur Jr. Impressively, Arthur won the medal when he was only 18 years old. And yes, his father’s name was Arthur MacArthur Jr., which means there were numerous Arthur MacArthurs in that family.
2. General Fashionista
You may not associate military generals with fashion, especially staunch American Republicans, but Douglas MacArthur was a sort of icon. With a love for corn cob pipes, he had his own pipes specially crafted for him, along with one massive pipe made especially for public appearances. Known for his pipe and aviator glasses, Ray-Ban has even named a line of sunglasses after the general.
1. Fighting From Above
Considered one of the greatest American generals in history, President Dwight Eisenhower commanded the United States forces in Europe throughout World War II as well as NATO through to 1952. However great he may have been, Eisenhower himself never actually saw active combat, but instead shot up the ranks of the military through the assistance of General George C. Marshall.