Whatever Happened To… ? — Seven Famous Military Leaders and What They Did Later in Life

George Pickett was one of the South's ablest generals, that is until he charged his division straight into the Union lines at Gettysburg. The flamboyant rebel leader's reputation was forever stained. He ended his days as an insurance salesman. George Pickett was one of the South's ablest generals, that is until he lost his division after a suicidal charge straight into the Union lines at Gettysburg. The flamboyant rebel leader's reputation was forever stained by the debacle. He ended his days as an insurance salesman. Image courtesy WikiCommons via the Library of Congress (public domain).

Union troops repel Picket’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett was one of the South’s ablest generals, that is until he lost his division in the suicidal advance into the Union line. The flamboyant rebel leader’s reputation was forever stained by the debacle. He ended his days as an insurance salesman. Image courtesy WikiCommons via the Library of Congress (public domain).

Douglas MacArthur once remarked that old soldiers never die, “…they just fade away.” These seven generals certainly did.

MANY OF history’s most celebrated military commanders achieved immortality by dying heroically in battle. Think: Horatio Nelson, James WolfeStonewall Jackson and George Armstrong Custer.

Some leaders like Arthur Wellesley, Charles De GaulleDwight Eisenhower and Ulysses Grant graduated from war to conquer the world of politics.

But what about the other generals? Those who covered themselves in glory on the battlefield only to disappear into obscurity in peacetime.

Douglas MacArthur once remarked that old soldiers never die, “…they just fade away.” These seven generals certainly did:

Hannibal riding high on his war elephants.

Hannibal riding high on his war elephants.

From Scourge of Rome to Lowly Mercenary

Celebrated as one of the most brilliant military minds of the ancient world (perhaps of all time), the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal became a legend after leading an army of war elephants across the Pyrenees into the heart of the Roman Republic. Yet after his epic defeat at the Battle of Zama in 203 BCE, the middle-aged general left his homeland in North Africa and travelled the Mediterranean and Black Sea as a soldier for hire. Over the next two decades, Hannibal became a military advisor to the Syrians, Seleucids and Armenians before taking a job with Prusias I of Bithynia. The small-time Greek ruler eventually sold out the fading Hannibal to the Romans who were still keen to imprison their long-time foe. The 66-year-old fled to Crete where he killed himself using some poison he’d kept hidden in a ring.

The blind Belisarius gets a hand-out from one of his former soldiers.

The blind Belisarius gets a few coins from one of his former soldiers.

Belisarius the Beggar

Despite almost single-handedly reconquering the old Roman Empire for Justinian the Great, Byzantine’s greatest general, Flavius Belisarius, unfairly took the wrap for a corruption scandal that rocked the emperor’s court. Even his return from retirement in 562  to defeat an army of Bulgars bent on defiling Constantinople didn’t spare the 62-year-old hero from prison. According to legend, Belisarius was finally freed from the clink, but not before having his eyes gouged out by order of Justinian, the same king whose bacon he’d saved so many times before. The blind and destitute general was forced to beg for handouts for the rest of his days. While many (but not all) have written the tale off as fiction, it did serve as a popular motif for artists throughout the 18th Century.

Karma's a bitch! Hernan Cortes slaughtering his way across the Americas. He returned home to become a nobody.

Hernan Cortes slaughtered his way across the Americas only to returned home to become a nobody.

Cortes the Forgotten

The ruthless Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was also famously ‘thrown under the bus’ by an ungrateful monarch. After securing untold riches and vast swaths of the New World for the Spanish crown, the controversial 56-year-old career soldier returned to Europe to beg Charles V to clear his name after it was slandered by some petty nobles. Unfortunately, the aloof monarch repeatedly snubbed Cortes. On one occasion, Cortes forced his way through a crowd to the king’s own carriage to appeal for aid in person; Charles pretended not to know him. Throughout the 1540s, the aging conquistador attempted to salvage his doomed reputation by financing fresh military expeditions to North Africa and the Americas. None succeeded. The penniless Cortes died of dysentery in 1547 at the age of 62.

The defeated Charles Cornwallis left America in 1781 with his best years ahead of him.

The defeated Charles Cornwallis left America in 1781 with his best years ahead of him.

Cornwallis Finally Defeats Some Rebels

To most Americans, the story of British general Lord Charles, the Earl Cornwallis ends with his defeat by the Continental Army at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. Yet the London-born aristocrat’s military career was hardly over following his infamous surrender. After being released from American captivity, Cornwallis returned to England where he, along with the notorious turncoat Benedict Arnold, received a hero’s welcome. A personal friend of King George III, Cornwallis was soon named ambassador to Prussia and knighted for his services for good measure. Later, he was appointed to the position of civil and military governor of India. He eventually rewrote the colony’s legal code and commanded British forces in a war against the rebellious Tipu of Mysore. In 1792, he was made a marquis and, after a brief stint heading up the British army’s Board of Ordnance, arrived in Ireland where he served as lord lieutenant and chief military commander. In 1798, Cornwallis successfully suppressed the uprising there. He died in 1805 shortly after returning to India for another tour as an administrator. He was 67.

Marshal Michel Ney.

Marshal Michel Ney.

Marshall Ney the School Teacher?

After the French collapse at Waterloo, Napoleon’s most trusted field marshal, Michel Ney, was arrested by the Bourbon regime and sentenced to death for backing the exiled Bonaparte. Yet according to some accounts, his execution by firing squad was faked and the much-beloved 46-year-old commander was smuggled out of France to the United States. Once in America, the hero of the Peninsular War supposedly settled in Rowan Country, North Carolina and became a schoolteacher under the alias Peter Stuart Ney. Census records do show that a French immigrant with that name did inhabit the region at the time. Ney reportedly became a star educator and a pillar of his adopted community. According to local folklore, he finally revealed his true identity to his gobsmacked neighbours while on his deathbed in 1846. Ney’s headstone in the local cemetery lists him as a “soldier of France.” He was 77 when he died.

Antonio Sanata Anna ended his days in obscurity.

Antonio Sanata Anna ended his days in obscurity.

Scourge of the Alamo and Chewing Gum Pioneer

Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, also known simply as Antonio Santa Anna, had an impressive résumé. He led Mexico through three major wars, captured the Alamo and was president of his homeland on more than 10 separate occasions. But after being defeated in the Mexican American War, the self-styled “Napoleon of the West” was forced into exile in Cuba. In 1869, he relocated to New York City. Amazingly, while trying to raise money to finance a military campaign to recapture his homeland, the 74-year-old Santa Anna inadvertently helped found the chewing gum industry. The former generalissimo and his American secretary, Thomas Adams, purchased one ton of a rubber tree resin known as chicle from the tropics and had it shipped to the U.S. Santa Anna hoped to finance his comeback by selling the substance to American tire manufacturers. When there were no takers for the commodity, Adams added sugar to the mixture and sold it to candy stores as chewing gum. The product would later be known as Chiclets. Santa Anna returned home in 1874 a veritable has-been only to die two years later.

George Pickett.

George Pickett.

George Pickett, Insurance Salesman

George Pickett’s reputation never recovered from his disastrous charge up Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. But his name suffered yet another blow in the final weeks of the American Civil War at the Battle of Five Forks. The 40-year-old Virginian general was picnicking far from the front when Union troops smashed through the Confederate lines near Richmond on April 1, 1865 (April Fools’ Day no less). More than 90 percent of his 10,000-man Rebel army was killed, wounded or captured. Pickett was unaware the battle was even taking place until it was largely over. The defeat left the Southern capital entirely at the mercy of the Yankees. It fell within days. After the war, Pickett sought refuge in Canada, fearing that he might be prosecuted as a rebel. He returned to his home state in 1866 a broken man and took what work he could get selling insurance. The West Point graduate reportedly bore a lasting grudge against his former commander Robert E. Lee for ordering the infamous charge at Gettysburg. But shortly before his death of liver disease in 1875, a journalist asked Pickett whom he blamed for the disaster. “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it,” he quipped. [1]

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com, May, 2014)

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