“While a 30-something three-star is certainly a rarity in the annals of military history, a number of other legendary leaders assumed the mantle of command at far younger ages. Consider these.”
IT’S BEEN SAID THAT WAR IS A YOUNG MAN’S GAME. Need proof? Look no further than James M. Gavin.
In 1944, the 37-year-old New York City native rose to the rank of lieutenant general and was placed in command of the entire 82nd Airborne Division. A West Point grad and pioneer of the burgeoning field of airborne warfare, Gavin became famous among the grunts for his habit of carrying a bulky infantryman’s M-1 rifle, rather than a lighter carbine or officer’s pistol. His preference for leading from the front also won him the praise of the rank and file. In fact, his troops nicknamed him the “Jumping General” because of his penchant for being the first to hit the silk during airdrops.
A veteran of the landings in Sicily, Normandy and Holland, Gavin won two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Silver Star and the British Distinguished Service Order. After the war, he headed up the army’s R&D division, overseeing the design of the ubiquitous M-113 armoured personnel carrier. President Kennedy appointed Gavin to be the American ambassador to France in 1961 largely on account of the former general’s personal friendship with Charles De Gaulle.
Despite his myriad accomplishments, James M. Gavin is perhaps best remembered for being one of the youngest generals of the Second World War. And while a 30-something three-star is certainly a rarity in the annals of military history, a number of other legendary leaders assumed the mantle of command at far younger ages. Consider these:
The Rise of Scipio
Although Scipio Africanus was in his 30s when he achieved his greatest victory against Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, the famous Roman general was leading military expeditions a decade earlier. Young Scipio learned to fight as a teenager after accompanying his famous father on campaign during the Second Punic War. In fact, at Battle of Ticinus, the 18-year-old Scipio mounted a daring (and ultimately successful) charge to save his dad’s life after the old man found himself surrounded by Carthaginian spearmen. After his illustrious pop was killed in battle years later, the up-and-coming Scipio boldly demanded the senate give him command of the invasion of Spain. Impressed, the legislators made him proconsul at 25.
The Great One
Scipio likely spent his formative years studying the exploits of another legendary young leader – Alexander the Great. After rising to the Macedonian throne in 336 BCE at the age of 20, the future Greek conqueror embarked on a storied decade-long campaign that took an army of 30,000 hoplites from the shores of the Aegean Sea, through Persia all the way to the banks of the Ganges River in India. Alexander died of fever at the age of 32 leaving behind one of the ancient world’s largest (if not shortest-lived) empires.
America’s Boy General
While not as illustrious as Alexander the Great, Galusha Pennypacker certainly earned himself a place in the history books (and amazingly it wasn’t for having such a peculiar name). The native of Valley Forge, Pa. holds the record for being the youngest general in the history of the U.S. Army. After joining the 9th Pennsylvania Infantry at the age of 16 to fight against the Confederacy, the young sergeant received a captain’s commission and rocketed up the chain of command from there. He fought as a 19-year old major at Cold Harbor and then as a colonel at the Siege of Petersburg only months later. After being wounded leading a daring assault at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in early 1865, the 20-year-old Pennypacker was awarded the Medal of Honor and raised to brigadier – an unheard of achievement that made him something of a national celebrity. He retired from the military in 1883 and died in Philadelphia in 1916 at the age of 72.
Gilbert du Motier, better known as Marquis de Lafayette, was even younger than Pennypacker when he became an honorary major general in the Continental Army. Born into a French military family in 1757, the teen aristocrat lobbied for his country to support the American rebellion from its very outset. While the newly installed King Louis XVI vacillated, Lafayette financed his own passage to America in 1776 to join the fight against Britain. Weeks before his 20th birthday, he presented himself to George Washington and volunteered to serve the rebellion without pay. He was made a general and within days was leading troops at the Battle of Brandywine. Despite being wounded in action, the young commander recovered to fight at Gloucester, N.J., the campaign in Rhode Island as well as the Battle of Yorktown. Later, the liberty-loving Lafayette became a central figure in the 1789 French Revolution.
Caesar’s Salad Days
Gaius Octavian, nephew and heir of the murdered Julius Caesar, was just 19 when he joined forces with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. In fact, in 42 BCE, the young Roman nobleman helped command a massive coalition of 28 Roman legions totaling more than 100,000 men. Together, Octavian and Antony smashed the roughly equal-sized army of the Liberators (Brutus, Cassius and Longinus) at the battles of Philippi in modern-day Greece. The three victors divided Rome’s territories among themselves, but eventually, Octavian outmaneuvered his former partners and rose to become Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. He ruled for more than 40 years.
William the Conqueror may have fought his most famous battle when he was 38, but the victor of the decisive dustup near Hastings in 1066 began his career as a military leader a full two decades earlier. The illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, William, known by some as “the Bastard”, assumed his father’s title at the age of 7. Eleven years later, a Burgundian count named Reginald I challenged the young noble’s claim to the duchy. In 1047, William petitioned King Henry I for assistance. The French ruler pledged an army of 10,000 to help defend his young protégé’s birthright. Emboldened, William met the rebel force near Caen, at Val-ès-Dunes, and outfought his enemies. The triumph helped cement the Norman leader’s hold on power, laying the groundwork for his invasion of England 20 years later.
The Boy King Who Lost His Head
After also fighting down a series of challengers to his throne, the 15th Century Polish king Wladyslaw III sought to expand his influence by waging war on the mighty Ottoman Empire. In 1444, the 19-year old Wladyslaw helped command a multinational crusade of 30,000 troops to chase the Ottomans under Murad II from what is now Hungary and Bulgaria. His coalition met the 60,000-strong Turkish army at Varna. After fighting the Muslims to a standstill, the dashing young monarch personally led a foolhardy charge right into the centre of the enemy lines. He was overpowered and cut to pieces by Murad’s henchmen. Horrified at the loss of their leader, the crusader army melted away, leaving the sultan in command of the field. As a final indignity, Wladyslaw’s severed head was taken back to Istanbul as a war trophy.
Charles in Charge
In 1700, Russia, Poland, Prussia, Saxony and Denmark-Norway joined forces to drive the Swedish Empire from its vast territories in Northern Europe. The allied kingdoms felt supremely confident that their combined forces would easily cow the 18-year-old enemy monarch, Charles XII. Despite his youth and obvious lack of experience, the young Swede proved to be a formidable opponent. Over the course of the subsequent two-decade conflict, known as the Great Northern War, he would repeatedly humiliate his enemies on the battlefield. In 1718, the 38-year-old fighting king was fatally struck in the temple by an enemy musket ball during the siege of Fredriksten. Charles was the last European ruler to die at the head of an army.
Of course history’s best known teenaged military leader has to be Joan of Arc. Born into a peasant family in 1412, the adolescent Joan claimed to have been visited by angels who directed her to drive the English from French soil during the Hundred Years War. After telling Charles VII of her close brush with the divine, the future king reportedly dispatched the girl to help lift the siege of Orleans. Despite having no military training whatsoever, Joan, just 17 at the time, donned a suit of armour, rallied the French forces and routed the English army in just nine days. The following year, she was captured in battle at Compiegne and turned over to a faction of French nobles that opposed Charles. The Bishop of Beauvais, scandalized by her cross-dressing, charged he for being in league with the devil. Following a sham trial, the now reviled clergyman ordered Joan burned at the stake for heresy. She was just 19. Following her death in 1431, the Pope denounced the conviction. Joan was soon celebrated as a martyr and became a venerated heroine of France. The Vatican had her canonized in 1920.
(Originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Aug. 14, 2014)